Hugh MacDonald: It makes my blood boil: Why does everyone seem to be so angry these days?

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PREMIUM

ONCE upon a time I clambered up the back stairs into the Glasgow on Mitchell Street.

It was an era when a newspaper office could have a Charles Rennie Mackintosh tower.

It was so long ago that a newspaper office could have Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself.

I was greeted with the following advice from one of my colleagues on the subs’ desk: keep your head down and you’ll have a job for life. My head has ranged from being full of wee motors to forming a reliable receptacle for uncooked mince but I have fulfilled the latter part of the sage sub’s prediction.

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As I stumble into another slot at this paper, I have reflected on what I would tell the aspiring journalist of today. The sober, sensible stuff such as always research, always check – and check again – is rendered quaintly old-fashioned in the world of modern journalism. There are more pressing imperatives.

The young striver must first develop a tough skin. This has always been a great game. It still is. But there is enough anger out there to shake the very core of a writer’s being. 
Once criticisms could only be directed at the writer through the medium of the letters’ page. I once attracted a witty rebuttal for mixing up the Colosseum in Rome for the Glasgow picture house of the same name, though I maintain the violence and death rate in the latter would have been caused Nero to blanche.

But, largely, intemperate criticism dissipated on contact with the reality of finding a pen, a piece of paper, sourcing an envelope and buying a stamp. It was only the dedicated complainer – the Shackleton of shellacking – who could be bothered to go through all this to endure the fate of being impaled on the spike on the letters’ editor’s discarded pile or to find a brief moment of validation on the page. The sensible can and still do find a place on the letters page. 

The discontented now have a broader landscape on social media.

One could now construct an elegy to the delights of rural living with a fetching pic of a particularly furry bunny rabbit only to be decried as a city hater with an agenda against the rights of a lettuce to pursue. And a big nose to wipe. 

It takes only a minute, after all, to log on to the comments section or to fire up that account with the flag and excoriate the journalist with all the vigour of Emile Zola finding something a bit irritating in a spy scandal.

The first encounter with this sort of criticism can be bracing – like Saltcoats beach on a winter’s day. Continued exposure brings mind-numbing tedium – like Saltcoats beach on a winter’s day. Eventually, though, comes the realisation that The Anger just exists. It regularly has but a tenuous connection to what has been written. It’s just very, very angry.

My acquired resilience to all of this has turned to a gentle fascination. It has never been so genuinely piqued as in the wake of the violence at the Capitol in Washington. 

The blame for this incontinent rage has been ascribed variously to Trump, Twitter, TV stations, or demented cults. It has raised the battle cry of columnists everywhere: Something Must Be Done About This.

But it’s all elemental. The rage exists without Trump, Twitter or Tweedle Dee or Dum or Dumb. It’s part of the human condition. If it mutates into a malign force then Trump or Twitter or whatever are merely the super spreaders. This does not excuse the roles of the wilfully manipulative. It does not ignore the evil that can be promulgated by the corrupt and the coercive. But anger is personal.

There is the righteous anger that can produce change. But there is also just The Anger. The former has propelled mankind forward, finding resolutions to desperate problems. This might be best termed Rashford Anger. It exists in the shape of young Marcus who sees an obscenity, calls it out and with the help of a mass of contagious public anger seeks and finds a solution.

The Anger is simpler, wholly toxic. It exists most conspicuously but not exclusively in the disillusioned and the disenfranchised. It lies unexamined in many of the discontented. It is there to be expressed, not to be evaluated. It is there to be felt, not as a symptom of a lack of fulfilment or of a belief, but as a prompt to verbal or physical violence.

It is there, too, to be ascribed to others. The Anger is a condition that infects The Other. This is the lie at the heart of the modern world.

The most dramatic change in my lifetime of journalism has been the explosion in the number of information outlets. It has allowed people to access news from sources with whom they have sympathy. 

One can thus have The Anger in company with sympathetic souls. This, incidentally, applies to those who watch CNN as much as to those who view Fox.

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The modern world often does not offer us news but ways to feed The Anger. This can be in the guise of the absurdities of some of the Fox coverage. But it can also come, more subtly, when CNN stops broadcasting a president’s live conference because he is lying. A president lying is news – or it used to be – so keep that camera rolling, bud, and let the fact-checking commence in its wake.

It all reinforces one danger. News and its presentation merely reflects one’s beliefs or strengthens them. It can be seen in its most potent, dangerous form when the matters of fact are simply not accepted with a communal putting of the hands over the ears and shouting la la la la. This news – however confirmed or validated by source – does not suit the consumer’s prejudice. It is vilified. The fact is declared fake, the reporter labelled a collaborator in a diabolical cause.

This is The Anger. No more or less. It is impurely personal. It must be addressed. But first it must be owned, perhaps by you, dear reader. And certainly by me.

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