September 22, 2008
Outbursts of anger are often tolerated in our ‘feeling’ society. But we can learn from America
Griff Rhys Jones
Anthony is a bailiff in Los Angeles. A year ago, he explained, he had climbed to the top of a set of stairs, knocked on a door and handed a subpoena to a recently divorced lawyer who had been refusing to pay his wife alimony.
“The guy was not pleased,” he said drily. “I guess he was showing evidence of passive aggression.” The anger management class laughed.
“So as I turned away, I said ‘Enjoy’.” He paused. “Anyway, this man picked me up and threw me down the stairs.” The others nodded. George, leading the session, smiled helpfully.
I glanced around, surprised. These people seemed to be victims rather than perpetrators. Anthony had clearly provoked the situation. But surely it was a harmless crack.
As it happened, the lawyer had been not only violent but litigious. He sued Anthony. Anthony’s legal expenses had risen to more than $30,000. To settle the matter and save his business, he had agreed to take a course of anger management. That was why he was here.
Now I was angry myself, on his behalf, as it were. I imagined that he was, too. But he seemed settled and calm. After two weeks on the course he seemed able to see the amusing side of what had happened and work out how he could have avoided all of it, without rancour.
We are not quite ready in Britain to take the smart-alec remark or aggressive riposte as evidence of behavioural disorder. Things are more advanced in California.
Later at the same meeting, my hackles rose on behalf of a woman who had shouted at a policeman who had stopped her getting her disabled son to a hospital. (She was attending by order of a court too.) I felt a tightening in the chest as I listened to the head teacher who had been ousted by his Parent Teacher Association because of his inappropriate and sarcastic criticism of some his failing staff. (He recognised now that he had not been “helpful”.) These people had been cross. And they had seemed to pay a disproportionate price. Now they were all involuntarily doing time with George Anderson, the anger management guru. The strange thing was that any resentment they might have expected to feel had been eradicated as part of their cure.
George has built a successful practice on the propensity of Californian courts to use anger management as a sentencing tool and was fully aware that one of his first tasks was to overcome this built-in resentment. He often takes in angry people made even angrier by being accused of being angry.
He pointed out to me that I was not just in California, I was in post-9/11 California. As he saw it, an already authoritarian police and bureaucratic system had become considerably more touchy in the past five years. It pounces on any evidence of inappropriate emotional behaviour.
As I saw it, the State seems to be able to act with an infuriating arrogance. I myself have a short fuse. I am judgmental, but I don’t like to be judged. I hate sweeping received ideas and generalisations.
Frankly, I enjoy being angry about matters that enrage me. I like angry people. I find some anger hugely funny. Especially display anger. I prefer an outburst to seething discontent. I relish candour.
I was clearly not the ideal person to throw into the new Californian “cool it” environment. I’m manic, impatient, perfectionist, lazy, paranoid, impulsive, nervous and cowardly. I know this because all these defects were swiftly spotted by George. I filled in a lengthy assessment form and he handed me my character on a plate. I was surprised how accurate he was.
I didn’t really need George for the other stuff. For all my bluster I could see that anger is also dangerous, debilitating and addictive. It wastes time. It traumatises those close to me. And though I personally am not the sort of person to attack people, we are in the grip of an unprecedented worldwide plague of violent rage. Thugs who respond to a glance with a stabbing, or brutes who batter children because they “done their heads in”, are all part of a self-justifying indulgence encouraged by our increasingly “feeling” society.
In the States, however, a justifiable fear of this emotional right to rage has now turned into new forms of punishment – punishment that hits the wallet. People can sue for hurt feelings. They can legislate to control inappropriate emotion. They can inflict legal fees as a revenge for cross words.
All this seems to be enough to make you spit. It is crazy as only California can be crazy. I had arrived ready to mock. (Albeit in a calm and measured way.) Except that when I met Anthony and the rest of the clever and articulate people at the session I realised that they recognised the absurdity of all this themselves.
George Anderson’s “treatment” may be couched in Californian psychoanalytic jargon but it is not an amateur thrust in the dark. (Too many of the “cures” I met in England were.) I don’t think Anthony the bailiff had been brainwashed. The system was too rational for that. It simply offered a means to change habits and alter behaviour.
In the middle of all this Californian madness I was forced to admit that anger management seemed an eminently sane solution. I might even try it myself one day.
Losing It: Griff Rhys Jones on Anger will be broadcast September 23 and September 30, 2008 on BBC Two at 9pm
Times Online UK
Griff Rhys Jones