Everywhere you look in today’s world, we are hearing about people expressing anger, often in a destructive, inappropriate way. "Rage" used to be a term reserved for strange, out-of-control people, but now we have road rage, workplace rage and even airplane rage. Violent outbursts are commonplace on TV talk shows. Gun rampages in public places have become a typical news event. What’s going on?
American culture has a bizarre relationship with the energy of anger and its inappropriate expression as violence. In our consumer lifestyle, we know that violence sells. The promotion of violence is a multi-billion dollar business, affecting virtually every aspect of our lives. Think for a moment about the expressions of violence on TV, movies, video games, professional sports, and many forms of recreation.
We dare not show a single naked breast or penis on TV, which would never be acceptable by any means, but we can show hundreds of horrible, bloody murders every day of the week. A startling statistic is that by the time they finish elementary school, the average American child (who watches just 3.5 hours of TV a week) will have witnessed 12,000 murders and more than 150,000 other acts of violence on TV.
We teach our children to not hit their siblings and then roar in delight at the vicious fight at the hockey game or the bone-crushing tackle at the football game. The top stories on our local news are often nothing more than a review of the most sensationally violent acts in our community in the past day. By virtually any measure you use, American society is the most violent society in the history of recorded civilization.
This is some evidence that we are modeling what we learn through the media, where violence is often presented with few realistic consequences. The National Television Violence Study in 1995 found that 47% of the violent acts shown resulted in no observable harm to the victim; only 16% of violent shows contained a message about the long term negative repercussions of violence; and in a whopping 73% of all violent scenes, the perpetrator went unpunished.
The study found 44% of the shows on network stations contained at least some violence, compared with 59% on basic cable and 85% on premium channels. It’s interesting to note that the more money people pay for a television service, the more violence it contains!
Studies by George Gerbner, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that children who watch a lot of television are more likely to think that the world is a mean and dangerous place; they become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; and they are more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.
With adults, people who cannot deal appropriately with their anger teach their children that violence is an acceptable way to deal with conflict. Men who have witnessed their parents' domestic violence are three times more likely to abuse their own wives than children of non violent parents, with the sons of the most violent parents being 1000 times more likely to become perpetrators of violent acts toward women. During each year women were the victims of more than 4.5 million violent crimes, including approximately 500,000 rapes or other sexual assaults. In 29 percent of the violent crimes against women by lone offenders the perpetrators were husbands, former husbands, boyfriends or former boyfriends.
So why as a culture do we teach, promote, and model destructive, inappropriate, unrealistic expressions of anger? We are fascinated with anger and violence because we are terrified of and uncomfortable with our own power. As a culture, we try to make nice, to make believe that we are not angry people, and harshly judge others that are. Our anger is the shadow side of the positive, upbeat, prosperous American psyche.
Violence sells because it is tapping into a deeply repressed aspect of the American psyche. We tuck our anger away in the darkest, most shameful recesses of our minds and hearts, and then are horrified and surprised when it comes blasting out. Yet it is a fundamental principle of psychology that whatever we disown, cut off or otherwise repress in our psyche becomes stronger than it actually is, and eventually will force us to recognize its existence by coming to the surface in a distorted, exaggerated or impulsive manner.
So if there is an answer to this issue of anger and violence, it is that we all must recognize, befriend and own our own power, our own potential for anger and even violence, and come to terms with that energy. Anger is an energy that can be harnessed and channeled in any number of ways, some of them very constructive. But that can only happen if we’re willing to look our own anger straight in the eye without fear, denial or minimization. Anger is the elephant in our collective living rooms that no one wants to talk about other than in harsh, judgmental terms about other people.