Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The difference between bitterness and anger

Some years ago, I overheard a young sage say the sort of thing I thought was only uttered by wizened old curmudgeons. She was apparently pontificating on an upcoming presidential election, and she said something to the effect of: anyone who doesn’t like America the way it is should leave the country. She was speaking not about individual candidates or policies, but about America as a system of governance and as a culture.

In the moment, I thought to myself that hers was a particularly hard-line stance, even if she was half-joking (which she wasn’t). It didn’t seem to me that intolerance represented America the way it would like to see itself. A more elegant formulation would be to say that all of us, by virtue of remaining in this country, have implicitly agreed to a social contract, and that if we really felt so offended and wronged by it, we would voice our opinion more strongly than by grousing.

Over the years, I have occasionally heard people express the same sentiment: find another country, you ungrateful ones who do not deserve the blessings that America lays at your feet. But words that once seemed merely thoughtless now seem vicious. To these words I now say that I would gladly leave if I could find but one inch of earth left that hasn't been defiled by civilization’s dirty institutions.

I’m sure I sound bitter, but I am not bitter. I’m angry. As I see it, bitterness is indicated by an impotent stewing and railing against a world you can neither change nor run away from. Bitterness is essentially self-destructive. Anger too is obsessed with a contrast between self-image and external reality, but it can be harnessed to produce something better than itself. Where bitterness seems to seethe at a kind of lack within oneself, anger represents a fullness of self that wants to burst out and impress itself on the object of the anger. Anger can motivate a person to look outside himself.

Wikipedia has an article on “resentment, also called ranklement or bitterness,” which draws from the work of one Robert C. Solomon, who expressed the distinction among resentment, anger, and contempt thusly: "resentment is directed towards higher-status individuals, anger is directed towards equal-status individuals, and contempt is directed towards lower-status individuals." 

If I take my cues from Wikipedia, then it goes to reason that my feelings would be bitterness if directed at Barack Obama or some senators or the fatcats on Wall Street. My “betters,” I believe is the term. But these are not the ones I would challenge, though they are easy targets. It’s the ordinary people that I am angry at, equal-status individuals who vote and by voting implicitly state that they accept the status quo, and that they don’t really want change.

I do not mean to say that voting is the disease and that people should be ashamed of what is grandly deemed “participating in the democratic process.” People should do what they think is right, but they should think first. Voting is merely the morphine for a diseased and dying society; it functions as a kind of masturbatory escapism. A way to wash your hands of the problems by saying you did your part.

So yes, I am angry that so trifling a thing as voting counts for so much in the eyes of so many. And so I rejected it and the slavery it represented. I tried very hard to live in that other country – that place of intellectualism and love and brotherhood, the country of the mind, I suppose. But it did not take long for me to realize that this other country belongs in our country, in our America, and we do it a disservice by thinking it too fragile to exist here.

Every year there’s an election, and every four years a big, unavoidable one that inevitably finds someone staring at me, appalled to discover that I do not vote. Perhaps it’s time to put my anger to use and modify my stance. I am not willing to vote the way the government tells me to vote. So I vote with my words and hope that others will listen. 


Henry said...

Taylor Hicks over Katharine McPhee? Seriously? What the hell is wrong with this country? I'm not bitter, just angry. #McPheever

Czardoz said...

Six years pass, but the sting never goes away, does it?