Theresa May: In Praise of Anger (Sometimes)

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Theresa May: In Praise of Anger (Sometimes)

Sean Walsh asks whether the real and current political anger tainting the public mood is a symptom of efforts on behalf of those determined to overturn the June 2016 result.

Nicola Sturgeon was absolutely within her rights to take exception to Mrs May’s angry appearance in front of the TV cameras. That’s her job. The SNP have now seamlessly moved beyond a perpetual and inchoate anger and have established a sort of postmodernist anger: they are angry that somebody has appropriated their exclusive right to be angry. A sort of meta-anger.

Having said that it seems that everybody is getting angry at the moment. Mrs May is angry at what she sees as humiliation at the hands of the EU; the EU is angry at the sudden slackening of Mrs May’s default position of supplication at the altar of M Barnier; Leavers are angry at the extent of the Chequers betrayal (it goes too far); Remainers are also angry at the extent of the Chequers betrayal (it doesn’t go far enough); everybody is angry at Donald Trump (whatever he does); everybody is laughing at Michael Gove (interpolated for light relief); Dawn Butler is just angry. All the time.

And many of the rest of us are furious, which is perfectly understandable when you feel you are about to be mugged.

Personally, I’m not sure about Mrs May’s sudden transition from automaton to Violet Elizabeth Bott. Is the anger genuine or is it merely part of the dance? If it is the former then we are forced to entertain the following disturbing proposition: that she actually believes that in 2016 there were a significant number of people thinking “The tyranny is over! With luck and skilful negotiation, we have the chance to bring about a de jure exit from the EU whilst actually remaining de facto within it! And hopefully, we’ll get to hand over £40 billion! Could it get better than that!”.

Mrs May seems to think that she is obliged to give the Leave majority 52% of what they want and the Remain minority 48% of what they want. Presumably, she thinks that if you had 5% of your eye you’d have 5% of your vision. Having annoyed everybody (which, perversely, she might view as a success) she has managed to place the entire country in the position of somebody who, having resigned from his golf club, is obliged to take instructions from the club committee on which route he should take when driving home.  And to pay for that privilege.

If her anger is genuine then the Medici-like machinations of the EU curia might have done her a favour. Anger is a useful corrosive if deployed in the dissolution of one’s own recalcitrance. And anger, more generally, is a useful ingredient in one’s own moral education. Morality involves not simply the following of rules but their internalisation and the concomitant cultivation of habits of feeling. This is the kernel of virtue ethics. Anger, when directed at the right object to the right degree and for the right amount of time, may even at times be obligatory. It is a duty to be angry at injustice. The person who never gets angry is most likely morally defective. Anger in the service of the cardinal virtue of temperance can, therefore, be a very good thing indeed. Jesus, in cleansing the Temple, was not practising mindfulness.

Aristotle argued that the best way to acquire virtue is to copy the virtuous; over time the imitation game turns into something more real. Then follows a liberating form of detachment as we cease to live our life at the edge of the wheel (forever up and down and at the mercy of life’s vagaries) and begin to move gradually closer to the centre. The person in righteous anger is a role model. Think Martin Luther King.

So here’s a scenario: Mrs May’s anger affected a temporary spiritual recalibration. She awoke on Saturday morning light of heart and clear of purpose her, anger having added as a sort of emetic, purging her of the indignity she was forced to swallow in Salzburg. Maybe some Freudian mechanism was activated by her temporary fit of the vapours and she saw in a dream that the Irish border problem was not conceptual but technical, and that technical problems are what we’re kind of good at. We might conjecture that she received a visitation in which it was pointed out to her that Paul Dirac, a founder of quantum mechanics was English; that Scotland was the engine of the Enlightenment; that the great physicist Lord Kelvin was from Belfast. And that we also have Wales.

Perhaps.

Returning for the moment to the general case:  if the harmonious soul must contain within it the potential for tempered anger then what hope for most of us? We inhabit a culture which is spiritually and emotionally incontinent. And we inhabit it because we have created it. When our judges insist that a dying child and his family be denied the medical  and spiritual resources offered by another country, and rule instead that he be starved to death in a Liverpool hospital, our reaction is not one of condign anger. Instead we pause, wipe away a notional tear, and then turn the channel over to Love Island.

What right have we to be outraged at anything when our moral space is contoured by an impoverished secular language which would have it that there is no such thing as sin, merely what is “unacceptable”? The real and universal distinctions within the soul outlined by Aristotle have been lost to us. How do we know if our anger is ordered or disordered? Is there anybody left worth copying?

Is the real and current political danger that the current national mood –angry indeed- is to be conscripted by those determined to overturn the June 2016 result. That it is being catalysed in service of an ignoble and very dangerous purpose: “The People’s Vote”. Was it not people who voted the last time around? Have the rest of us missed something? Were this to happen then what is now anger will become wrath. Does anybody seriously think that a referendum conducted within that context could be a legitimate expression of the public will? It would be like offering Bruce Banner a Jaffa cake at the precise moment his shirt is starting to rip.

But I note that the crucible of nastiness that is the Corbyn Labour Party is about to use the cover of its Party conference to poke this particular wasps’ nest. If ever there was a collective metaphor for a disordered soul it’s surely the four-day exercise in cynicism which will be on display in Liverpool this week.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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