Covering Issues The Way The Media Should
The realization hit me like a ton of bricks one day; violent expressions of anger are everywhere—the amount of anger you see expressed is enormous. It’s on television and the radio—on a huge number of talk shows, where everyone goes on and blames others for their problems; you see people shooting at each other on the freeway; people yelling and screaming at each other, trying to get what they want. (Sociologists) called the fifties "the age of anxiety"; and, with so many people going on anti-depressants, the eighties looked like “the age of depression.” The nineties definitely seems like "the age of anger".—Philip Tate, Ph.D.
It happens in New York … in Atlanta … Oklahoma City … Pensacola. Almost daily, broadcasters parade acts of American violence on the evening news. Media and government portray the events as isolated acts of violence by lunatics or small bands of disenfranchised, misguided fanatics—the outcasts of society, the insane. Meanwhile, drive-by assassinations, freeway shoot-outs, and other, smaller acts of violence by Americans against Americans fills in the blanks between the “big” stories—between the latest news on the McVeigh trial and the search for the Army of God members who planted several bombs in Atlanta during the Olympics.
Philip Tate, Ph.D., is an Orlando-area psychologist and author. He studied directly with Albert Ellis, Ph.D., one of the most prolific, influential, and controversial theorists in contemporary psychology. “American society has always tolerated expressions of anger,” says Tate. “You’re wrong—a wimp, even—if you won’t tell someone off. It’s the John Wayne syndrome—I’m right; you’re wrong. That’s always been an accepted part of our society, more so than in other parts of the world.”
Americans may have always been quick to fight—reaching for the six-shooters when someone does us wrong—but why do we see increasing violence in our society? Why, as Tate points out, do a growing number of talk shows feature people shouting and screaming at each other, while the host stands by encouraging them? The “age of anxiety” dawned in the 1950’s. The prevailing mood was attributed largely to the knowledge that, for the first time in the history of mankind, we had the ability to annihilate ourselves. We couldn’t prevent the apparently immanent occurrence of total nuclear war, so we built bomb shelters, stocked them with canned goods, and taught our schoolchildren to put their heads between their knees and duck beneath their desks when the sirens blew announcing that atomic missiles were on their way from Moscow.
Americans were on the move—leaving the family farm in unprecedented numbers, exchanging the quiet predictable life in the wheat-fields for the nine-to-five in the city and a little white tract-house in the midst of hundreds of identical houses on identical asphalt streets. We reacted to the dramatic changes in our world by writing poetry with lines like, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”—and by taking valium, a miracle drug that made modern life bearable.
The seeds of the civil rights movement sprouted during the fifties, and with each stride it made towards ending discrimination against minority races and women, there was an equal, adverse reaction from those who feared the progress. “There’s a growing differentiation between people,” Tate points out. “A clearly-marked line of differentiation between groups, and promotion of individuality by nationality and gender, for example. When you have a clear ‘other’ to target as ‘the enemy’, you’re more likely to get angry.
As the hope that we would survive the cold war turned into despair, the anxiety of the fifties passed and was replaced with despair. The war in Vietnam had left us a nation of losers; the government couldn’t be trusted; the technology that promised to free us from drudgery merely made us more efficient cogs in the corporate machine; the revolution failed; and the age of Aquarius ended at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamonte, California. We became a nation Anonymous—all in recovery from something, whether alcohol, narcotics, sexual excess, being spouses or children of alcoholics, or simply being adult children.
The self-help movement blossomed as thousands of psychologists and quasi-psychologists tried to explain why we felt so bad, and wrote hundreds of books claiming to offer solutions to the problem—EST; gestalt; I’m OK, You’re OK; Born to Win; and on and on ad nauseam. The age of depression was born, and we discovered Prozac.
“One cause (of increasing anger) was the ‘victimization movement’, in which people responded to bad things that happened to them very passively, thinking that ‘some bastard out there did this to me.’ By looking for someone to blame for their problems, the women’s movement, civil rights movement, and so on promoted this. The thing is, (the people in those movements) saw things that were bad—really negative, real wrongs. The problem is not the reality-based thinking about those negatives, but going overboard about it and getting angry.
“You see more of it because the differences between people are more clearly spelled out. Some of the wrongs are legitimately wrong—you may legitimately notice something you don’t like about men, women, another race, etc. However, the tendency to over-generalize, to focus on only the bad things while discounting the good, gets you angry."
Psychotherapy didn’t help much. Besides playing a role in what Tate termed the “victimization movement,” some of the therapies were, as he says, “just wrong. There were, and still are, therapies like Gestalt that encouraged people to express their anger—to yell, scream, pound on pillows, and that sort of thing. Lots of the therapies from the 50’s and 60’s were based on wrong ideas. Some of these ideas are still taught. Expressing anger, name-calling, pounding on things, etc., doesn’t make the anger go away. In fact, it makes you more angry.”
So, on one side of the equation, some of the people who were trying to right real wrongs, such as discrimination, did it with anger and violence. On the other side of the equation, the segment of America that wanted to protect the status quo reacted with fear—the fear that, as Tate says, “bad people have power. They’re bad because I don’t know them well, and don’t understand them. I don’t want them to have power, because if what I don’t know has power, then that’s bad.”
“Look at the religious right, for example. Anger is their thing. They’re right; everyone else is wrong. Anger is the emotional fuel for the movement."
The Nixon administration fed the fire. “I’m sure one reason for the growing anger was people’s discovery that they couldn’t trust the government—they were too slow to respond to their mistake in Vietnam, for example, and that got people to feel hopeless.”
Each evening, network news delivered into our living rooms images of body bags and injured young Americans. The broadcasts showed the war for what it was—an inglorious debacle, in which soldiers hardly older than children waded through the mud of a foreign jungle while fired upon by snipers hiding in trees. The romantic portrait of war painted by World War II-era movies—of valiant Americans defending the world against an evil, inhuman menace—faded quickly under the glare of the harsh reality of the light spilling from our televisions. Meanwhile, the government lied about body counts and used vague cold-war rhetoric to justify continuing to fight a futile and meaningless war.
At the same time, government lied about LSD, disseminating horror-stories about birth-defects and suicides attributed to its use, and they used Federal law-enforcement to undermine the anti-war and civil rights movements. One of the first modern militias, the Black Panthers, formed in the 1960’s, to protect the residents of black ghettos from police brutality. The civil rights movement had gained momentum, and its accomplishments made lots of white people nervous. The Panthers armed themselves and patrolled their neighborhoods, but their mission included serving free breakfasts to ghetto children. After several violent incidents, leaders of the group were jailed and the organization was effectively eliminated. Recent information revealed that the Panthers were infiltrated by the FBI, and that the government infiltrators were responsible for much of the violence attributed to the militia.
The 1990’s militia movements are rooted in the fertile soil of fear. Like the Panthers, some fear an untrustworthy government. Others, such as the Army of God, who claim responsibility for the bombings at Centennial Park, a gay bar, and an abortion clinic, fear not only the government, but the increasing power of minorities, gays, lesbians, and other “anti-Christian” or “anti-American” groups.
The mass media not only dutifully reported the disaster of Vietnam, but began to take great pleasure in the destruction of political and cultural icons. Media builds celebrities, turning ordinary human beings who just happen to have a talent for something—or a little luck, money, or power—into something super-human and bigger-than-life. After which, the same media takes enormous pleasure in bursting their bubble, watching their fall from grace like a child who builds a sand castle only to watch the sea wash it away.
“In America, certainly, violence has great appeal. Roger Corman was asked how to ensure that a movie would succeed at the box office; ‘Sex and violence,’ he said.” But the same motivation, the horse-opera differentiation between “good guys” and “bad guys” shows up more and more on radio and television talk shows, where the word “asshole” has become an integral part of radio repertoire. “That sort of judgmental labeling—calling someone ‘an asshole’ when the host doesn’t agree with them—is extremely irresponsible. It encourages people to feel angry and promotes the trend towards differentiation."
The “revolution” of the sixties was fought against tangible enemies—the military-industrial complex, racism, and factories that visibly belched pollution into the air. The evils were real, and their perpetrators were in evidence. In the nineties, the enemy takes subtler forms. Is it the technocrat, as the Unibomber proposed? The government bureaucrat, as the bombing of the Federal building Oklahoma City incident implies? The forces of anti-Christian decadence, as the gay-bar-bombers and abortion-doctor-assassins would have us believe?
In George Orwell’s apocalyptic vision of the future, 1984, the minds the people were controlled by Big Brother, a face on a screen that forever observed their movements, and who daily led the nation to war against one of the other two world powers and into alliances with the third. The enemy and ally changed places frequently, and the sentiments of the people—of loyalty to the ally and bitter hatred of the enemy—shifted as frequently and without missing a beat.
The enemy was merely a straw dog; it existed only to distract the people from the truth of their condition. Today, whether we fight OPEC, gay rights, minority groups, or government conspirators, the battleground serves mainly as a windmill-tilting ground. World War III, if it ever arrives, will not be fought between Americans and some evil empire; nor will it be fought on American soil against some vague group of people who want to destroy the American way of life. It will be a battle between stockholders in giant, global industries—a battle over the minds and buying habits of the common man.
As individuals, we have a few options for survival in the future. First, you can cave in to all the messages from the media, the government, the “movements", and the reactionaries. Like the population of Orwell’s world in 1984, believe whatever you’re told—even if it changes 180 degrees from day to day—and get angry at whomever the media, the government, or the movement tells you to fear. Or, much like Kazinsky, the Branch Davidians, the survivalists, or the Army of God, you can join in the strife—go off into the woods, arm yourself, and prepare for the apocalypse.
Tate’s advice is to learn to filter out the bullshit. Recognize that all people do some good things and some bad ones. Don’t expect perfection—not from politicians, rock stars, sports figures, or even yourself. “No matter what the target is—whether or not they’re wrong—anger is a maladjustment. You can dislike what others do without getting angry, and there are more appropriate ways to get what you want without getting disturbed. Look at the disadvantages of anger: high blood pressure; overly focusing on bad things; under-focusing on good things. “Acting out with anger causes people to respond with anger. You do better to think of what you can do to change situations you don’t like, rather than focusing so much on what others do that you don’t like. Support a cause—work to change things. That’s more effective if you’re not angry.
“There’s a lot of variation in what’s 'normal' behavior among people, and people fail to recognize that bad behavior is sometimes 'normal'. If someone has a characteristic you don’t like, yelling and screaming won’t change that. Change has to be self-motivated. The individual must decide to change.
“If someone’s angry at you, try to get them on your side a little. Remember, they’re probably not totally wrong; more than likely, they’re seeing things that are bad, too, like you are. Don’t focus on the ordinary things that just aren’t going to change. That’s one of the problems between men and women—they’re both angry at behaviors that are probably genetically-inherent, and they can’t change—or at least not much.
“There seems to be a lack of consequences for acting out of anger. We should teach adolescents that anger is inappropriate; that there are better responses, and that they should learn to respect others’ differences. If, as conservative politicians so often tell us, our problems stem from the falling away of “traditional American values”, then, as Tate points out, “it’s a falling-away of values like forgiveness. That one seems to have gone out the window.”