Updated April 28, 2017


In March, a man drove a car on to London’s Westminster Bridge, killing three and injuring one before fatally stabbing a policeman. The Stockholm lorry assault echoed the Westminster atrocity as well as the earlier Nice truck attack. Subsequent commentary understandably tended to focus on the use of vehicles as weapons. Less often recognised is that the last time a British parliamentarian was targeted, it was by a far-right racist rather than someone appearing to use religion as a pretext. Before the European Union referendum, Labour politician Jo Cox was stabbed by a white terrorist shouting “Britain first.” Following the Westminster attack, the murdered MP’s widower Brendan Cox identified that “the person who did this is no more representative of British Muslims than the person who killed Jo is representative of people […] from Yorkshire.”

More illuminating than speculations on these criminals’ pathology is to explore what the increasing number of violent attacks says about contemporary society. These recent violent incidents call to mind Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society. Han, a German-Korean philosopher, writes disapprovingly that we are living through an age of anger rather than rage. We’ve moved from Michel Foucault’s disciplinary society of hospitals, prisons and asylums into an “age of achievement”, where most of the disciplining comes from ourselves amidst the vapid cheerleading of self-help culture and social media. Global capitalism’s acceleration of working practices, the necessity of multitasking, the attendant hyperactivity and a loss of deep concentration are causing new societal afflictions. Whereas in the disciplinary society citizens contended with infections, Han states that our contemporary epidemics are depression, burnout and metaphorical “infarction” (literally, the death of tissue caused by lack of blood). Amongst an emptily busy populace starved of spiritual and intellectual oxygen, no cells containing “the emphasis and energy of rage” can be produced.

In characteristically spare, gnomic prose, Han distinguishes between productive rage and unproductive anger: “[W]e are […] losing the capacity for rage […]. The future shortens into a protracted present […]. It lacks all negativity, which would permit one to look at the Other […]. In contrast, rage puts the present as a whole into question. […] This is what distinguishes it from anger […]. Rage is the capacity to interrupt a given state and make a new state begin. Today it is yielding more and more to offence or annoyance [...], ‘having a beef,’ which proves incapable of effecting decisive change.”

Han paradoxically extols “negativity” along with rage as a dynamic means of coming to terms with, and gazing honestly at, difference and Otherness. Anger, by contrast, is trivial, inward-looking and ineffectual — and it is this emotion that Han sees as defining the present era.

Rage was positioned differently, in an unreconstructedly negative light in the 2007 internet meme of ‘Islamic Rage Boy,’ the name bestowed on Shakeel Ahmad Bhat, a young Muslim whose rictus of contorted anger appeared in pictures of several South Asian protest marches. His image was Photoshopped into various scenarios, many of them highly Islamophobic, then used to sell a range of spin-off products. In Framing Muslims, Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin study this as an example of stereotyping or what they call the “framing” of Muslims. Sure enough, while Western internet commentators viciously attacked ‘Rage Boy’ for his perceived beliefs, the reality was more complex. Far from being a textbook violent ‘Islamist,’ Bhat came from a peaceful Sufi Kashmiri background, driven to protest by Indian police violence against his sister in the war-torn area.

In Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra may problematically use ‘anger’ and ‘rage’ as synonyms, but one of his important contributions is to highlight the “fun-house mirrors” of fury that make militant Islamic groups, white supremacy and Hindu fundamentalism blur into each other. Mishra constructs a similar narrative to that of Tariq Ali’s in The Clash of Fundamentalisms or Mohsin Hamid’s in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. All three men criticise what Mishra calls capitalism’s “bland fanatics,” Ali labels “the most dangerous ‘fundamentalism’ today […]: American imperialism,” and Hamid terms globalisation’s “janissaries.” These capitalism radicals tessellate on global society’s extreme edges with groups such as Al Qaeda, other militant Islamic groups, and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Mishra traces developments from the Enlightenment epoch — when rampant individualist Voltaire squared up to embittered nationalist Jean-Jacques Rousseau — up to our current age of anger, which he characterises as a “presently exploding netherworld of political rage, conspiracy theory and paranoia.” Enlightened self-interest led, Mishra asserts, to a paradoxical upsurge in demagogues spouting to the masses those easy answers that they craved. Just as 18th-century Rationalism was soon overlaid by Romanticism’s passion or Barack Obama’s prevarication on Syria was succeeded by Donald Trump’s impulsive pugilism, the cold certainties of global capital are being superseded by a rejection of experts in favour of “feelings and hunches.” According to Mishra, notwithstanding the Enlightenment’s optimism about ‘progress’ and man’s perfectibility, modernisation has amounted merely to capitalism and freedom to little more than free markets. In such a ruthlessly materialistic climate, anger has an “incendiary appeal.”

Mishra asseverates that the fury of our age cuts across cultures and finds more purchase amongst the middle classes than those at the bottom of the pile. The voluble mood music of outrage swells around capitalism’s benefits being only for the elite, and around recognition that “Europeans simply had erected new absolutes — progress, humanity, the republic — to replace those of traditional religion and the monarchy.” Social media allows anger to be amplified still further, as demonstrated by emerging analyses of fake news and the development of self-reinforcing echo chambers.

White supremacists, Hindutva zealots and jihadists share much in common; their foremost meeting point is at anger’s seemingly cathartic gates. As Mishra insists, in their anger, terrorists of different ideologies appear interchangeable, and “[t]he modern West can no longer be distinguished from its apparent enemies.” This anger is a banal, world-destroying effect, which erases the Other and prolongs the present. By contrast, rage, according to Han, is a constructive and nuanced emotion that involves listening to the Other and functioning as a ctrl+alt+dlt command for the current imbroglio. Those of us who wish to resist the Tweedledums and Tweedledees peddling hatred and anger today need to channel our productive rage into creating a new post-anger age.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2017