I read a letter recently in which it said something like “drivers cite congestion frustration around the school as the major cause of their speeding through the village.” That people feel comfortable saying this astounds me, but its part of a much wider culture and one I feel very strongly about.
We may not have much control over our emotional reactions to things, but we do, all of us, choose how we behave as a response. The idea that something, or someone else is ‘making’ you behave in a dangerous, violent, cruel or antisocial way is ridiculous. No one is holding a gun to these people’s heads to make them go faster. As they aren’t emergency services, the few minutes of differences made to journey length is largely irrelevant. We do what we want to do in these situations, and then we deny responsibility. If a child is knocked down and killed as a consequence, will the driver still blame the frustration of congestion and imagine they aren’t responsible? Maybe some people would.
We get cross. The heat of angry emotion rushes through us, so we shout. We are entitled to shout, because we’re being made angry by someone else. And then the anger means we want to take the offending person and shake them. We are so angry we hit, we push, they fall. It’s not our fault, they made us do it, they made us angry.
Now let’s take a step back. What did the person do to make us so angry we were violent? Maybe they insulted us. Said we were stupid, or wrong, or that we’d let them down. Told us they weren’t happy, or that we’d hurt their feelings, or we’d frightened them, that we weren’t perfect. Not had the dinner cooked on time. Not ironed the shirt perfectly. They made us angry. They made us do it. You said ‘no’ and I wanted to hear ‘yes’ and now you have made me angry, and when I beat you until your bones break, that will be all your fault.
See how it works?
Every day, anger leads to violence in someone’s life and violence leads to serious damage, or to death. More often than not we aren’t talking about big, heroic reasons for getting angry either. We aren’t talking about thumping the guy who raped your daughter, or beating off a mugger, or anything justifiable. No, we’re talking the kind of people who, being slowed down by the traffic around a school think that breaking the speed limit, in an area known to have children, dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, horses and tight corners, is just fine. Ordinary people. Normal people.
Once we’ve established that “you make me angry and therefore my reaction is not my fault” is a viable idea, we can escalate. I shout at you. Tomorrow I shove you. Next week I’m going to slap you in the face and in a month’s time I will push you down a flight of stairs, and then I’m going to get so angry that I kill your dog, just to show you that making me angry is a bad thing. And even then, I still feel like I have the moral high ground. It’s not my fault. You made me do it.
“You” might be a five year old child. You might be a pregnant nineteen year old or a brittle boned granny of eighty. It doesn’t matter, apparently. Your power in causing anger, is too great, and you therefore deserve to be punished. You were asking for it.
In case you aren’t squirming with discomfort already, I’d like to mention a news story this week, the jailing of a man from Cornwall who gouged his girlfriend’s eyes out. She has young children. No one was talking about why he did it, and that’s brilliant, because all the reasons, the justifications are imaginary. He did it because he was a sick and evil bastard. But I’d be prepared to bet you that in his head, in the moments when he reached for her to do that, he was telling himself it was fine. Justified. He was angry. She made him do it.
Evil starts small. We don’t wake up one morning and decide, spontaneously to torture, murder or otherwise destroy another human being. We go slowly, building our confidence and our justifications. Most importantly, we hear or see things we don’t like, we allow ourselves to feel angry about them, like a spoiled child who isn’t getting their own way and then we IMAGINE that feeling this way entitles us to retaliate. Or speed through the village. Or take it out on the next person.
“It/he/she made me angry, made me do it” should never, ever be accepted as an excuse for appalling behaviour. It’s bad enough in small children, utterly unacceptable in adults.