Saturday, 22 June 2013

Why is everyone so angry these days?


The extraordinary scenes in cities across Brazil, where a million people came out on the streets in the last few days in anti-government protests, make me wonder whether something global isn't going on.

The disturbances in Ankara over the proposed development of a park seemed like an extension of the Arab Spring, but Brazil isn't remotely in the Middle East.

What holds these protests in common is that it is sometimes a small trigger - rising bus fares in this case - that sets them off. But the anger seems genuine enough - or would we, if this was happening in UK cities, dismiss them as looters or 'anarchists'?

Perhaps the real question is the same one somebody asked me in Boots recently, after a bust-up with an enraged customer: why is everyone so angry these days?

One answer seems to me to stem from the work of the anthropologist Polly Wiessner, from the University of Utah, an expert on the !Kung bushmen in southern Africa.  What she says about them that’s relevant here is the amazing networks of reciprocal obligation they have.  Not just with each other – but with families hundreds of miles away.

She was in the Kalahari desert in 1974 when torrential rains destroyed the harvest, and watched while, one by one, the families made the trek to stay with their friends where there was enough food.

The links with these distant families might have been inherited for generations, but they were there in an emergency.  New game sanctuaries and arbitrary lines on maps are corroding these – and the distant partners are dwindling for the bushmen, but some links carry on.  Any extra food or resources they have is still given away to facilitate these long-distance ties of obligation.

It means in practice that people in the Kalahari talk about what they owe their friends – the distant ones and their neighbours – the whole time.  Are they really in need of help? Did they help too much? And so on.  It’s a tireless and exhausting subject of conversation.

But Polly Wiessner says it is what makes human beings unique: social relationships of reciprocity.  It is wonderfully secure, but it’s also a bit of a burden - it means you’re always being asked for things.  You are never really quite alone or private.

She goes back there nearly every year, and she always finds the same thing when she comes home to her university.  At first, there’s a huge sense of relief to have escaped these intricate networks of obligation.  Then, five days later, she suddenly feels a deep sense of loss and loneliness.

Over the years, she’s come to believe this is because these reciprocal ties of obligation are part of being human, and I think she's right.

We know people build relationships by giving and receiving from the age of eight months old.  We know from brain scans that the pleasure area lights up when people co-operate.  We are hard-wired for reciprocity.

I wrote more about this in my book The Human Element.  But  it means that, when organisations arrange themselves in opposite ways, they run into trouble.  Charities or public services which just give and ask for nothing back.  Services which pretend to support us but are actually all about meeting targets.  Companies which pretend to do ‘deals’ which still abandon customers when they need help.

It explains a little the quite irrational rage we have against them.  But when it comes to governments which are constantly betraying the rhetoric that elected them - or siding with the powerful against the powerless (because their wealth will 'trickle down') - the same thing happens.

I think this goes some way to explaining why we feel so cross so much of the time.  We constantly feel that the institutions and companies around us are offering us reciprocal relationships which they constantly betray.

A government that offers support for people who work hard and then gives them 'digital by default'.  Or leaves them hanging on the call centre line while the bill ticks up.  Or organises them so that they can be more easily processed by computer.  Or grubs up the only green space in the neighbourhood...

These are all relatively small things.  But they matter: they are a source of endemic rage.

1 comment:

Richard Thomas said...

AS a general observation I wonder if it is the sense that people believe that government and public services do not exist for the benefit of the majority.

As a specific example, the institutions set up to regulate monopoly providers and services don't work as they were promised - it's hard to think of one that does until its workings are named and shamed as it were. I suggest that it is sense of powerlessness and frustration that leads to anger. All seem to exist to protect the services and industries they are suppose to regulate.

The other clear example of damn the consumer is the call centre, particularly those which have been off-shored. I suspect that pretty well every adult has had bad experiences with them.

If I recall my sociology the feeling used to be called anomie.