It is just one day after the attacks in Paris, which shocked Europe. Many are at a loss, now they are forced by the events to try and understand what is happening around ISIS. What are its ambitions, its origins, what has been happening in Syria and Iraq? Those who up to now managed to kind of ignore the wars in the Middle East, and tried to convince themselves that the high numbers of refugees are just a tragedy, …or just a problem, now have been awakened from their slumber. This post is not about ISIS, though, nor about migrants or muslems, but will probe into the feelings of those who have a hard time to be heard in society, from whatever background they are.
What I will do in this post, is go to another age, and another people, and try to open up an unexpected angle in looking at anger in society, and its possible roles and expressions. My implicit philosophical background will be dialogical hermeneutics, combined with the problem which became clear to me after learning about Habermas’ idea of a non-violent conversation model, a long time ago. This problem, a problem for any possible dialogue is: violence is already inherent in how we use language. In the implicit rules of ruling elites about what is considered the right language for a conversation, and what is not. These rules cause that the language of large groups in society is ruled out. Silenced.
Europe not only has to deal with troubled lives of so many immigrants, stuck away in so many banlieus where not much is happening except dealings which won’t help you to become part of ‘succesful’ society. Europe also has to deal with its ‘native’ poor. And it has not done very well over the past decades, in which neoliberalism or what goes by that name has reduced to a minimum support systems like social housing, social healthcare and social advocacy, leaving those who cannot speak in the places where the elite takes the decisions much less protected. Whilst almost everything has been brought under the rules of the market, contracts have become more explicit, general terms and conditions almost unreadable, and getting some insurance, or some right in case of injustice, has become nearly impossible for those who do not have enough computer skills. Many of these people tend to turn against ‘the migrants’ – feeling that their rights are not worth much over against those of refugees. The ruling elites often howl along with that song, as it leaves themselves safe from possible attacks.
When I was around seventeen, punk music came on the scene, and I didn’t like it. The fighting which surrounded concerts, the undirected explosions of unrest and violence. I would never have expected back then that right now I would be reading the life story written by the face of punk – Johnny Rotten, whose actual name is John Lydon. In his book Anger is an Energy he recounts how rotten was the state of England when he was young, how poor his people, Irish immigrants, were – living like many in a two room house with a public toilet outside, shared by many families. Playing in the puddles of the backyards where the rats also roamed, he contracted meningitis as a child, and suffered a months-long coma, and quite some health problems afterwards. The systemic discrimination against anyone poor, in general society, and especially in the schooling system, made the anger of the bright kid fester inside – and break through in an outburst of language when he got the chance to become the singer and songwriter of The Sex Pistols.
I think Anger is an Energy should be recommended in European high schools, as it tells a part of European history that one doesn’t often hear about. It is not about poor people in the UK in the sixties and seventies of the last century, it is written by someone who looks at society from the standpoint of poor people. The housing in the western part of Europe may be better nowadays than it was back than, I am convinced that the experience of not being heard, of being considered the ‘trash’ of society will not have changed much. What John Lydons writing shows is that ‘non-elitist’ language can be as clear, creative, beautiful, and more mind-opening than, say, Thomas Mann’s or that of any writer of the literature canon. I will just give you some samples of sentences:
‘The coldness of my mother’s family, the insane fear of whatever, and endless troops of disaster marching in from the other side.
‘The country was still in massive debt from the war. Unlike Germany, which was built up afterwards, Britain, for winning, got fuck all. […] The oil industry profits greatly from wars, and that’s really who benefits. It’s us who are expected to be loyal cannon fodder.’
‘Chaos is a very fine tool but it’s one that you have to craft well. Just bubbling along, and bouncing from one incident to another, which is what I felt was happening, was not right for me.’
‘Others have told me that they go straight into it and they love it, they love that false sense of security that heroin creates inside your brain. […] You make yourself pointless. You have no love of the world any more. […] And then ultimately you’ve got to face the dilemma of, how are you going to pay for this situation you’ve become so accustomed to? That’s where a chap like me will go, ‘Well, it ain’t for me.’
And there’s much more, and I’ve read only a fourth of the book – the abusive catholic priests and nuns in the sixties, the danger of walking home when you could not pay the bus ticket, the gang fightings, the unfocused anger between socker supporters and members of different music scenes, the record companies, the police. And what the author did, his specialty, was focus his anger into language. Although the book is about a specific country and a specific time, I want to recommend it to anyone who wants to open his/her mind to the experiences of those we do not hear very often, those in our big cities, who speak a language which is not the language of newspaper journalism or of university textbooks.
Do some language expansion, and try to open up to the non-famous Johnny Rottens of today, those who have a hard time in our rich western world, not so much through rats and hunger, but just as well through money problems, administrative and justice problems, and more through not being noticed or being heard in an ever faster moving world of big money, ‘high’ culture, and ‘good’ education. Just let’s not get this world to accelerate so much that it will take off and fly away – but find how to undo the violence inherent in language that makes real social dialogue impossible.
Quotations from John Lydon, Anger is an Energy. My Life uncensored, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, London, 2014
Documentary on the album that made The Sex Pistols famous.