Spotlight on Rage

“How do you say no to god?”
From movie Spotlight

It would be unwise at this point to underestimate the amount of rage in our country targeted at the existing society. The triumph of Trump politics comes from riding it in its form of class conflicts and racial fears. The Bernie Sanders phenomenon, where things are being said in public which haven’t been heard around these parts since the ending of the last gilded age, is also feeding off the rage around class conflicts. The mass shootings that haunt our airwaves ever more frequently is the expression of the rage against society pushed to its extreme form. When we study these killers we find their rage is directed towards what? The cruelty of the social world? The powerlessness of the individual?

What all these forms of rage have in common is a willingness to tear down existing social relations and let the rubble fall where it will. Welcome to the age of the angry child, the harbinger of ecological blowback.

Institutional authority was first widely questioned in this country in the 1960s. The Vietnam War and civil rights movement provoked people across the sociopolitical spectrum into questioning the basic sanity of the government and institutionalized racism respectively. This type of interrogation of authority is radical in that it questions the very root power relations; those in-your-face protest marches were turning their backs on the hope that they could transform these social injustices from within the system and took to dismantling them through direct action.

The bank and the church have been similarly questioned as the new millennium dawned. These other bedrocks of the social order have come in for the same radical critique. People from all walks of life have been forced to reconsider the degree of faith they place in these fundamental institutions of our social lives. That the economic dogmas are simply an inversion of the church dogmas is something we looked at earlier. Here I would like to point out not only that they are linked but that what they are involved in is a final rage in the form of the Wrath of God, the end of the world.

We seem bent on pushing things to a showdown. Continuing to use Homo Colossus to destroy the ecosystems on which the evolution of mammals relies is our not so subtle implementation of this final rage program. My two cents is that the real wrestling with this is still a little ways off, after we have passed another tipping point or two. Along the way we can expect to cross a variety of psychological and sociological tipping points, one of which, I am going to suggest, is upon us now.

Today our headlines about the Catholic church bring rage to a whole new level. The trial of the Australian Cardinal was in the news last week just as the movie about pedophile priests, Spotlight, won best picture at the Oscars. The turn of the screw of rage here reaches areas within human psychology rarely touched by concerns about government and economics. The abused children coming out of the shadows carry a knife of sorrow that pierces the heart with a unique pain. The betrayal of innocence by a façade which proclaimed itself to be that which was most morally wholesome shatters lives, both directly and indirectly.

The scandal involves a small percentage of the church’s priests, so it is important to keep it in perspective, yet the stark and total betrayal involved makes it stand out as particularly horrific. That there looks to have been knowledge of the pedophile activities and a conspiracy of silence to cover it up just puts another nail in the coffin. “God is dead”, Nietzsche observed, “and we killed him.” But it is not as simple as atheism. There is a deep sense of betrayal and fear when bad things happen to good people and the heartbroken ask of a sadistic god ‘how could you do this?’ Nihilism is the flip side of eternalism.

This is initiation. It is reaching more and more people. The dark god first appeared for many with the horrors of the Holocaust. It is as if the conscious mind, which had long entertained a semi-conscious belief that the universe was being watched over by the all-loving god of the Sunday School lessons we absorbed as a child, is suddenly for the first time taking seriously the possibility that the true state of affairs might be something more akin to the indifferent and malicious gods that haunt the tales of Lovecraft. I do not mean to be flippant.

Sue Klebold describes the awakening of this endarkenment well as she recalls what it was like when the police arrived at her house looking for evidence after her son had participated in the Columbine school shooting:

“I had always imagined God’s plan for me was aligned with my own plan. I believed with all of my heart that if I was a caring and loving and generous person – if I worked hard and gave what I could to charity, if I did my best to be a good daughter and friend and wife and mother – then I would be rewarded with a good life. Exiled to our front steps, the light from the hallway casting harsh shadows on our faces, I felt suddenly ashamed, as if my lifelong understanding of God was starkly revealed as a naïve fiction, a bedtime story, a pathetic delusion. It was the loneliest I have ever felt.”
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy

It is my contention that something like this is happening on a social scale. As we confront the unsustainability of business as usual its justifications are shattered, it’s ideals fail to inspire and the energy involved in repression and denial of these facts fuels rage at a system that is seemingly incapable of being reformed. We are not confronted with just a technical problem of engineering a transition away from oil to renewables. We are not confronted by a political problem that could be solved with campaign reform. We are confronted with a problem of meaning, a religious problem as it were. We deeply believe the universe owes us our middle class lifestyle. We are wrong about that. This is setting us up for the type of maturing disillusionment so well articulated in that quote.

The Vice President of the United States showed up at the Oscars. That doesn’t happen often. He spoke of the need to create in our land a firm understanding that sexual assault is no longer going to be tolerated, nor will it remain risk free. He was putting us on notice that those who do not or cannot give their consent are not to be violated. This introduced the performance of ‘Til It Happens to You’ from the documentary The Hunting Ground about the prevalence of campus rape. The performance ended with the stage full of rape survivors looking straight into the audience and straight into the camera with a look of unshakable determination.

For those with ears to hear, you could hear the penny drop.

Remember when we were talking about first getting right in our heart? Again Sue’s raw honesty captures what many have known about the physical alchemy of the dissolution of character armor:

“For the first time I truly understood how ‘heartbroken’ had come to describe a sensation of terrible, terrible grief. The pain was actual, physical, as if my heart had been smashed to jagged fragments in my chest. ‘Heartbroken’ was no longer a metaphor, but a description.”

This is what is inflicted on the consciousness of surviving victims and the loved ones of victims and perpetrators. That look of unshakable determination in the eyes of the survivors on that Oscar stage – that is what rage looks like on the other side of its alchemical and psychological transformation.

This constellation of archetypal material concerning sexual abuse in our collective consciousness comes as a return of the repressed. It serves the needs of our time in ways we can only dimly perceive while we are caught up in its unfolding. One aspect that does stand out is the clarity of contrast with the rabid dogmatism of fundamentalist Islam. Here in the west, out of the shadows of our shame, come our abused and hurt women and children to take center stage under a Spotlight. This is what the secular west believes in, this process of uncovering truth and righting injustices. It looks like we are lost and it is often messy but we do not turn away our gaze, we do not try to hide our sins under a burqa.

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