Rage. Anger. Fury. These are emotions that we do not talk about very openly with one another. It’s almost like there is a stigma attached to anger, and that we should feel shameful about it. But just as we are trying hard to reverse the stigma of talking openly about, say, depression, I think we should also work to reduce the stigma of talking openly about anger. God knows that there is plenty in academia to make us angry.
We are naturally angry people. When I say “we,” I mean the human race, not just academics. The Hobbesian view of human nature is one in which we are not terribly different from animals driven by instinct, and one of the most primal instincts is our rage. In the state of nature, according to Hobbes, we were at perpetual war with each other. Rage, coupled with strength, was the emotion that kept us alive. Obviously, today, we have laws that tame our inner rage. We can no longer walk around and beat people up like Hobbes imagined, but that doesn’t mean that a part of us, deep down inside, doesn’t feel like unleashing hell from time to time. We all have to fight these instincts on a daily basis.
Primal rage stems from perceived inequity and limited resources. Perhaps not coincidentally, academia is characterized by perceived inequity and limited resources. In that sense, the university is the perfect petri dish for cultivating anger.
“Primal rage stems from perceived inequity and limited resources. Perhaps not coincidentally, academia is characterized by perceived inequity and limited resources. In that sense, the university is the perfect petri dish for cultivating anger.”
Inequity is very much a core feature of academia. How many times have you thought to yourself, “But that’s not fair!”? Your colleague gets promoted, but you don’t. Not fair! Your colleague gets invited to give a keynote address, but you don’t. Not fair! Your colleague gets teaching relief to provide extra space for research, but you don’t. Not fair! If there’s one thing I know about academics, it’s that we generally think that we are better at our jobs than we really are. So, rather than blame ourselves for our shortcomings, we are quick to blame others.
Limited resources are also a core feature of academia. There is only so much grant money per round. We are like beasts exploring the savannah, on the hunt for our next meal. But the chances of getting fed are pretty low. Whenever there is keen competition for limited resources, rage is bubbling from deep within us.
For most academics, anger isn’t a significant problem. We can usually suppress our rage because we have good impulse control. Thus, it very rarely boils over into physical violence (thankfully), but it does manifest in other, more subtle, ways. Passive-aggressive emails, bullying, manipulation, gaslighting, and ostracism are all more common in academia than we’d like to admit, and I would argue that are all closely related to unchecked anger. Psychological violence is, in my view, much more painful and physical violence. For this reason, we must pay closer attention to this taboo emotion of ours.
The first step is admitting that you are angry and learning to recognize it. Only then can you begin to treat it. You will need to experiment with different activities that can reduce your rage. To do this, I regularly listen to classical music, engage in mindfulness meditation (Jon Kabat-Zinn is a good starting-point), and do autogenic training. I have also, at various points in my career, sought help from a clinical psychologist to help me work through my emotions. The best advice I can give you is not to shy away from this emotion: meet it head on and process it so it doesn’t end up hurting you or others.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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