Willard Gaylin

Rage and Vigilantism in America, Part I

VTR Date: January 5, 1985

Guest: Gaylin, Willard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Willard Gaylin
Title: “Rage and Vigilantism in America” Pt. 1
VTR: 1/5/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Even when he has not just written still another provocative volume exploring man’s mind, his emotions, his fate, psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin is always a most intriguing and rewarding Open Mind Guest. It happens, of course, that Simon and Schuster has now published Dr. Gaylin’s “The Rage Within”, about anger in modern life. And sadly it’s almost painful in its relevance to our times, to our concerns. Now, one trouble with “The Rage Within” is that it’s so timely that in its margins are made too many notes, penned too many questions for our guest, though the first does stand out: Whether in writing about anger in modern life Dr. Gaylin is essentially expressing his own feelings about those among us who refuse to see the rage around us. We wish not to see as he writes that these are mean streets we are walking, and these mean streets tend to make us meaner.

Dr. Gaylin, what’s the source of the rage within you?

GAYLIN: Well, the rage has always been within me. I think it is with most people. I do find that I’m a different person after 30 years in New York than that sweet, young Midwestern boy who came here originally. And I do think this has happened to a lot of people. I don’t mean it’s just New York. I think New York is, as in most things, in fashion and others, in the forefront. But New York today will be Cleveland tomorrow or Cleveland today, Cincinnati tomorrow, Ashtabula the next day. So I think that we are moving into meaner, tougher, more aggressive times, and I don’t think it’s been paid sufficient attention.

HEFFNER: Then why isn’t rage a totally perfectly appropriate emotion?

GAYLIN: Well, let’s go back to what an emotion is all about. An emotion is not just a feeling. It’s a set of physiological responses. Something happens to you when you feel an emotion. It’s an arming mechanism. Let me go back to something simpler than an emotion, must a sensation. When you put your hand on a stove you feel pain. You don’t say “I wonder if there’s something wrong with that hand of the stove.” You immediately withdraw it because the pain is a warning that something dangerous is happening to you. Now, we have certain primary emotions called fear and rage. Those are part of a mechanism to alert us that danger is here. And they not only alert us, they arm us. Our muscles tense. The adrenalin starts pumping. The eyes, the pupils constrict. If you’ve ever seen a cat being attacked by a dog, you see all of those things. You see the bristle of the hairs on the neck. All of this arming emotion is to help you to handle the thing that is jumping out of you from the bush which is endangering your life. The problem is that all this was established in your nature a couple of million years ago, and today the dangers that beset you are more likely to fall out of an envelope than to jump out of a bush. A Dear John letter, a pink slip, “Sorry, we don’t need you at the job anymore.” And Internal Revenue audit. Now, what good is this physiology of anger? What are you supposed to do? Your boss tells you you did a lousy job; you know you did a good job. Are you supposed to go for his jugular with the teeth? That threatens your existence even more. So our body is now arming us for life-threatening things when those things which seem to be threatening us are not physical and are only metaphors.

HEFFNER: Yes, you know, I realized as I read “The Rage Within” that you were saying this, but you were saying so much more about the perfectly good reasons to feel that rage. To arm yourself, as you suggest, against those who would be the predators, on the streets perhaps. The book seems to me to be of two minds, and I wondered whether the author is of two minds about the inappropriateness of rage and about the appropriateness in terms of the challenges that we face on the streets when we meet angry people.

GAYLIN: Let me explain what I do mean: There’s ample opportunity to be angry now all the time. As a matter of fact, my working title for this book was “Angry All the Time.” I think most of us go through life with a short fuse, being very, very angry. What I’m saying though is that anger doesn’t seem to work anymore. Even if you take those few episodes which are physical – someone hassles you in the street – and I do point out one episode in which I did something that frightened the death out of me. I didn’t do the smart thing. I allowed my rage to be expressed. I happened to be hassled by three kids who were unarmed. If those three kids had been armed I might not have been on this program now, and would have missed the pleasure of your company. But the fact is it did not do me good to express that rage. That rage said attack when attack might have killed me. So that even though the emotion is certainly warranted, the physiology of anger and the expression of anger is dreadful now even in those cases when they’re physical. And what I’m saying is that most of the time it’s not the physical. It doesn’t mean I don’t take the physical seriously, because those tend to make us feel the most humiliated, and tend to revive all of the other smaller intimidations and humiliations in life.

HEFFNER: But, you know, you, you, you say that our bodies are preparing us for life and death struggles that exist only in our unconscious and in our physiology, and you’re suggesting that evolution has taken us from a time when those instincts were needed. Are you suggesting that they aren’t needed now? Are you suggesting that we are not faced with challenges that are physical today?

GAYLIN: We are to…We are faced with some challenges which are physical, but which are not best responded to physically. And most of the challenges, most of the things that threaten you are not direct physical confrontation; it’s humiliation. It’s a sense of frustration. It’s a sense of impotence. It’s a sense of despair. It’s all of these small symbols of your worthlessness, of your anonymity. It’s all of these petty affronts to your pride and to your self-esteem which make you angry. The ang… If the anger emotion provoked you to smart talk through an articulation button that it pressed, if it pressed a connivance button, if it pressed a get-even button; but it braces us for attack. And since we cannot attack, what happens is that we get high blood pressure, strokes, coronary artery diseases, and all of the so-called type-A behavior diseases that cut right across all of our civilized societies.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting though that you say we cannot attack, because certainly we are seeing in our time more and more evidences of people taking into their own hands the capacity, the need, the necessity, the expression of attack. And they do attack back. Now, we have to deal with that too.

GAYLIN: Sometimes they do. I wonder how many. If you take the average scene in the New York streets, you know, I used to talk about this, the tough and the mean streets, and the sociologist friends of mine of the academic community would say, “Well, well, you’re taking this a little seriously. You know, it is much tougher in the city streets in Dickens’ time than it is in our time.” And then I used to take that as an answer and say, “Well, these are scholars. They know what they’re talking about.” Then I went, I said, “Wait a second. Who asked for that timeframe? It was much tougher when the caveman lived than now. But it was not much tougher in 1940, and the statistics prove that.” One of the most extraordinary statistics is that if you were a Manhattan resident you had in 1940 a one out of ten chance of encountering a serious crime in your lifetime. By 1970, you have a one out of ten chance of not encountering it in 30 years. So we see a kind of degradation of the public space. Now, do we answer back in kind? I don’t think so. Occasionally there’s an act of vigilantism. To me it’s rare that it happens. And it’s rare when I think of all the provocation. What is intriguing is that it touches something in so many of us that we say, we, we are inspired by it when it’s a very dangerous phenomenon. But so many people respond with almost joy and ecstacy to this kind of thing when we all must fundamentally depend on law and order.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when you say that, when you talk about the number of us who respond that positively, you can’t turn your back on that. You have to recognize it if that is a phenomenon of our times as the violence in the streets is a phenomenon of our times. What are you going to say about it psychologically?

GAYLIN: Well, I, I think, I’m almost – this sounds callous – I’m almost happy when an occasional event like that happens and you get the response. The intellectual and academic community is terribly out of synch with the average man. The whole concept of crime in the streets, for instance, was never taken seriously, particularly by the intellectuals. Partly, I understand why. For years it was used as a euphemism for racist talk. It was simply a way of being a racist without saying it. But the fact is that the vulgarization, the destruction of the public space is a very serious problem. We are a country that’s glorified individualism. I’m proud of it. I’d much rather live in the United States than I would in Russia or China, which is a state that glorifies the state. I think, though, that we’ve come to the limits of individualism, and we’ve forgotten something about this very strange individual, the human being, who is not after all an amoeba. We live in a network of people that goes back to Aristotle. We are political. We are social animals. We need other people for our survival as much as we need food and air. And if you destroy the public spaces, then you create a situation in which there is no individual liberty. The average working, middle-class woman in Harlem is in a jail. She can’t use the public streets. She’s got bars on her door, and she is now a prisoner, and there’s been no attention to her. That’s why it’s very, very interesting that the cry for safety in the streets is now coming from the black community, from working class people who are frightened of the degradation of the public space.

HEFFNER: But then I still remain puzzled as to which Gaylin I’m dealing with: the one who says, “These people are murdering out public space,” and there is an implication there that we must, indeed, we couldn’t help but, do something about that; and the Gaylin who says that anger physically reproduced or manifested is a vestigial, a remnant.

GAYLIN: All right.

HEFFNER: Now, which is it?

GAYLIN: Well, because, if you wanted to do something, if you and I wanted to do something, we simply don’t have the physical power because we’re isolated, and at our age and whatever, to handle a bunch of teenage toughs on the subway…So what should we do then? Get a gun and pop some of them off? Neither one of us would want that, because we believe in a social order that means you also can’t believe in taking the order in your own hands. Your body, the anger response is demanding it. Now, what we can do is control the individual anger but turn to those collective officials who are supposedly representing us and say, “We do not feel you’re doing a good job. We need a safer society.” Individual anger doesn’t work, but if you get enough of us to feel impotent enough, you may drive us to the kind of situation which would be terrifying for all.

HEFFNER: But, Will, you’re saying that you and I wouldn’t use, as civilized people, we wouldn’t use an uncivilized and an unsafe technique.

GAYLIN: Right.

HEFFNER: Our society is less civilized now than it was 40 years ago, and you’ve said that yourself. You said, “Let’s not compare our times with those of the caveman; let’s compare our times with those of when we were young,” and life was a gentle, a gentler phenomenon. But we’re not living in that same kind of civilization, and doesn’t, don’t our times now require us to take different measures?

GAYLIN: They do, but they don’t require us to take the measures that are dictated by an outmoded physiology. What of your problems? Think of yourself. Let anyone who’s listening to the program think of themselves. I could list my own, and I purposely do list my own because I’m not trying to pompous and patronizing. I don’t feel I have control over my own anger. I feel it all the time. But what can I do? Some of the things I see myself doing I don’t like. For instance, most of us are wise enough to know that we can’t directly express anger until we get into an automobile. That automobile is like an armored tank, and it distances us from other people and it brings out the primitive, particularly in men. Not so much women, because there is a gender difference about anger, and maybe we can get into that. But what happens then is you will see things, you will see things behind the wheel of an automobile that are just incredible. People talk differently. The obscenities flow. You’ll see young teenagers just popping out kind of things I wouldn’t dare say over the air at this point. But, in addition, here’s a typical scene in a New York or any city street: You’re going along and some idiot cuts you off. The probability is that he’s not trying to attack your manhood; he doesn’t even know who you are. He’s just narcissistically concerned with getting where he wanted to go, but he’s endangered your life. You’re traveling at 50 miles an hour on a crowded street. So what should you do? Logically what you should do is say, “That guy’s an idiot. I’d better drop back.” That is not what the average New Yorker does. If he endangered your life by cutting you off, the average New Yorker is going to zoom up alongside of him with one hand on the wheel, give him a finger with the other hand, and then cut him off, again endangering his life a second time. That is not a survival enhancing mechanism (Laughter). But the anger is feeding us, and worse than that, we are being fed anger all the time from a whole range of less exotic areas.

HEFFNER: Well, if I may, I would say at least two things. One, you stop this business about New York; it happens in California where I live too, and probably even back in Cleveland where you came from. Two, once again you’re suggesting that one solution – and you’re suggesting that the civilized solution – is to fall back, hang back, be wise. As you say in your book and as you’ve said often, “Don’t get angry, don’t get mad; get even.” Okay, and “even” in this case would be to protect your own self. Hang back. That isn’t what we do. And the alternative is instead, it seems to me, to make life much much more difficult for all of those who impose upon us, who destroy, who murder our public spaces you’ve said. Now, you want us, you, in the book in here, you’ve said that intellectuals tend, academics tend to be rather unreal about these things. Aren’t you being a little bit unreal too? The, the survival instinct requires not just that we get even like that but that we take action, some action. How can you just cry “Health, health. Don’t get excited. Don’t be the kind of person who gets ulcers.”

GAYLIN: Well, you see, the problem is that we’ve got two messages, both of which are wrong. One of which has come from the sociological community that says, “This is a bunch of hysteria. Things really aren’t getting worse.” And I’m saying they are getting worse, that you haven’t paid enough attention to the quality of life in the city. That you haven’t paid enough attention to protection. That this is not just a bunch of right-wingers or fascists or anti-blacks saying this. That this is a serious problem. Then, too, you have the psychologists who are saying, “Let it all hang out.” Now, obviously you cannot let it all hang out. You cannot allow all your anger to spill out, because as I’m saying, it will not save you. It will simply create an angrier environment, and most of us know that. You see that in the city streets where people are letting it hang out. The expression of anger is not going to solve anything, particularly because one of the things we haven’t discussed yet is the fact that we live in a society that generates feelings of helplessness and impotence which always leads to fear and anger. The old model was like an abscess. It swells, swells, gets all swollen. It hurts. Lance it. Let the pus out and you’ll feel better. So they have you going to EST and its ilk and punching pillows and doing all kinds of crazy cockamamie things which aren’t going to help anybody. The fact is it’s not that you have an isolated boil there that needs to be lanced. It’s that we tend to be generating anger all the time. That’s a fountain there. Once you unplug it, it keeps coming out and out and out. So it doesn’t do any good. Secondly, the idea that somehow or other you’re not going to have your ulcer if you express it Recent studies have shown that those people who go through life expressing their rage have an extraordinarily high percentage of heart attacks, strokes, et cetera. So it isn’t a release mechanism. In the old days we thought it was the way we handled the anger. I’m saying it’s a much more radical thing. That anger has become obsolete. And we must find two things possibly, one either to change our physiology, which is a very difficult thing. And I am not proposing that at this time. Or to change our sociology and to remove as much as possible those things in our culture that make us feel helpless, reduced, impotent.

HEFFNER: All right. That’s the key it seems to me. And yet I find you – maybe I misread you or mishear you – I find you saying that and writing that, and then in s a sense stopping back as one of the ways of removing those cause, causes is to punish them. To punish them directly, forcefully, swiftly, finally. Instead of simply acclimating ourselves to the distress that they cause us.

GAYLIN: so that we would want to move to a system of justice, all of us, that moved rapidly, with surefire punishment which we don’t have now. As a matter of fact, for years I’ve been arguing the respectability of punishment. You have to understand that in penalogical circles, punishment was a no-no. You weren’t allowed to do that. You still hear people say today, “What’s the good of sending him to jail? What good will it do him?” The purpose of sending someone to jail is not to do him any good, it’s to punish him and to do us good. We feel better knowing that crime does not pay. So that I do believe in swift punishment, but the only kind of truly swift punishment would be, I suppose, if you took out your gun from your holster, if you were in east Texas or west Texas or wherever, and went bang, bang, bang. But we, we don’t, we cannot live in such a society.

HEFFNER: But we don’t live in that kind of a society any longer because we are civilized. Presumably there is no longer a need. Presumably there came to be no great need for that kind of direct action, and yet you and I testify by living in a city to the fact that that need has come back. That it is not just our anger that has done in civilization, but certain other aspects of contemporary life, and that the anger in modern life as you call it, that the rage within may be within those people who are murdering our public space. Do we not strike back?

GAYLIN: Exactly. Now, perhaps, I think I now see what you see as the contradiction. What you see as the contradiction I see as the motive for writing this book. I see a rise of anger that’s been neglected. I see that the solution to the anger is a long-range sociological planning that’s going to require us to start right now. I see an academic and intellectual community that has ignored it, and seen it as unfashionable, and that has spent too much time on concern for individual liberty without recognizing the collective good. I see us as having moved too far that way, and I’m frightened that once people begin to feel that no one cares, that the society doesn’t care, that the public doesn’t care, that the people who write then newspapers and magazine articles don’t care, that it’s always the victims that get sympathy and not – I’m sorry – it’s always the criminals rather than the victims that get…You are going to get a state of animy??? Which I see growing. I see people beginning to be happy about capital punishment. “Kill them all.” Whether it does good or doesn’t do good is very debatable. That when they hear about someone taking a vigilante action, even when they know in their mind they know, “We can’t go around with guns popping off all people.” Even if occasionally it serves something called justice, it’s essentially a self-defeating thing. We are creating a group of people, a population now, that is hungrier for it, readier for it, and that’s what worries me. That’s why I say we must start taking collective, intelligent action before people subscribe to the feelings of their rage.

HEFFNER: But it’s so strange to me, Will, that you say that because you have described the fact that they have already succumbed – though I don’t think I’d use the word “succumbed” – they have already accepted, embraced, a kind of anger at, and rage at, to go back to that word, at those who pollute and murder our public space. Isn’t it too late to say, “let us reason together.”? The reasoning time seems to me to be gone.

GAYLIN: Oh, I don’t want reasoning. I want serious attention. What upsets the average person, what upsets the average working man, let’s say, blue-collar worker, is the feeling that on one in authority, his “betters”, those who write the magazines and the newspapers, have not taken these problems seriously. And that’s a feeling of terrible helplessness and impotence. It’s exactly the feeling the blacks must have had in the South when there was a kind of collusion between authority and law to look not only to look the other way, but to encourage their suppression, their abuse, and their victimization. Now, I’m not saying that we should sit down and reason together with criminals. They’re a group of criminals for which there is no help. I’m saying that we have to begin to take street crime seriously because it’s highly leveraged. It isn’t just the crime; it’s that it makes us all feel things are unfair, and then we do other things. We displace our anger because most of us endure it out of fear and a sense of impotence. So it is amazing to me. You don’t see people fighting back in New York. When you do, it hits the headlines and it hits the front pages. What you do see is the cheering about it, but you don’t see people fighting back. But what it does is lead to a sullen anger inside. It displaces itself into the home. It contributes to the anger and sullenness in office spaces. It contributes to the way, obviously, if someone on the street does something to humiliate you you’re more likely to go in to your secretary and just be waiting for her to do something wrong, to your wife and be waiting for her to do something wrong, and a cycle of anger and tension builds throughout all the institutions of our life.

HEFFNER: And I know from reading “The Rage Within” that you consider that more destructive, ultimately, to civilization than anything else.

GAYLIN: Absolutely, absolutely. Because what’s happening is at any, in any society there’s going to be impotence, frustration, fear and rage. Normally, we have sources for replenishing it. The worst thing that happens is this displacement. Something goes wrong – there’s a wonderful story of James Joyce of a man who is totally humiliated by his boss. So he goes into a bar for a drink. And he’s a slight person and some bully in the bar picks on him and he can’t fight back. He knows that he’ll be just devastated. So he goes home waiting for his wife to make some mistake and his wife isn’t home. So the only one that’s left, is a little boy tending the fire and he finds an excuse for just beating the bejesus out of this kid. It’s a heartbreaking story, but it’s an epitome of what does happen. Now, what’s tragic about this that there will always be tough times in whatever public arena we’re in. There will always be competitions we lose. We replenish our ego and our self-esteem and our joy and our pride in our living relationships. But if you go home and then treat the loved ones as an enemy, you’re – that’s what’s wrong with letting it all hang out – you’re then going to get anger rather than support and reassurance, and you’re going to create a kind of sullen home life too. And so much of the hostility in the home life is a kind of displaced anger, too.

HEFFNER: Do you think there’s any way of institutionalizing the, the changes that you are suggesting? Bringing them about on a larger scale?

GAYLIN: I think so. I wish I had some of the really nice, quick cures. I do have some in mind. We’re not quite ready there for it. But you know, when we talk about the physiology of anger, we have things for taking care of the physiology of anxiety, and people gobble up Valiums all the time. They don’t want to have the sweaty palms, the tremors, et cetera. They can still fell some of the anxiety. There’s danger in not feeling the anxiety and anger because they are signals and they do warn us and there’s righteous indignation about things like that. But I wouldn’t mind if we could disassociate, by chemical intervention, so we didn’t get the high blood pressure, we didn’t get the adrenalin flow, yet we still felt some of the anger without pounding away at our cardiovascular system. But short of that I do think that we can do things in our society and in our families.

HEFFNER: You know, that’s why I’m going to ask you if you would stick around here. We’ll end the program. I’ll say goodbye. I’ll say goodbye to the audience, and then let’s pick this up again. What can be done, because I’m intrigued by the suggestions in “The Rage Within” that you offer, and then back away from, about the changes in our very physiology.

Thank you, Dr. Gaylin, for joining me today.

GAYLIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time here with Dr. Gaylin on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”