Willard Gaylin

Rage and Vigilantism in America, Part II

VTR Date: January 5, 1985

Guest: Gaylin, Willard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Willard Gaylin
Title: “Rage and Vigilantism in America” Pt. 2
VTR: 1/5/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. “The Rage Within: Anger in Modern Life”, is the title of the almost painfully relevant new Simon & Schuster book written by today’s guest, psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin. In it, Dr. Gaylin reminds us that to walk the streets of any large city is to see anger everywhere. Notes that the rage that is within us belongs to the beast that once was. Warns that with our anger we are trapped in a vestigial and maladapted emotional system.

Yet he argues too that we are close to the time when we will be able to redesign ourselves biologically to exclude the traditional anger response. And that seems to concern him just as much. And I wanted to ask Dr. Gaylin why.

GAYLIN: Well, I’m not one of these people who’s worried about tampering with Mother Nature. I’ll tell you that in advance. Not too much. We tamper with Mother Nature all the time. Mother wants us to tamper. Because we are so designed that we are capable of designing ourselves. You fly cross-country all the time. You don’t have any wings. We do all sorts of things that we weren’t necessarily created as doing. So we are capable of changing ourselves. So I’m not worried in that sense. And we already do do certain things about anger. If your anger produces certain effects on our heart, you take certain drugs that will maintain your heart rhythm. You take dioxin if that’s necessary. You’ll take quinine. If for some reasons – and many of them are emotional – your blood pressure goes up, you will take certain pills to keep your blood pressure down. I think that we may get to a point where we could actually abate certain rage centers or introduce chemicals that would change the rage responses, which I don’t think are working. Again let me repeat. Tthey’re not working because we don’t live in a world of physical solutions. Or anger is generated by psychological and sociological things. It doesn’t do good to throttle the boss, or even your wife, necessarily, or even your kid.

Now, why am I then worried? I offer it as a potential solution. Because of a few things. One, there is such a thing as righteous indignation. If we can believe the politicians, when they sense an angry enough populous, they act. When they know that we really take, let’s say, the national deficit seriously, they will act. Most of us don’t take it seriously. We don’t understand it well enough. When they know that we are beginning to take crime in the street seriously, and perhaps some of us are beginning to do it in a way they don’t like, we’re taking it in our own hands, they may begin to act. So righteous indignation is important. It’s important that we show that we’re outraged by bigotry, that we’re outraged by violence, that we’re outraged by racism or sexism and things like that. I don’t want to do away with that.

When does the whole negotiating aspect of rage…? Emotions are deliciously complicated things. They are also signals back and forth. Forget about the street criminal now. Just think of the social situation with your own child. And you’re talking to your daughter or your son. And you want to instruct. You know he’s doing something he shouldn’t be doing that’s self-defeating. You begin to talk about homework or applications to college or whatever you’re talking about. And you begin to see you’re pressing too far. How do you know you’re pressing too far? You sense his anger rising. You say, “Wait. I don’t want him to get angry. I want him to listen to me.” So you back away and you adjust. And all this goes on without your thinking. But emotions also, in a community organism like ourselves, send signals back and forth and has its uses. Now, if you, Dr. Heffner, as a good pharmacologist, could design a drug that would reduce the kind of anger that armed us for physical assault, which doesn’t work anymore, but still kept the communicative and the part of the anger that tells me I’m angry and signals to you, I’d be happy. That’s a little complicated. And I’m worried about getting rid of the total anger response.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I note, Dr. Gaylin, that you say, “That’s a little complicated.” And I have the feeling that you feel, yourself, it’s not that complicated that we won’t get to it.

GAYLIN: No, I think we will. I think we’ll do it piecemeal. We’ll do it in an interesting way. If all that happens with your anger is that it causes a peptic ulcer, we’ve got a drug now that can cure peptic ulcers. If all that happens is that it tends to make your blood pressure rise, we’ll tell you to go on a low-salt diet. We’ll give you certain drugs that will lower your blood pressure. You pay a price for those drugs, too, because some of them have harmful side effects. I think we may get to that point.

The ultimate fear, or course, is – and I’m not a person who lives for catastrophic future…I want to get through the day and tomorrow and my children’s tomorrow – but it is not inconceivable that the anger and the rage within leaders of our countries can lead us to a nuclear holocaust. We know frighteningly so from the autobiographies, not, or the biographies, the political biographies, not of the truly crazy men like Hitler and Stalin, let’s say. But when we read the biographies of some of our leaders like Churchill and Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, we are aware to what degree their personal sense of frustration, impotence, and anger could influence foreign policy. One of the things I worry about as a biologist is that this anger which was designed for the cave men, which no longer serves the city dweller, to ablate it actually, let’s say we could do it with genetic engineering, we may someday have to go back to those caves.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you also say in “The Rage Within” that if we ablate the anger, and you say now we may also have to go back to the caves, we need the mechanisms, the all-time eternal human mechanisms for dealing with the threats around us. There is a mixture here of saying, “Hey, let’s do it,’ and, “Let’s not.” And I really want to k now what Willard Gaylin concludes. I know on the one hand, and on the other. There are the pros and the cons. Where do you come out?

GAYLIN: I would like, I’d like to be conservative. I’d like to start…If I think that we’ve done everything sociologically and psychologically that we could, then I’d say I better start looking for some technological things. But we haven’t done anything constructive and creative about redesigning our society. So I want to start conservatively. Maybe it’s the physician in me. I want to start conservatively by doing the social and sociological things, changing the world enough so that we don’t feel so frustrated, put upon, impotent, helpless, humiliated, debased, betrayed, et cetera, as you do in average life. If we can then do that, if we can shift our culture to such an extent that it’s more rewarding, more nurturing, we don’t feel so helpless, I would prefer moving that way. There may come a time in which we give up on cultural change and then we have to do the repair mechanism. So I don’t want surgery first. First I want conservative public health and medicine, to use examples.

HEFFNER: But what do you mean, “Surgery first?” We’ve been around a long time now, Dr. Gaylin. We’ve been around a long time being concerned about these things. And I want to know what your bet is. Will we, in our traditional role, deal sufficiently and adequately with these challenges? Or do you make the bet that we’re going to have to go to the medical model, the chemical model of change?

GAYLIN: No. I think we will. It’s interesting. When we say, “We,” we’re talking about the United States. This is the country that presses individualism so far. They don’t have the problems necessarily of street crime in the Soviet Union. Now, neither one of us would want to switch places with the average citizen in the Soviet – I presume. I’m making a judgment about you. But I presume I’m on safe grounds – would rather live with all its ugliness in unsafe New York and with all its rudeness than to live in Stalingrad or Leningrad or Moscow or any Chinese city probably. Those are communitarian societies that have debased the individual. We are individualistic societies that have debased the community. I think that it has been a cherished part of our society that we respected the individual. But we are overly ripened on individualism, and we must bring a little bit of Aristotelian sense of the place and the community back. We have pressed individual liberty so far that we forgot the common good. So I don’t want us at all to move, I don’t want to live in a safe concentration camp. But surely we can begin to see – and we do it. We do it in times of crisis – you see that we begin to restrict things in times of crisis. We don’t allow total freedom. When there’s a gas shortage or there’s a war on. As a matter of fact, in one of the intriguing things, when there’s an artificial crisis, people become nicer in New York. New York is wonderful when there’s 30 inches of snow dumped and you can’t move around. All of a sudden, people who would run you down on a yellow light will stop and say, “Need a lift?” So a common sense of disaster sometimes brings the best to us. If we bring a sense of urgency to these problems, I think we can do things.

HEFFNER: You know, as the last program we did, said, “Stop talking about New York.” And I realize that you can take the boy out of Ohio but you can’t take Ohio out of the boy. And I think you’re still so intrigued about being in this giant city in which we’re taping this program that you keep referring to New York. Do you feel that what we find in this large metropolitan area is not replicated elsewhere?

GAYLIN: You are absolutely correct, Dick. I use New York because we’re here and because I’m talking about our local community. New York is not the most dangerous city. New York is not essentially different from Detroit, from Los Angeles, from a half-dozen cities. I think we’re about fourteenth in crime rates. I think we move at a faster pace. But I also feel that what we see in New York is what we’ll see in those other cities five or eight years from now, and in the small towns. There is a kind of rush, there’s an intensity, there’s a pace. There’s a lack of decorum, there’s a lack of manners. It was never considered important. We have come through a period of self-actualization. One of the most horrible terms I’ve ever, I mean, that had to be – want to go from New York to anther cliché – a California term if there ever was one. Self-actualization. Express yourself. All over me, if you have to. But express yourself. And we trained our children to be tough, competitive, and self-actualizing. We’ve come through this phase which emphasized the individual. In many ways it was much easier when I was younger. And that had nothing to do with locale either. There were rules. And you know what were wonderful about rules, just like emotions, you didn’t have to solve problems. What were wonderful about rules was the same thing that’s wonderful about the truth: you didn’t have to have a memory. It’s only when you lie that you have to remember. “What did I say? Where did I come from? How much money did I tell them I had?” You know, if you tell the truth, you just recall, et cetera. There were rules. You did certain things. You didn’t spit on the sidewalk. You got up when an elderly person was on the subway or the train. You did certain things. You stand, stood back, et cetera. You never even thought about it. It was almost automatic. Now there are no rules except express yourself.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you say that, I come back to my question as to why you back away from a physiological, biological, chemical approach to these problems. You suggest – and maybe you’re thinking about genetic engineering, maybe youre thinking about better living through chemistry, whatever it may be – you suggest that we have the means to – I was going to say “tamper,” and you, I think you suggest…

GAYLIN: No. To adjust.

HEFFNER: …never mind tamper, adjust. Do what man has always done. Adjust it himself. If we have those means, why don’t we bite the bullet and do, we’re past 1984 now, but take a page from “1984”, take a page from “Brave New World”, admit what our sources are, and change mankind?

GAYLIN: Well, part of it is because of the complexity of the human organism, that we never can totally predict the results. That’s why we’re always most conservative. If I felt that we had exhausted the other things, but instead we haven’t exhausted our educational, our intellectual, psychological, and sociological… If anything, we’ve compounded the problem. That’s what I’ve been saying in the last five minutes. The gurus have been telling us exactly the wrong thing. They’ve been telling us to let it all hang out. They’ve been telling you how to train your children in the most aggressive, the most competitive way, the most performing way, the most impotizing way.

HEFFNER: Yes, but then, Will, let me ask, are you making a bet, man to man now, and the 12 people who are watching us, are you making a bet that we are going to, not that we’re capable of changing ourselves behaviorally, but that we are going to do so?

GAYLIN: I don’t know. I’m a hopeless optimist, and I hate to base social policy on myself. I keep thinking that as we see the state of animy, people getting more and more restless, more and more angry, more and more the feeling that things aren’t working. It’s the most frightening thing in the world. When people begin to feel that the system isn’t working, that you work all your life to save money and inflation burns it away, that you work all of your life to follow the rules and you don’t particularly get respect, that you do all the right things. We’ve created, I feel, a group of middle-class people who are beginning to feel as though they are disenfranchised. I have a feeling if that grows enough the politicians, the educators, and the people who may have some influence will begin to think constructively about the problem. There hadn’t been much constructive thinking. I can remember 30 years ago reading Jane Jacobs saying, “We must not allow buildings to go up without a sense of community in New York.” There they’re destroying the old communities. And this was before my time, but there were communities. People know what Yorkville was. They know where to get a good Viennese pastry. They knew where to get good Jewish deli. They knew where to find an Irish bar that was fun. Now, all of that is breaking down. I think that’s great, because it means that we’re becoming a more homogeneous city in a certain way. But you are losing the sense of community. There has been no serious thinking about social planning in that way. No serious thinking at all. And whenever some of us have raised those questions, it’s been brushed aside.

HEFFNER: Again I’m puzzled. You are a critic. And so you become critical of what, as you just have, of what we have not done. And in reading the Bonnie Garland book, and in many of the other things that you’ve written, in reading “The Rage Within”, I know how concerned you are about what we have done and what we have not done. Again come back to why you’re not ready to bite a bullet. Since you’re not willing, it seems to me, really to bet. You say you’re an optimist, but I don’t hear you making a bet that we’re going to do what you feel needs to be done. You talk about politicians perhaps responding to anger, but isn’t that more likely to lead to a man on horseback who will do things politically rather than biologically?

GAYLIN: Oh, very frightening. Now, I think that much of the vote in the last election was not based particularly on specific policies, but out of a conservative feeling that things weren’t working. I don’t think that there’s been that much change from Democrat to Republican. I don’t believe those polls. I don’t think the American people are essentially political in the sense that they subscribe to political ideologies. They had a feeling that things weren’t working, they had a feeling that somehow or other Reagan represented some strong return to some conservative elements. Although if you look at his constituency there are people on exactly opposite sides. I do see the political process as being responsive. Sometimes in a very, very sloppy way. I think in this was a kind of vote of discontent with, quote, “liberal tradition.” And I would hate to feel that we would lose the egalitarian dream, the liberal ideal, the concepts of justice because of our fear about city streets, violence, impotence.

HEFFNER: On the other hand, you say that those fears are fairly well founded.

GAYLIN: Yes, yes, they are.

HEFFNER: So that the vote, in its own way, is rather rational.

GAYLIN: It may be. And it may be that I will have to suffer certain social justice abuses that I respect, I will have to see certain programs that I value go down the drain. So that the democratic, more traditional liberal elements of our society would begin to take these same problems seriously and define more what I would call, my own bias, humanistic solutions.

HEFFNER: Let me turn to a couple of the… I said at the beginning of the last program that one of the things that, while it didn’t depress me about “The Rage Within”, but it concerned me, was that I was constantly scribbling in the margin, “No”, “Yes”, and “He’s all wrong”. You say, let’s go back to this basic point, “In becoming civilized, we have made our biologically-programmed anger mechanism obsolete”. And we developed that, and I think that we understand the point you’re making. But you go on to say, “We are out of the jungle, and we still do not feel safe”. And the last time we spoke, I was trying to say that that’s the past. You’ve said yourself in many ways we are not out of the jungle. Why then would we want to tamper with an anger mechanism that is fitting for the jungle? I mean, you say the danger doesn’t really come from physical sources; it comes from Dear John letters, what your boss says to you, the envelope that says you’re no longer employed, et cetera. Are you really so certain that that’s the source of danger to us today?

GAYLIN: I think so. I mean, I think there’s something about modern life that has reduced the reward mechanism and the pride mechanism. If you think about threat, think of a balance scale. What’s threatening depends on whether some external force becomes stronger, or you become weaker. Nothing has to happen on the other side of the scale, if you feel less potent. Take the simple relationships. Supposing you’re dealing with your two-year-old or three-year-old, and he says, “I hate you Daddy. I wish you were dead”. That’s not a threatening situation. You know that he doesn’t mean it. You know that you have control. You know that he doesn’t have a gun, and he’s not going to shoot you. It’s not like a mugger or a hijacker on an airplane. The interesting thing though, then, is that your sense of power, your sense of control, makes a big difference. An older person would feel more threatened in certain situations than a younger person. A small person will feel more threatened. A woman will feel more threatened in certain situations. Men traditionally weren’t threatened by a sexual advance or rape, except homosexual rape, of course, from another man, because of the biological difference. Women are tuned in to certain kinds of aggression because they recognize that they’re physically helpless. What I see has happened in our society is that our self-respect and our pride has been reduced in a number of ways. And also one of the most crucial things is that it has been reduced at a time when the promise has been raised. You see, if you live under total privation, you don’t find as much anger. You may find despair and depression in the depression period, I’m using, in the economic depression. Or if you see the scenes in Ethiopia and the Sub-Sahara districts now, you don’t find an angry population; you find a submissive population. That’s one step even worse. Anger comes when there’s a kind of resentment over that which has been promised and that which has been delivered. It’s what I call deprivation rather than privation, or what Max Scheler called “resentement”, resentment. I don’t like the word “resentment” because it means, it seems trivial in American life. But there’s a period, there was hope after the Depression, the great society was going to give us equality, justice, decency, self-pride. And there’s beginning, there’s this beginning sense of hopelessness and failure that the system isn’t working. And when you have the feeling that the system isn’t working, that’s when I get frightened. Because then people are ready to follow anybody on a white horse. “I’ve got the answers”. And that’s when you find the cult leaders and the charismatic and dangerous people.

HEFFNER: And the genetic engineers?

GAYLIN: The genetic engineers. Will they be called upon? I don’t think so. I think right now the genetic engineers are much busier looking for cures for cancer, looking for ways to improve crops and things of that sort. That would be the last thing I would want to do. We could use psychopharmacology before that, and we could use cultural change before that. But for God’s sakes, let’s not be sending the wrong messages out. Let’s not be telling people, you know, “Express yourself all over the place.” The individual is the important thing. The interesting thing is that even in a pleasure system we deprive the average bourgeois, upper-middle-class kid of only one thing these days. And that’s the opportunity to feel important by being useful, by being self-sacrificing, by being giving. That’s one of the most joyous feelings, one of the most powerful feelings, most invigorating feelings. For one thing, we tend to deprive our kids of the capacity to be self-sacrificing.

HEFFNER: You won’t let me lead you down this path, would you? You won’t let me get you in a spot where I really say, “Let’s face it. Again, let’s, it’s the matter of making bets.” I f you had to make a bet, where would you place that bet in terms of meeting these challenges by monkeying with our identity, the human mechanism?

GAYLIN: I think the way we will do it is we will monkey with it without calling it that. We have a way of monkeying with human behavior that’s preferable to social engineering. We first decide something has to be done, then we name it a disease. Once you name it a disease, then you’re allowed to have a treatment for it. See, we don’t like to just change human nature. So what we do is we call it a sickness. So that if you’ve got children who are hyperactive and tense and they disrupt the class and they’re a pain in the neck and their mothers can’t handle them, you don’t know what to do with them, and you’ve found a cure…The first thing is to find a cure, then you invent the disease for it, you see. And you’ve found a drug that works for it. We don’t just say, “Oh, what a wonderful thing. We can treat them in school.” First we invent a disease called “minimal brain dysfunction”, MBD. And then you allow a doctor to prescribe Ritalin for them or dexadrine or one of those. And indeed for certain of these children with, quote, “MBD”, they calm down, they’re capable of going to school, they’re capable of, their attention span is improving, et cetera.

Now, the interesting thing is, if I said, “I’ve got a good pedagogical tool, it’s very cheap, it’s a little pill called Ritalin”, you wouldn’t be allowed to use it in school. But if I say, “Wait a second. First there’s a sickness called MBD. Now, Doctor, would you bring us the pill?” I suspect that’s what’s going to happen. It is the rage within us that is contributing to our coronary artery disease and our arterial sclerosis and all of the works. Okay. So we’ll go on low-cholesterol diets. We begin to find more and more effective devices for lowering the adrenalin secretions and lowering all the secretions of drugs which may contribute to stroke, et cetera. And we’ll be curing a disease. We’ll be calming down the biology. We won’t do it for sociological reasons. Won’t be allowed to do it. So I suspect what we’ll do is we’ll sneak into chemistry by the back door. I hate sneaking in anywhere by the back door. But I also cannot understand what happened to traditional philosophy, education, social planning, social psychology, that we can’t say what we’re doing isn’t working, let’s introduce new methods.

HEFFNER: But something did happen. Something did happen to those mechanisms of control in the past, of analysis, of determination, and control. Something that happened so you now say, “We have this medical model. Make it a disease then we’ll cure the disease”.

GAYLIN: But we know that some of those things that happen are very, very powerful. You see, there was a conspiracy of events to make us feel helpless and hopeless. For example, when we started the Twentieth Century individualism, it was at the same time that we began to lose faith in traditional religion. When you had traditional religion, that was a wonderful comfort. It didn’t matter how humble, how humiliated you were. You’d get into Heaven before the rich man would. The meek would inherit the earth. And anyway, what difference did 60 years on this earth mean to an eternity of fusion with God or something like that? So that what happened was we made the here and now everything. We took away the future life. We took away the afterlife, and then we began to make the here and now less and less attractive and more and more humiliating.

HEFFNER: And that’s the point at which, humiliated though I am, I have to say our time is up.

GAYLIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Dr. Gaylin.

GAYLIN: Well, thanks. Thanks for having me, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again also next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.