July 29, 2011 10:05 pm
Second that emotion
By Harry Eyres
A boy lights a candle for the victims of Norway’s twin attacks
I was struck by the contrast when the British prime minister, David Cameron, expressed outrage at the terrible attacks in Oslo and Utoya island, while the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed no such thing. What he conveyed, instead, was shock, dismay, sorrow and a determination that the bombing and mass murder of teenagers by Anders Breivik should not change the country’s way of life, democratic values and commitment to human rights. “You will not destroy our democracy, or our ideals for a better world,” said Stoltenberg: “No one will ever scare us away from being Norway.”
In the coverage from Norway and interviews with those who had witnessed the attacks and people in the street I heard no one expressing “outrage” or any similar emotion, or the desire to hit back against evil. What was so moving was the restraint and dignity and solidarity of the Norwegian people, gathered in communal expression of grief.
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You may think I am mincing words, and at a most inappropriate time, but I believe the right words, connected to properly differentiated feelings, matter enormously at all times and especially at times like these. It is worth weighing these words, outrage, dismay, grief, and what they mean.
Outrage struck me as an odd and even ironic choice of word from David Cameron, not least because this is the staple fare and fuel of newspapers such as the now-closed News of the World, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, from which you might think the British prime minister was trying, belatedly, to distance himself. Such newspapers constantly try to stir up outrage in their readers, about a bewildering range of issues (at the same time, of course, as they are stirring up prurient interest in other people’s sex lives). Outrage is incited against immigrants, whom sober studies show to be beneficial to the economy. A notorious instance was the “naming and shaming” of paedophiles in the News of the World, which led among other things to the vandalising of a paediatrician’s home. That case reminded me of the great scene in Julius Caesar in which the mob lynches a man they believe to be the conspirator Cinna: “I am Cinna the poet” cries the victim of mistaken identity, before being torn to pieces.
So what kind of emotion is outrage? Although etymologically it has nothing to do with rage, and starts from a somewhat inchoate sense that something is beyond all bounds, you could say that outrage is rage directed outwards, an emotion which no doubt has its place, but could also be a defence mechanism. Part of the great work of psychoanalysis in the 20th century, especially the work of Melanie Klein and her followers, has been to show how often one emotion covers another, less bearable one.
Outrage, let’s face it, is relatively easy both to feel and to incite in others. It also seems to be an emotion on the rise in the age of internet chatrooms, Twitter and so on. Commentators have been remarking recently how angry everyone seems to be in cyberspace. Anger and outrage are certainly more popular emotions in the blogosphere than dismay and grief.
Dismay may be a difficult emotion, especially for political leaders, to feel, or to admit to feeling, because it implies disorientation or weakness. “Utter loss of moral courage or resolution in prospect of danger or difficulty”, the first definition in my Shorter Oxford, does not sound promising at all, or rather far too judgemental. I would say dismay can be absolutely the right and proper and human thing to feel in the face of some unexplained and apparently inexplicable tragedy or catastrophe. It is actually braver to admit to dismay than to cover it over with some more acceptable or “manly” emotion, for instance the determination to “hit back”.
Grief is more difficult than any of these because it means facing up to irrecoverable loss. Sometimes whole lives can be blighted as a result of the inability to confront loss and to grieve. Although it is dangerous to make these comparisons, I couldn’t help feeling that the Norwegian people seemed better at grieving than we in London were after the 7/7 attacks, which were met with impressive stoicism but not with public grieving.
As well as expressing outrage at the events in Norway, David Cameron promised that “we can overcome this evil and we will”. The distinguished psychoanalyst Hanna Segal, who died a few weeks ago aged 93, would have called this an omnipotent phantasy. We can no more overcome or destroy evil than we can overcome or destroy human nature, since evil is part of us. This is not to say Segal was passive in the face of evil; a refugee in Paris, then London, in 1939-40, she wanted to go back to Warsaw to fight the Nazi invaders of her native country, but couldn’t: “There were no more trains.” Instead she devoted her long life to trying to understand the ruses by which the mind avoids facing up to intolerable losses.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.