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Raging Bulls

We’re mad as hell, and they’ve got the psychologists to prove it! Turning anger into a trend story means abusing common sense.

Who hasn’t wanted to throttle his or her boss or co-worker? Who hasn’t found their inner demon rising under relentless assault from the holiday spirit? Even good King Wenceslas might take up arms after hearing “Let it snow” endlessly looped through store after store. And the three wise men might well have given up and mailed the infant Jesus a subscription to Adbusters if they had been faced with finding a Happy Feet Mumbles huggable plush toy at a teeming mall.

But instead of wondering whether bad management practices have created toxic workplaces and enabled bullying behavior, or whether all-materialism-all-the-time is vitriol for the Yuletide soul, the media want to blame the victim. Fuming at all that manufactured “holiday cheer?” You might be suffering from “holiday rage,” reported ABC news.

“It's supposed to be the season of sharing and giving, but long lines at the stores and jammed parking lots can cause a lot of stress this time of year. So 'tis also the season of skyrocketing sales and explosive tempers.

It's become such a problem that psychologists have even given it a name — ‘holiday rage’…. For some, the stress associated with the hustle and bustle of the season turns them into scrooge.

‘They have sense of urgency. They try to control things that are uncontrollable,’ said Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D. and director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy. ‘They get themselves into a real problem over the holidays and create problems for other people.’”

But what if the feeling of “holiday rage” is a perfectly sane response to holiday mania – a warning sign that the external world is providing unhealthy stimulus? Is it so shocking that the vicissitudes of the holiday season make some people angry, while making people with anger control issues more than usually peeved and possibly dangerous?

Anger is not an unnatural emotion – it’s only when it becomes chronic and uncontrollable that it becomes unhealthy. Those who fail in restraining their anger are, at best, guilty of socially inappropriate behavior, or at worst, driven by some form of psychopathology. But it’s not clear, that we gain any useful knowledge by turning the former into a diagnostic category or a mental illness characterized by the circumstances in which it happened. If it did, the logic of “holiday rage” would also gift us “browser-timed-out rage,” or “nothing-to-watch-on-television rage,” as any set of conditions that could be found to be repeatedly infuriating acquired the distinction of a syndrome.

Indeed, to the now ubiquitous froth of “road rage,” there is now the foaming topicality of “web rage,” where an online chat on Yahoo over Islam ended in one of the participants driving 70 miles and assaulting his virtual sparring partner. According to the Guardian, British “Police called the incident the first bona fide case of web rage, and warned internet users to protect their identities.” In China, after an online gamer stole a rival’s virtual sword, the rival stabbed him for real.

Other recent examples of “whatever rage” include “airport rage,” “tip rage,” and “gnome rage” (this was casually described by the Swindon Advertiser as a “drunken rage,” that resulted in a violent attack on several garden gnomes, but someone has to look out for the little people).

The etiology of “whatever rage” as a syndrome in popular culture owes much to the idea that working for the United States Postal Service was a distinct pathological activity, given the number of times disgruntled postal workers turned up at work and shot their colleagues and superiors. As the St. Petersburg Times, reporting on a symposium on workplace violence in 1993, first noted, the postal service

“has seen so  many outbursts that in some circles excessive stress is known as 'going postal.' Thirty-five people have been killed in 11 post office shootings since 1983.

"We must take steps to stop the rage," Postmaster General Marvin Runyon said.”

Thanks to media hype and references in “The Simpsons,” the term “going postal” became synonymous with workplace rage even though the CDC found that the occupational homicide rate for postal workers didn’t exceed the rate for all workers in the U.S. in the 1980s. The disproportionate number of postal worker homicides committed by co-workers appeared to be a statistical artifact of one particularly deadly incident in 1986 in which 14 postal workers were killed in Oklahoma. (For up-to-date CDC data on occupational violence, click here).

Now, “going postal” has been subsumed by “desk rage,” if one is to believe MSNBC:

“The high-stress world of corporate event planning was getting to Mary Tribble and her business partner. At times when deadlines were near and clients were making seemingly impossible demands, the two of them would turn on each other. Shouts flew, doors slammed, teardrops fell.

“In conflict, I tend to retreat and cry, and she tends to confront,” says Tribble, founder of the Tribble Creative Group in Charlotte, N.C. “It wasn’t very healthy.”

The women were suffering from what psychologists call “desk rage," on-the-job anger that industry observers say is increasingly rearing its nasty head in stress-filled offices and other workplaces across America.

Some desk-ragers “go postal,” screaming, cursing, trashing office equipment, even assaulting others. But desk rage also manifests as a slow boil that leads to gossiping at the water cooler, backstabbing, poor productivity, abusing sick days, stealing supplies or becoming irritable or depressed. Some people simply get fed up, stop communicating, put on a headset and emotionally “check out.”

And this was news to a news network? Did no-one at MSNBC remember the immortal lines of Howard Beale in “Network," the Oscar-winning movie that satirized the craziness of working in television news “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!”?