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Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Anger is an energy

In Jean Briggs' book, 'Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family', the anthropologist described her time with a tribe of Inuit called the Utku in Northern Canada.

One of the most striking features of her descriptions is the absence of anger from their society. Through reinforcement of emotional norms and discouragement of others, anger and its effects very rarely appear in their behaviour.

This comes up when Jean acts as an intermediary between some outsiders who wished to borrow the second canoe of the tribe (which had only two canoes), having already damaged the first one they had borrowed. Jean wanted to refuse the request on behalf of the Utku (and her Utku host did not appear to want to lend the canoe.) However the request came and her host agreed to lend the canoe as he would not publicly say no to any request.

Given the importance of the canoes in such a precarious environment as the Arctic and the previous misuse by the visitors, we can understand Jean's anger at the outsiders abusing such generous hospitality. However, the Utku discretely shunned her because her anger, albeit on their behalf, was deeply unwelcome beyond any abuse of hospitality.

In any precarious and intensely challenging environment anger is recognised as being immensely destabilising and potentially life threatening for an entire community. Therefore it is extremely important to find ways to control and minimise it.

In any precarious and intensely challenging environment reciprocation and sharing are crucial when one may need the resources and goodwill of anyone in the surrounding environment.
Therefore it is extremely important to find ways to encourage it, even at the risk of disadvantaging oneself.

Does this mean the Utku are entirely non-violent, that anger's control and suppression have created a peaceful society? They are a hunting society, so violence is enjoyed in that context. Murder occurred within Inuit society and so alas it does not mean a pacifist northern light shines in Baffin Bay. And yet compassion and generosity exist in abundance in an intensely caring society.

The removal of anger is sadly not enough to create a Utopia. However, the Inuit can deal with such tensions by creating ritualised patterns of behaviour such as the song duels and their modern equivalents on community radio stations. The Inuit have done an impressive feat in channeling anger away from their behaviour to the benefit of their society.

Indeed, by careful use of jokes and conflict management, fear and suspicion are allowed to exist without spilling over into outright hostility which could do much wider harm than to the individuals directly involved. indeed they are used to reinforce that necessary social harmony.

To look at our society is to look at a society obsessed with violence and its common emotional sources anger and revenge. A glance at our movies shows us being bombarded by images of revenge
as the wronged and the otherwise just seek retribution in their anger for whatever has been trespassed against them.

Our psychology is concerned with the proper and free expression of our emotions to maintain our optimal well being. Is an untrammeled emotional expression truly the best way to well being? Do our emotions, like our reason and bodies, need education?

In our temperate climes, we lack the Utku's restraint, and arguably to our detriment.

Some more interesting stuff quoting Jean Briggs here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Calum, its good to see you have a new post up. I thought you had disappeared. Im rushing out to work now so will stop by and read later. Hope you are well.