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2015 in review: Maintaining youthful rage

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First published 13 August 2015

In the famous essay by Joan Didion, 'Goodbye To All That', the author describes New York City as 'a city only for the very young'. I first read that essay when I was very young, and like Didion leaving New York City, 'I am not that young anymore'.

'Goodbye to all that' collection of essaysDidion's New York stands in for youth, the spaces of extreme meaning and promise that become milder and less beguiling with the years. I am learning the hard way, the tried and tested way, of growing older, that I can't spread myself so thinly over everything I once cared about. That there are limits, and protecting them is greatly valuable.

However these limits do not include abandoning some idealistic sense of responsibility to the collective, however specialised that sense has become. One of the clichés about aging in this way, 'growing up', is that you get more 'realistic' about political matters. For example, 'If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative when you're 40, you have no head.'

The wisdom is that presumably as people age they become more reasonable. But that's not it. As people age, if they follow a certain approved life trajectory (acquire adequate education, attain appropriate partner), their lives become much easier to manage, because they establish tangible social privileges.

If you are not born a particular kind of affluent, youth brings the greatest financial and emotional precarity, violence, and danger. For those looking to political change during this time, the stakes are very high, and very real.

I suspect that this is why many radical discourses are led by young people, people under the age of 25, and that these discourses are often so charged with extremely emotional demands. I am speaking about rage in politics, its value, and its cost. I am no stranger to rage, it is one of my main motivations. It's changed, a bit, in me, but I certainly haven't lost it. But rage is not uncomplicated.

In 1976, Jo Freeman wrote an essay in Ms Magazine called 'Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood', about her experience of being 'trashed', which means being excised from a political community via bullying.

'Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape,' she writes. 'It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.'

Freeman had not wanted to write the essay, fearing it would discredit the feminist movement. But what she named became instantly recognisable as a form of social behaviour that only really occurs in youth, regardless of political associations.

Since writing the essay, Freeman expanded her understanding of 'trashing': 

'If you look at statistics put out by the criminal justice system … violent crimes are heavily concentrated among men between the ages of 15 and 25. There's a phrase in the system: aging out. When they get older, they commit fewer violent crimes.

'I now think the reason I observed so much trashing in the younger, twentysomething branch of the movement was precisely because they were twentysomethings. They had not yet 'aged out' of conflict.'

Rawness carries the inherent risk of alienating others, because people want to protect their limits. Sometimes for good reason, other times not.

Everyone who speaks through or about rage knows this, knows its risks. Some argue that rage in itself has value: 'Rage is an emotion, one that comes about from feeling oppressed,' writes Kat Muscat. Others seek to be heard through more dominant, more bourgeois, ways of speaking. I do both, consciously and unconsciously. I don't know what to think about that.

I suppose one of the reasons I am thinking about this so much now is that a friend and colleague recently died at 25. She was heavily involved in our political and literary communities, and wrote and spoke provocatively about this stuff.

She was a radical, and drinking with her, talking with her, reading and learning from her, I saw the very best of rage and rawness in politics. She used it as a mobilising resource. But I also saw how being so close to danger, and possessing such a sense of obligation to raw, honest, and emotionally-engaged political exploration, is exhausting. Of course it is.

I would like to think that, for this friend, things would have gotten less exhausting as she 'aged out'. Not that she would have lost her rage, but that it would have grown into something that would give more power than it takes. In Didion's words, the golden rhythm of youth is, at some point, broken. What she doesn't write is that there's something quietly comforting on the other side.

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing. 

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Kat Muscat, Joan Didion



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Existing comments

I once spoke to someone who knew something about rage and she told me that it's a very normal and useful emotion, especially in times of great challenge. It can certainly be exhausting for the person concerned and for those around them. The perennially cheerful may seem to glide through life, but I would rather face challenges and yes be outraged than offer platitudes. A very thoughtful article Ellena.

Pam | 15 January 2016  

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