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Maintaining the rage beyond the golden rhythm of youth


'Goodbye to all that' collection of essaysIn 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'.

Didion'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

It's always nice to be quoted, but "Trashing" was published in Ms. magazine. I don't think there was a BITCH magazine in 1976.

Jo Freeman | 13 August 2015  

All young men and women, unless something bad has happened to them which affects them, seem to have boundless energy - I'd call it that rather than "rage" - which can, properly used, transform both them and the world. Sadly, there are toxic, bitter, defeated and therefore destructive people of their own age and older who are quite happy to destroy ("trash") them in whatever way they can if they don't conform, even to so-called "nonconformity". Toxic groups, often supposedly avowed to benevolent causes, abound. A few of my school and university acquaintances died quite young. What would they have been like if they survived? That is now a very hypothetical question. I find the hardest thing, as you grow older, is not to become a cliche and irrelevant. Somehow, I don't think you'll become either, Ellena. I have a feeling that you will keep on discovering the wealth within yourself and the world and using that positively. That is what we older people need to wish for, and, if we are able, to facilitate in younger people. I wish more of us did. Our young people are our greatest resource.

Edward Fido | 14 August 2015  

Thanks Jo, we've fixed that now. Tim.

Tim Kroenert, Assistant Editor | 14 August 2015  

Liberal Mal Brough was at the local school to give them a new flag and he agreed to meet with me and fellow member of Aust.Republican Movement. He was Mr Status Quo stating that the aging population meant they would stick to the Union Jack flag and Queen of Australia. He was surprised to hear me say I was getting more radical as I got older not conservative. Hadn't smacked the kids. Less fearful, because mortality was closer. Years later still activist in the realm of Tory deceits and the effects of their non-scientific climate policies on our grandchildren. 52 and the wi-fi enables activism even when disabled.

Julie | 14 August 2015  

Being a baby-boomer I took part in a few demos in my younger years, and now I'm starting to again. I find it's an age-appropriate activity - most people at the demos I've been to lately are old. The last one was against the Border Protection Act and I was really glad of the opportunity to do even that little thing. Because I have never felt so despairing about a government. And there's plus to standing in the rain outside Parliament House with a bunch of other geriatrics, and some young ones, and that's a sense of solidarity - it helps with the rage.

Russell | 14 August 2015  

Where indeed do all the young idealists go? Many seem to mutate into politically correct operatives to support fashionable causes that will advance their careers. Adopting the “right” poses, laced with displays of confected outrage and/or pained expressions of concern for PC-sanctioned victims does much to give one the cred for plum jobs in the political, human rights, artistic or academic fields. Being seen as activist feminist or pro-climate change environmentalist or as an ardent asylum seeker or Aboriginal rights advocate does wonders for one’s public profile. It definitely boosts one’s chances becoming a Labor or Greens staffer (and perhaps eventually a parliamentarian) – and even a highly paid human rights commissioner if you really play your cards right. Astute posturing and networking can also gain one lucrative positions as a cultural commissar in the arts sector. Unfortunately, many genuine artists and writers often have to deal with such people who may have little creativity of their own but can profoundly influence whether they get much exposure or not. Alas many artists and writers are often not smooth operators or glib motor mouths and frequently fail to get the support they deserve. Poor dysfunctional Vincent Van Gogh, one of the greatest painters of all time, only sold two painting in his tormented life. One can imagine how he would have been treated by today’s political correct feminist cultural czars, especially if they discovered his addiction to prostitutes. And in academe, political correct conformity is the norm. One only has to read most of the articles in The Conversation to realise that. They are usually written by PC academics who know what “party line” they have to push. To do otherwise is not a smart career move. And at least some of them were once young idealists, especially those from the 1960s and '70s.

Dennis | 17 August 2015  

You haven't read Quadrant lately, have you, Dennis?

Ginger Meggs | 21 August 2015  

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