The Myth of Violence as Cartharsis
Imagine the living room in a home of a very old couple who have only recently moved out from and into a retirement village. Delicate china perched on specially constructed shelves, an old cathode ray television, perhaps even a supremely outdated computer primarily used for playing solitaire or misunderstanding the internet. Now, if one of the old couple gave you a sledgehammer and asked you to destroy the room with all of your pent up rage at the world, how happy would you be to act that out? What if we just remove the set-up shall we? This thinly veiled, farce of permission? Own up to your rage! What would you say if we remove the idea of the encouraging, if somewhat masochistic old people and you just had to pay a couple of hundred to live out this fantasy of destroying things? Just like Fred Durst from sports-metal band Limp Bizkit told you. Would you just scream “Take my Money”?
This primal fantasy has currently taken off as a fee-for-service in Russia. It began as a Performance Arts piece that involved filming people taking to a room full of knick-knacks and outdated electrical equipment with a sledgehammer. Considering their audience, and his own gnawing hunger, the artist saw an opportunity. These “Rage Rooms” are advertised as a stress reliever and have become immensely popular. It plays into the idea of violent catharsis; that by channelling your pent up rage into a relatively benign but violent act you purge yourself of the dreaded bile building up in your veins. That’s right, “purge yourself of bile”. I’m using the language of medieval times to really emphasise the relevance of this pseudo-psychological concept.
When you break things in a naughty way, like destroying letter boxes with a baseball bat you stimulate adrenalin and a range of neurotransmitters that make you feel excited, and afterward if you get away with it, a feeling of tiredness mingles with the release of endorphins in the brain that reduce pain and are attributed to the experience of well-being. This leaves you with a sense of peacefulness not unlike after hard exercise. A feeling that is easily mistaken as catharsis. Violent acts may also provide a sense of control over your environment where you otherwise might have very little. This goes to partially explain everything from listless and destructive teenage rebellion to the violent rebellion attributed to a disadvantaged minority group. The sense of power that comes with this violence might be satisfying in a way that would be hard to explain. People with depression and anxiety often describe a complete loss of personal agency, a limited capacity to stop bad things happening to them. Reducing those feelings through violent acts might not make logical sense but it makes a hell of a lot of emotional sense.
The common myth that violence can help permanently expel feelings of anger was generated by a misread Aristotle (who was very specific on the observation of types of violent theatre that could be considered constructively cathartic) and a disproven Freud (who described human anger as an inherent drive) [www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/3/4/491/pdf]. This takes us on to modern psychological research, which time again has proven that the indulgence in aggressive tendencies only reinforces the use of this behaviour and ensures that it is repeated and even used as a default in order to address the experience of stress. This does not mean that you will start beating down on your manager when he uses “that tone of voice”. Unfortunately it does mean that you are more likely to have violent thoughts, and thereby reduce the chances of utilising realistic options for solving the problems around you. On a side note, feeling homicidal is not very good for you. Aggression leads to the production of similar chemicals in your body as anxiety, and we all know the broad sweeping destructive physical impacts of stress and anxiety.
It is really important to be wary of purely psychological answers to life’s problems. Psychological interventions can be like placing a Band-Aid on a broken limb. It might stop the bleeding but the structure is still broken. The popularity of destroying rooms full of useless garbage seems far more indicative of a desire to relieve increasing social pressures, or even a reflection of the glorification of violence through popular culture. In a related way the sudden surge of mindfulness interventions like adult colouring books and meditation, while incredibly useful delivered in the appropriate context, can serve as a distraction from the root cause of the distress. Psychological intervention will often start with increasing your capacity to engage with and change your environment rather than trying to place the blame on your mental fortitude.
Not everyone has the resources or capacity to change their life and reduce their stress, and as this group grow, instead of smashing small porcelain ducks they might smash the state. If you’re reading this article however, you probably have far more capacity to smash your preconceptions as to what someone else told you to do with your life.