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Indignation Nation

Art for Indignation Nation.


One of the great pleasures in life is indignation. It’s right up there with anger, love, and fear.

Technically speaking, indignation is one of the “reflective” or “cognitive” emotions. When something big, metallic, and fast hurls toward you down the road, you feel fear without thinking. This is a good thing, because the fear makes you get out of the way. When someone cuts in front of you in the line to get your passport stamped, you feel anger without thinking—which may or may not be a good thing, if it causes you to say or do something you might regret.

But to be indignant, you have to think first. Some bastard has done or said some deplorable thing. I judge that it is wrong, unjust, and repellent. But I don’t just judge it as wrong; I also feel it. And so I get indignant.

Look around, indignation is everywhere: on the highways, in the stores, in the seminar room. It was clear in the early days of the Internet that this great tool would be a wonderful instigator of, and vehicle for, indignation. In everyday life, when you’re surrounded by other people, you have to keep your cool. No one likes an outright “snot,” which is what I recall from my childhood we called a person who gets morally offended all the time. But on the Internet, you can get indignant in an instant, and hide behind anonymity. You can be as much a snot as you want, since no one knows who you are, and no one can look you in the face.

The problem is, since indignation is coupled with an innate sense of justice or injustice, it pays to exploit it selectively. If you go around getting indignant about everything, you’re but going to lose your bearings. I try to save this emotion for the big things, like inequality and global warming; otherwise I would probably go mad. But it’s hard to stay disciplined about what are after all abstractions, conditions—structural issues. It’s much easier to get indignant about petty annoyances, and more rewarding sometimes, too—after all, petty annoyances sometimes go away. It’s also easier to use indignation as a cop-out, because it’s a way to feel good about yourself even while evading the very issue that’s making you feel so good and angry about.

Indignation recently crept into the New York Times editorial board’s writing on the problems in the Secret Service, such as the recent intrusion by an armed man into the White House through an unlocked front door. When the head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson (now resigned from her position), was grilled by Congress, the Times complained that Pierson was “unimpressive.” In fact the editors wrote, “Only when asked if she was outraged did she say she was.”

Pierson should have known better. She should have allowed herself to let go and get indignant without having been prompted first by a preening Congressman. But maybe something deeper was going on. Maybe she was thinking, “Discrimination against women, global warming denial, slave labor in East Asia, structural unemployment, corporate tax evasion, the decay of American infrastructure, anti-immigration bigotry, racism, the class warfare of the rich against the poor, systematic privacy invasion, the Guantanamo detention camp, war in the Middle East, apartheid in Israel, the suppression of free speech in Russia . . . and you want me to get ‘outraged’ about a crazy man who didn’t do anyone any harm?”

Pierson seems to have done a poor job as director of the Secret Service, and was maybe rightly forced to resign, but I feel sorry for her all the same, after seeing those Congressmen, those talking heads, those newspaper editorial writers, all going after her with such nasty, opportunistic, glee. I hope she got some consolation from the indignation she must have felt at what Congress members and the media did to her, making her a clown in the middle of what was, after all, a circus.