Paul Andersen: When righteous indignation is right
December 10, 2017
It's been a tough year for us tree-hugging, peace-loving, egalitarian progressives. Most of us are in a rank mood, fulminating on our many disappoints in a prolonged national catharsis.
A conservative friend from the other side of the ideological aisle recently linked me to a provocative Washington Post article about species extinctions. Intensifying my already jaundiced view, the author stated that we humans are only doing what is natural by causing the Sixth Great Extinction.
"Extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it," wrote Alexander Pyron, a biology professor at George Washington University. "Unless we somehow destroy every living cell on Earth, the Sixth Extinction will be followed by a recovery, and later a seventh extinction, and so on."
How easy Pyron makes it to deny moral significance as we knowingly kill off species through habitat destruction, recklessly ignorant of the contributions these species make to the complex web of life.
The article made my blood boil, so I wrote my friend a retort condemning moral myopia as the same rationale Hitler used in Nazi Germany.
"When we set ourselves above all other life forms," I argued, "we are endorsing a hierarchy that is fatally self-centered. We claim an omniscient arrogance that moves us further still from the heart of creation to which all living things owe our origins."
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My friend replied: "I agree with most of what you say, Paul, though without the righteous indignation, without any feeling of moral superiority, but with a desire for calm discourse."
I suddenly felt I had been unreasonable. Still, I bristled at how this writer assuaged personal responsibility by dismissing moral judgment over the heedless plundering of the living world. It's a similar utilitarian thought pattern to that of the economist who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
In defense of my umbrage, I referred to Jack Turner, a philosophical mountain guide who wrote a probing essay that describes an appropriate example of moral indignation. He title it, "A Rant."
Turner described a mountaineering client arriving in Jackson, Wyoming, without appropriate clothing. Turner sent him to an army surplus store that sold woolen garments, but the man returned empty handed.
Irritably, Turner asked why. The man explained that the surplus garments came from the German army. As a Jew, he could not conscionably wear them. This man's decision, Turner realized, was based on rational moral and ethical boundaries stemming from the Holocaust.
"If justice is impossible," reasoned Turner, "then honor the loss with acts of remembrance, acts that might shore up a portion of integrity. Refuse to forgive, cherish your anger, remind others …"
The Sixth Great Extinction is a global holocaust that most of society refuses to confront as a moral conundrum, a crisis of conscience.
"We are a nation of environmental cowards," charged Turner, as we conveniently sacrifice moral indignation to political correctness.
"The reduction of social criticism to a private defect," Turner explained, "is incessant in our culture; it cripples our outrage and numbs our moral imagination."
Christ was not PC when he threw the money changers out of the temple; he was brimming with righteous indignation. So were Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thoreau, Gandhi, etc. Most successful social reform movements have risen from moral indignation.
"Emotion," Turner wrote, "remains the best evidence of belief and value. … Our ecological crisis is a crisis of character, not a political or social crisis." As a wilderness advocate, Turner claimed, "We lost the wild bit by bit for ten thousand years and forgave each loss and then forgot. Now we face the final loss."
Righteous indignation is not about hating; it is about feeling deep empowerment by honoring our outrage. By kindling a sense of the sacred, Turner wrote, we fuel the moral energies that can challenge corporations, stop armies and revolutionize nations.
Righteous indignation burned at the core of our nation's birth as Americans rebelled against Britain's injustices. It needs to burn now as the Donald Trump holocaust abandons moral decency, subverts ethical values and ridicules integrity in the heedless charge for expedient self-interest. Moral outrage has never been more justified as a motivator for change.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.