I am outraged at some injustice. The injustice is real, maybe even written on the face of a person mocking another culture or ethnic group. My blood rises, and I reach for my judgment, my condemnation, then pause. I reflect. Have I ever wanted anything that would make another person feel the same way about me? Yes, okay, sure, I admit to myself. But that’s not the point, I tell myself. Is it not? What would have helped me to see my own error? What would have spread more goodness: someone enraged, shouting at me because of how bad I was? Or something else?
Just that movement of the mind, of the soul, of the frail human heart, softens our impulse to spread anger and rage in the name of justice. It might lead to a different judgment, or none at all. I can’t say how it will or should play out for other people. I can say its very practice will reduce the regret we’ll have every time we undertake the harrowing exercise induced in the beginning of this essay. It will make us kinder, more understanding, and, crucially, more just in our dealings with injustice.
I read this admirable essay earlier this week, and I returned to it several times after. I had been far too busy to organize my thoughts about it, but then, as if on cue, the Roger Scruton hit piece in the New Statesman appeared, resulting in his dismissal from his unpaid position as the chairman of a British architectural commission.
It’s very easy to be outraged by the whole sordid affair. Scruton is an exemplary man, writer, and philosopher. A journalistic nonentity named George Eaton blatantly misrepresented Scruton’s statements for the purpose of getting him fired and was crass enough to gloat about it on social media afterward. The sheer vindictive pettiness of it all, the refusal of the left to tolerate a prominent conservative’s presence even in a largely symbolic capacity and the cowardly capitulation of a Tory government, is nauseating.
But I have to admit there was a time when I would have unthinkingly considered someone like Scruton a bigot for opposing conventional left-wing pieties. I could have easily been part of the group of people cheering Eaton on, competing to impress my peers with my witty put-downs. If I had been aware of the underhanded tactics involved, I’m sure I could have easily rationalized those as necessary for the greater good, but it’s even more likely that I would have been securely ensconced in what we now call a filter bubble, where I would have never encountered anyone pointing them out to begin with. If my every stupid remark and callow judgment had been frozen in social media amber for public display, I too would look like an awful person. Blogger, critique thyself.
“Yes, okay, sure, I admit to myself. But that’s not the point, I tell myself. Is it not?” Here, too, it’s easy to blow past the acknowledgement of the obvious in order to return to the serious business of being angry at injustice. It’s easy to rationalize once again why this injustice is serious and deserves an appropriate response, rather than a lot of vapid relativism on how none of us are perfect. A practical response might be to acknowledge one’s own powerlessness in such matters and focus on the quotidian details of one’s own garden instead. It’s certainly healthier than fuming impotently. But even that might only be a way of avoiding the point. I might be just mature enough to recognize that there’s no use in being enraged about things I can’t do anything about, but if I believed for a moment that I could do something…well, I’d probably be just as angry and self-righteously vindictive as the next guy.
So, then — do I want to take the time to contact just one of the many people I saw on social media exulting over Scruton’s firing and attempt to explain, patiently and kindly, why he or she is mistaken to feel that way? Of course not. Like I said, I’m busy and tired and barely have enough time to read and write for pleasure as it is. Why would I want to devote any of my limited free time to a likely-fruitless conversation? And yet, I do find that even the idle thought of doing so seems like a better use of my imagination than indulging in fantasies of seeing the wicked receiving their comeuppance. Maybe that’s something.
What helped me to see my own errors? It was, and is, a cumulative process. There are rarely any thunderbolts of enlightenment, just a gradual, barely-perceptible dawning. I think that a significant factor was that I can’t recall ever being humiliated for being wrong. I was either fortunate enough to never say anything stupid in front of someone who could have made a brutal example of me, or fortunate enough that they chose to pass over my stupidity in graceful silence. I was allowed to outgrow errors at my own pace, I suppose, maybe even allowed to forget having made them and thus preserve a fragile sense of confidence and dignity. Perhaps one of the worst things about social media is the way it forecloses on the possibility of that productive forgetting. Your errors are forever as loud and fresh as the moment you made them, with vengeful enemies devoted to rubbing your face in them. Perhaps it’s better if errors are simply allowed to outlive their usefulness and then slink off to the woods to die alone and forgotten. That’s offensive to the progressive notion of history as a cumulative elimination of error and injustice, of course, but funny enough, that’s one of my own errors which died of natural causes.