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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Indignation

Title:     On Indignation
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

There is nothing in which the newspapers deal more generously than indignation. There is enough indignation going to waste in the columns of the London Press to overturn the Pyramids in ruins and to alter the course of the Danube. We have had a characteristic flow of popular indignation over the execution of Mr Benton, a British citizen, in Mexico. Probably not one Englishman in a million had ever heard of Mr Benton before, but no sooner was he executed and in his grave than he rose, as it were, the very impersonation of British citizenship outraged by foreigners. On the whole, there is nothing healthier than group-indignation of the kind that sees in an injury to one an injury to all--that demands just dealing for even the poorest and least distinguished member of the group. It is the sort of passion it would be pleasant to see trained and developed. My only complaint against it is that in the present state of the world it is too often reserved for foreigners and for those semi-foreigners, the people who belong to a different political party or social class from your own. One would have thought, for instance, that the group-indignation which denounced the execution of Mr Benton without a fair trial might also have denounced the expulsion of the labour leaders from South Africa with no trial at all. The fact that it did not and that several of the London capitalist papers treated the whole South African episode as a good joke at the expense of Labour is evidence that to a good many Englishmen the maltreatment of British citizens is not in itself an objectionable thing, provided it happens within the British Empire. It seems to me that this is an entirely topsy-turvy kind of patriotism. For every British citizen who is likely to be badly treated abroad, there must be thousands who are in danger of being badly treated in the British Empire itself. Is not the killing of an Englishman by an English railway company, for instance, as outrageous a crime as the killing of an Englishman by a foreign general? There is also this to be remembered: your indignation against the criminal in your own country is more likely to bear fruit than your indignation against the criminal in a foreign country. You can catch your English railway-director with a single policeman; you may not be able to catch your foreigner without an international war. Thus, though I do not question the occasional value of indignation against wicked foreigners, I contend that a true economy of indignation would lead to most of its being directed against wicked fellow-countrymen.

It may be retorted that Englishmen certainly do not limit their indignation to foreigners, and that the Marconi campaign is a proof that a good Englishman can always become righteously indignant against a bad Englishman--at least when the latter happens to be a Welshman or a Jew. But the Marconi campaign was only another example of group-indignation against persons who were outside the group. It was not, in this instance, a national or Imperial group: it was a party group. What I am arguing for is the direction of group-indignation, not against outsiders, but when necessary against the members of the group. I should like to see Conservatives becoming really indignant about Conservative scandals, Liberals becoming really indignant about Liberal scandals, Socialists becoming really indignant about Socialist scandals. As it is, indignation is usually merely a form of sectarian excitement It is always easy to find something about which to become indignant in your political opponent, if it is only his good temper. His crime of crimes is that he is your political opponent--you use his minor crimes merely as rods to punish him for that. Our indignation against our opponents, to say truth, is usually ready long before the happy excuse comes which looses it like a wild beast into the arena. One sees a good example of this leashed indignation in the Ulster Unionist attitude to Nationalist Ireland. There is a silly scuffle about flags at Castledawson between a Sunday-school excursion party and a Hibernian procession, both of which ought to have known better. Not a woman or child is injured, according to the verdict of a judge on the bench, but the Ulster Unionists, armed to the teeth with indignation in advance, denounce the affair as though it were on the same level of villainy with the September Massacres. Not long afterwards real outrages break out in Belfast, and Catholics and Socialists are kicked and beaten within an inch of their lives. Here was a test of the reality of the indignation against outrages on human beings. Did the Ulstermen then come forward in a righteous fury against the wrongdoers on their own side? Not a bit of it. Sir Edward Carson did disown them in the House of Commons. But the Ulster Unionists, as a whole, raised not a breath of indignation. Being average human beings, indeed, they invariably retort to any charges made against them with an angry tu quoque to the South. It is not long, for instance, since a Special Commission sat to investigate the facts about sweated women workers in Belfast, and issued a report in which the prevalence of sweating was demonstrated beyond the doubt of any but a blind man. Instead, however, of directing their indignation against the evils of a system in their own midst, the Ulster Unionists--at least, one of their organs in the Press--straightway sent one of their representatives down into the South of Ireland to prove how bad wages and conditions of life were there. What a waste of indignation all this was! Munster was full of indignation against the disease of sweating in Belfast, which it could not cure. Ulster, on the other hand, was full of indignation against the disease of bad housing in Dublin, which it could not cure. There is a flavour of hypocrisy in much of this anger against sins that are outside the circle of one's own responsibility. I do not mind how many sins a man is angry with provided they include the sins he is addicted to himself and that are at his own door. There is little credit in a rich manufacturer's indignation against the evils of the land system if he is indifferent to the evils of the factory system, and landlords who denounce industrial evils but see nothing that needs redressing in the lot of the agricultural labourer are in the same boat. Perhaps, in the end, the world is served even by this outside virtue. The landlords, in order to distract attention from their own case, have more than once brought a useful indignation to bear on the case of the manufacturers, and vice versa, and ultimately the bewildered, ox-like public has begun to drink in a little of the truth. On the other hand, this is an unhealthy atmosphere for public virtue. It gives rise to cynical views such as are expressed in the proverb, "When thieves fall out, honest men come by their own," and in the lines concerning those who

Compound for sins they are inclined to
By damning those they have no mind to.

We all do it, unfortunately. The Presbyterian speaks with horror of the way in which the Catholic breaks the Sabbath, and the Catholic thinks it a terrible thing that the Presbyterian should go to a theatre on Good Friday. Montaigne, who was by inclination a sensualist, looked with disgust on the man who drank too much, and the drunkard retorts that every vice except his own is selfish and anti-social. Even when we admit our own sins we are half in love with them. It seems a less intolerable crime in oneself to rob the poor-box than in one's neighbour to have an unwashed neck. Englishmen never began to sing the praises of cleanliness as the virtue that makes a nation great until they had themselves taken to the bath. True, they often wash, as they govern themselves, not directly but by proxy; but, even so, cleanliness has been exalted into a national virtue till the very people of the slums, where the bath is used only for the storage of coal, have learned to shout "Dirty foreigner!" as the most indignant thing that can be said at a crisis.

There is nothing that makes us feel so good as the idea that some one else is an evildoer. Our scandal about our neighbours is nearly all a muttered tribute to our own virtue. It fills us with a new pride in ourselves that it was not we who gambled with trust money or made love to our neighbour's wife or ran away in battle. By kicking our neighbours down for their sins we secure for ourselves, it seems, a better place on the ladder. The object of all religion is to destroy this self-satisfied indignation with our neighbours--to make us feel that we ourselves are no better than the prostitute or the foreigner. Similarly philosophy bids us know ourselves instead of following the line of least resistance and damning others. That is why one would like to see Englishmen concerned about injuries done to Englishmen by Englishmen, even more than about injuries done to Englishmen by foreigners. Indignation against the latter, necessary though it may be, is apt to become a mere melodramatic substitute for native virtue. There are crimes enough at home for any Englishman to practise his indignation upon without ever letting his eye wander further than Dover--crimes of underpayment, crimes of overwork, crimes of rotten houses, crimes that are murder in everything but swiftness and theft in everything except illegality. It is fine, no doubt, that Englishmen should become hot with anger at the news of a Benton murdered in Mexico as it is fine that the democracies of Europe should be inflamed with indignation at the murder of a Ferrer in Spain. These things are evidence of large brotherhoods, of an extension of those family charities which are at the back of all advance in civilisation. On the other hand, can none of this passionate fraternity be spared for John Smith, aged fourteen, done to death by the half-time system, or for his father killed on the line as the result of the need of making dividends for railway shareholders, or for his mother working for a halfpenny an hour in a narrow room the filth of which is transmuted into gold for some rich man? These, too, are your brothers and sisters, and deserve the angry eloquence of an epitaph. Here is subject enough for indignation--not a weak and ineffectual indignation against foreigners, but indignation knocking terribly at your own doors.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: On Indignation