Self control, according to St. Paul, like love, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Righteous indignation, wrote Aristotle, is the result of being angry for the right reason, at the right time, in the right way and with the right person(s). Unfortunately, anger too often undermines self control and generates fear and loathing rather than corrective action.
The media are still dominated by news of only the latest example of moral outrage by Muslims, this time over reports that the U.S. Army accidentally burned some Korans. Neither the fact that the burning was accidental nor multiple American apologies, up to and including one from the president of the United States, has made any difference.
Aristotle also wrote that indignation is a bad counselor. Clearly, he did not mean that there was never a reason to be angry: when an injustice occurs, anger is understandable. But the feeling of righteousness that invariably accompanies anger gives the angry person the false impression that his anger is proof of his rectitude.
More than this, anger impairs one's judgment, leading one to make decisions in the heat of the moment which are, or should be, regretted. The Kennedy family, notoriously successful in politics, was marked by the maxim: "Don't get angry, just get even." There is something to be said for that sort of cold calculation, but such cleverness is not the mark of a good man.
There is, of course, nothing unique about the recent display of righteous indignation that has already claimed the lives of at least 30 people and injured 200. Irrational indignation is hardly the sole property of Muslims. Still, it has become their chief tactic in their continuing campaign against the Infidel.
No, all extremist political movements have resorted to continual righteous indignation. Karl Marx's charge to the so-called proletariat to engage in violent revolution against their purported bourgeois oppressors is central to his political teaching. Marx justifies his war against Western democracies on the grounds that all government, no matter the form, is the organized oppression of one class by another. Perpetual anger fires that cause even today among Marxism's less numerous denizens.
Righteous indignation was the motivating force in Adolph Hitler as well, as is clear from the films taken of his mammoth rallies before and after he became the Fuhrer. He railed against democrats and communists alike, but he reserved his abiding hatred for the Jews and indeed for all people of faith.
Here in America, slaveholders and abolitionists rode a wave of anger in their confrontations with each other. Famously, on the floor of the House of Representatives, Preston Brooks of South Carolina, wielding a cane, beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts within an inch of his life. Abolitionist John Brown waged war in "bleeding Kansas" and tried to stir up a slave revolt in the Appalachian Mountains. The cool and deliberate judgment of Abraham Lincoln was the only defensible response to these perpetually angry political actors.
And who can forget the hatred and violence of numerous white people living in racially segregated states, outraged over attempts by black people to attend the same public schools and equally to be served in restaurants and accommodated in hotels and motels, and even to use the same rest rooms and drinking fountains? That was matched on the Left by many opponents of the Vietnam War who trashed public places and attacked law enforcement officers.
No account of misguided indignation can be exhaustive, but one must include the urban Occupy movement that has terrorized communities across the land, mindlessly dividing our democratic society between the statistical one percent and 99 percent.
There is a time and a place for anger, but it is better to oppose injustice with firmness and even good humor than to fly into a rage. Here I must pass on an apocryphal Lincoln story of a situation that would have moved many people to anger.
Lincoln was driving a carriage on a narrow and muddy road when he spotted another driver heading in his direction. He shouted, "If you don't move to one side, I don't know what I'll do." Eyeing the imposing Lincoln, the other man wisely decided to move aside. When the passage was complete, the man asked Lincoln just what he would have done had his request not been complied with. "That's just it," Lincoln replied. "I didn't know what I would do."
Political life needs its happy warriors more than its perpetually indignant ones.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.