A few people I’ve been close to have been very critical by nature, easily outraged and disgusted by the actions and character of those around them. It was this that caused one of them to leave Facebook recently. He couldn’t see the point in engaging in something that was bringing forth so much bile. However, none of the people I’ve known have been as vociferously outspoken as Wittgenstein was personally or Nietzsche in writing. All of this raises two interesting questions. First, is there something of greater value in being more sensitive to opportunities of indignation, as opposed to being “easy going” in the oblivious sense? Second, if there is greater value in it, does that mean that one should be more willing to express it? Should you merely feel indignant or should you readily express indignation?
The value of being sensitive to the outrageous and disgusting can be assessed along two lines—the value to oneself and to others. Presumably, if you are more sensitive to the follies and evils of others, then you will regularly be swimming in unpleasant emotions. You might either flourish in such waters or find them drowning your happiness, depending on your nature. Thus, such sensitivity could be seen as valuable or disvaluable.
Perhaps something that would cut across those possibilities would be recognizing that there is something more authentic in seeing bullshit as bullshit, regardless of its effects on your happiness. This is in the sense that a depressed person may take a sort of pride in the fact that she is depressed—not from lack of serotonin but—because she sees things for how they are: in order to be happy and optimistic, you’ve got to engage in some self-deception.
Further, if you are accurately identifying the outrageous and disgusting, then you are presumably going to avoid having anything serious to do with those people and things. And that may very well be of value, particularly in contrast to allowing oneself to be subtly and perniciously influenced as a result of blindness. I am reminded here of my friend who left Facebook.
This raises the question, of course, about the accuracy of those who are so easily outraged. Those who are sensitive to the outrageous and disgusting claim simply to see it, as anyone would claim to see that there is a dog and not a cat before her. But I doubt it’s that simple. However, as important as it is, I’m going to leave behind the epistemic issues here.
Assuming that it’s better to be sensitive to the outrageous, the disgusting, the bullshit, should you be outspoken about it? As an initial response, I’d say yes, if that which is outrageous is likely causing harm. The problem, of course, is trying to assess whether harm is resulting and to what extent. This problem is complicated, too, by the fact that people don’t always like someone who is outspoken, whether they’re the object of the outrage or not. One danger of being outspoken, aside from being seen as disturbing the peace, is that it may come across as being self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is, itself, something deserving outrage! And even when you’re vigilant about the self-righteousness, you run the risk of alienating yourself and burning bridges. Things that no one wants to do, especially when jobs are scarce and having as many friends as possible is somehow a virtue.
Part of the problem is that the harm that can come from remaining silent often isn’t in your face in the way it is when you let a child drown because you are late for a job interview. Moreover, there’s the level of uncertainty regarding the extent of the harm that may result if you don’t speak up. This isn’t always the case, of course. If a teenager is being bullied for being gay, and you walk past without speaking up, there’s some pretty clear harm that will result. But when someone says something bigoted on Facebook, you’re not as sure about the harm. So what to do? I say take the “risk,” just as you might “take the risk” of giving a dollar to a homeless person on the street, not knowing whether he’ll buy food or alcohol.
A further complication still is that there are instances of harm that are even more difficult to assess than the above example involving Facebook. I can easily imagine a reanimated Wittgenstein coming across a person listening to Lady Gaga and his flying into a rage. He might have a number of reasons, but one of them could be his perception that such “music” is harmful to culture. Such a judgment involves a difficult confluence of culture, taste, and purported moral harm. And it’s hard not to think that his reactions might simply be those of an older generation thinking that things were better before. Again, the epistemic issues come into play in a big way, as do ontological issues regarding the existence of value.
In the end, it seems to me that we often are poor at holding each other accountable, unless the transgression is huge, e.g., rape or murder. It’s easier to go through life not pissing anyone else off or making anyone else uncomfortable by expressing one’s disgust and outrage. And after a while of that being easier, I imagine it gets easier simply not to feel the disgust to begin with.
But some feelings ought to be felt. Some bridges ought to be burned. Let us try not to be complete assholes about it—unless, of course, it’s called for.