I have a theory that the central motivation for much of American politics is a manufactured indignation.
This indignation is stoked by the habitual taking of offense, whether or not such offense is actually there to be taken. The cultivation of such offendedness serves two emotional needs: 1) It’s exciting for those whose lives are otherwise kind of dull and pointless-seeming, and 2) It allows the people taking offense to pretend that they are better than those others whose behavior, imagined behavior, or very existence is cited as the pretext for the offense.
The more vile and evil those others are imagined to be, the more superior the Indignant Ones can imagine themselves to be. Due to the diminishing emotional returns of this voluntary indignation, the imagined crimes of the others must constantly be intensified, eventually approaching the status of Satanic baby-killers. The pose of heroic opposition to Satanic baby-killers has come to play a major role in American politics.
The desperate need to feel better than others, I believe, arises in reaction to moral anxiety or moral insecurity. It is driven by the only peripherally acknowledged fear or suspicion on behalf of the Indignant Ones that there may be something amiss with the way they’re going about their lives. They’re dimly fearful that their own behavior or attitudes may be harming others through neglect or even harming others directly. This insecurity drives the cycle of guilt and resentment in which victims can be transformed into enemies.
This cycle goes beyond merely “blaming the victim.” Blaming the victim is a fearful attempt to make moral sense of the universe by asserting that all suffering must be the fault of those who suffer. The guilt-and-resentment cycle goes further, recasting those who are suffering as the perpetrators of some evil against those who are not suffering — against the Indignant Ones themselves. Rather than just blaming the victims, then, it denies that they even are victims, pretending instead that they are active agents of persecution who must be heroically resisted and condemned for their supposed crimes which, usually, will be portrayed as crimes against innocent children, usually on behalf of Satan.
That’s my theory, which I’ve mentioned here before and will likely continue to discuss because I think it’s true. I think it explains a great deal of behavior that otherwise seems difficult to explain or understand.
Witness, for example, the response by the religious right to a recent burst of attention to the tragic stories of several young people who were bullied and harassed into despair and suicide for being gay or for being perceived as gay. The misery and pain suffered by those children could be traced back in part to the atmosphere of scapegoating and condemnation promoted by the religious right’s long and lucrative history of fundraising by stoking fears of an imagined homosexual menace. That fundraising is, itself, evidence of the quest for a sense of moral superiority through comparison to the imagined depravity of others.
When the suffering caused by that smug pose of indignant self-righteousness started to become more apparent in the spate of media attention paid to the suicides of bullied children, the moral anxiety of the religious right became more acute. In a healthier soul, that insecurity — a guilty conscience — will prompt reflection and repentance. For the habitual offense-taker addicted to indignation and the pretense of superiority, however, such reminders of guilt will instead provoke resentment of those whose suffering is the cause of that guilt. Those victims are not merely blamed for their own suffering, but are portrayed as themselves being a threat. And to make that threat sufficiently wicked-seeming, it must be imagined to be a threat to innocent children.
The victims are thus reimagined as Satanic baby-killers and the moral anxiety is semi-convincingly transformed into a reassurance of moral superiority. The Indignant Ones are thus able to tell themselves that they are better than everyone else and to enjoy the role-playing thrill of pretending to be the heroic defenders of innocent children.That, at least, is my theory. And that is what I see unfolding in, for example, this video from Focus on the Family, launching its Orwellian “True Tolerance” campaign in defense of bullying (video via Jesus Needs New PR):
I wonder if anyone else sees this as well when they watch this video.
The theory of the IndigNation, I think, helps to explain the current prominence of the politics of resentment in America and, by explaining some otherwise difficult-to-explain behavior, helps us to better understand and respond to the floodtide of misplaced indignation and the unhappiness it fosters among its scapegoats and among the Indignant Ones themselves.
I think, in other words, that this theory is true. I think this is what is going on.
I’m not really sure, though, how one would go about confirming such a theory other than by collecting more and more anecdotal examples in the hope that at some point such examples will come to constitute a critical mass that might be then regarded as data. And I’m aware of the danger of becoming so enamored of one’s own theoretical framework that one begins to see confirmation of it even where other explanations might be more likely. That’s why I’m genuinely asking: What else might possibly explain the religious right’s backlash against anti-bullying efforts? Do such alternative explanations seem more or less likely that the guilt-and-resentment cycle in service of indignation that I have described?
In the meantime, I will continue collecting the anecdotal evidence of willful indignation, self-righteous offendedness and self-serving comparisons to the imaginary evils of Satanic baby-killers.
Here, for your consideration, is another fine specimen of the species: Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern. Kern, the wife of a Baptist minister and a former school teacher, has a long track record of blaming victims and recasting them as enemies. “Is it just because they are black that they’re in prison or because they don’t want to work hard in school?” Kern said in April of this year, portraying her former black students as criminal leeches feeding off the taxpayer. In March 2008, Kern described homosexuality as “… the death knell of our country. I honestly think its the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism. … They are going after, in schools, 2-year-olds. … This stuff is deadly, and it’s spreading, and it will destroy our young people, it will destroy this nation.”
A “deadly” threat “going after” 2-year-olds. Kern’s invocation of the specter of Satanic baby-killers and her scapegoating of GLBT people prompted criticism, in response to which — as the cycle of guilt and resentment would predict — Kern has emphatically doubled down on her demonization of the other, portraying any criticism of her as evidence of her own moral superiority. Now, if the broad outline of the theory of indignation I’ve described is true, we should expect Kern to claim for herself the mantle of the heroically righteous martyr.
It’s called The Stoning of Sally Kern: The liberal attack on Christian conservatism and why we must take a stand.
Could have been even more ridiculous, I suppose. The publisher likely felt that “The Lynching of Sally Kern” was too inflammatory so soon after her statements about lazy black hoodlums.
And “The Crucifixion of Sally Kern” was probably rejected as a bit too on-the-nose.
But still, The Stoning of Sally Kern.
I think my theory is true.