Indignation runs rampant of late, and the easiest target is one or other group: immigrants, Muslims, the police. Indignation can be positive when it rouses us to action against injustice. I often regret its absence in our representative’s response to the daily theft of public funds. That indignation would be directed at particular persons for specific crimes.
When indignation takes an entire group as its object, it becomes righteous and potentially destructive. Righteous indignation presumes to condemn from a position of moral superiority, in contrast to social justice, which is rooted in equality. Renqing, a core concept in Chinese philosophy akin to empathy, can help us appreciate the difference.
In classical times renqing designated the entire range of human emotions. As in the West, some emotions were thought to be bad — like lust — while others were intrinsically good. The 11th century poet and statesman Su Shi (1037–1101) rejected that dichotomy. Emotions, he claimed, are natural. Feelings of lust or anger are only human. Emotions only occasion evil when we fail to learn from our shared human condition.
That ideal figures in many of Su’s poems. He wrote a poem about “New Year’s Eve” when he was magistrate and therefore administered the county jail. The jail was filled with thieves “who only tried to fill their bellies.” Su wanted to release them for the holiday, but feared losing his job and his family’s livelihood. In the end he confessed to being no less a criminal than his captives: “All of us equally scheme for a meal . . . I am silent with shame” (Burton Watson translation). Fear kept him from doing what he thought right, but it also forced him to confront his complicity.
In our lives, most of us have done things we’re not proud of; how many would publish them for all to see? Yet Xin Qiji (1140–1207) also, having neglected his filial duties, published his failure in a poem:
Old and sick, forgot about the holiday;
Offering plate bare as I slept through the morn.
My boy calls the old man, “get up!”
“Today is New Year’s day!”
Imagine sleeping through Easter mass in 12th century France, then publishing an intimate account of it. Imagine a 12th century father admitting his son was more responsible than him? When Song poets unveiled their personal failings they did so, not to show that men are sinners, but to assert the dignity of the human condition despite its faults. Precisely because we share that vulnerability with every other human on the planet, we are expected to offer some slack when others fail. We offer that slack because everyone can aspire to self-improvement, a principle rooted in equality.
This takes us back to indignation. The people of 1780’s France had every right to feel indignant toward aristocrats, and Thomas Jefferson shared that feeling, but Jefferson had no sympathy for gratuitous vengeance: “What a tremendous obstacle to the future attempts at liberty will be the atrocities of Robespierre!” Robespierre’s error was to take the entire group as enemy. If he accepted that, he must have imagined himself as free from human frailty, someone lacking entirely in that self-awareness required by renqing.
A good test case for renqing would be fascist collaborators. Surely, they deserve our indignation, yet in a recent Atlantic article, the historian Anne Applebaum suggested otherwise. Citing the research of Stanley Hoffman, the article distinguished between voluntary and involuntary complicity. In 1930s Germany working people, like Su Shi’s petty thieves, were in no position to abandon their families. Even among those who willingly conformed, some were half-hearted, while others heartily embraced the regime. Arguably the latter deserve our indignation. The former? Not entirely sure.
Historians need be especially cautious condemning those who were in no position to erase the institutions of their time. Voltaire was a potent critic of aristocratic privilege and clerical corruption, yet stopped short of demanding an end to monarchy. But history unfolds step-by-step; one first questions aristocracy, then monarchy. Should we get self-righteous then, about Voltaire? If we could eliminate all such offenders in history, would society ever have evolved to the stage where the end of monarchy could be imagined?
Speaking of that, Thomas Jefferson is a frequent target of righteous indignation. Some would rank him with Robert E. Lee, but Confederate generals were not merely slave owners; they were hardened defenders of slavery. Jefferson was not at all comfortable with that institution. Like Su Shi, Jefferson blamed men like himself for that state of affairs: “Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that that degradation was very much the work of themselves & their fathers, few minds have yet doubted but that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses and cattle” (to Edward Cole, 1814).
Jefferson arranged with an older member of Congress to introduce some modest protections for slaves. Being young, he was not directly targeted in the debate, but the older man “was denounced as an enemy of his country, & was treated with the grossest indecorum.” Would any one of us have been more effective in that setting?
Renqing does not require that we excuse all injustice as merely human. Quite the contrary, Su Shi, Xin Qiji and like-minded men and women were among the most outspoken and active advocates for social justice in Chinese history. But their indignation typically was directed toward reform rather than retribution; at institutions rather than groups.
Imperfection is universally human, but those who acknowledge their own faults know that faults are individual, and individuals take responsibility for their failings. They do not conceal them by pointing fingers at others. That is why so many Tang and Song poems offer frank admission of culpability, while very few cast blame upon religions or races.
As we contemplate razing monuments to Revolutionary figures, intermediaries on the road to a society as yet unrealized, a notion like renqing reminds us of a shared capacity for improvement. Injustice is shared as well, and so our indignation is justified, but because our humanity is shared, we might hesitate to blame, gratuitously, an entire body of fellow humans.