The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


She stood in the crowded hall, amid the astonished faces. Outside there were protests, and inside, a man spoke from a small wooden stage, eloquent with fury. He was, recalled the abolitionist and leading figure of the woman’s rights movement Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1895, “majestic in his wrath… wit, satire and indignation.”

A former slave and entirely self-educated, the antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass was perhaps the most important African American in nineteenth-century public life. His oratory stirred audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, his anger no blind RAGE but haughty, righteous and channeled into dignified debate. Douglass’s crusade was not just an expression of the injustice done to him, but a response to the deliberate cruelties inflicted on all enslaved black men and women.

One might expect a history of indignation to be a tale of people rising up against oppression. Not so. In fact, in the earliest discussions of this emotion, indignation was more commonly felt by the elite busily protecting their advantage. Aristotle thought indignation—he called it nemesan—was most strongly roused when people below us in the social pecking order broke the rules. Thus the gods were most susceptible, their indignation fanned each time a mortal tried to seek out divine secrets or gain supernatural powers. For Aristotle, then, indignation was the outrage felt when someone else receives an honor they haven’t properly earned, or wheedles an unfair advantage, toppling us in the process. In the seventeenth century, the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes offered a slightly different definition of indignation, as the “anger for great Hurt done to another” caused not by accident but by intentional “Injury.” Indignation was most felt when others showed a contempt for justice, and in particular when the relatives or favorites of those in authority disregarded the rules. Indignation, wrote Hobbes, “carrieth Men, not only against the Actors and Authors of injustice, but against all Power that is likely to protect them.” It was perhaps from Hobbes’s definition that indignation became most closely linked not to those in authority, but to the disesteemed who live beneath it.

Today’s political theorists hold indignation up as an emotion capable of playing a key role in political life. Unlike anger, which can overpower or alienate, undermining the principles of democratic debate, indignation comes, as it were, with an RSVP attached. Think of the pyrotechnics of the speech delivered by Julia Gillard before the Australian parliament in 2012. In an oration that made no attempt to disguise her personal outrage, she charged her opponent with a series of misogynistic comments. The speech expressed anger at the same time as it demanded a response. As footage of that day’s events spread rapidly over social media, discussions and comments showed another side to indignation: there were hints of excitement, triumph, even glee (see also: CONTEMPT; SCHADENFREUDE). In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass described similar feelings on first reading the abolitionist newspaper Liberator, which he subsequently edited. Its “scathing denunciations of slaveholders—its faithful exposures of slavery—and its powerful attacks upon the upholders of the institution—sent a thrill of joy through my soul.”