Once More With Feelings

May 13, 2017

Multiple Pages
Once More With Feelings

The sentencing of the governor of Jakarta to two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy may seem like a throwback to medieval intolerance, but it is far more than that. It is a reminder that the suppression of the freedom of others is more fun than the exercise of freedom. The Muslim masses who demanded the prosecution of the governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, almost certainly enjoyed their “anger,” supposedly virtuous anger being among the pleasures that their religion does not deny them.

But there is more. Although no doubt intellectually primitive, the condemnation and sentencing of the governor was in one respect profoundly modern. One of the judges said that punishment was appropriate and justified because the governor had hurt the feelings of Muslims—which, as far as I can tell, must have been as delicate as those of Western students who need safe spaces and teddy bears to hug if they hear something that contradicts their preconceptions.

The desire not to have one’s feelings hurt has been erected into a right, a right increasingly enforceable at law. Of course, not everyone’s feelings are treated with the solicitude that we show to a nice fluffy colorful species of animal that is, regrettably, on the verge of extinction. But there is no doubt that treating people’s feelings with this solicitude tends not only to preserve them but to cause them to flourish and multiply. The more you are preserved from hurt feelings, the more of them you have.

“The more you are preserved from hurt feelings, the more of them you have.”

But as I have already observed, hurt feelings are not as unpleasurable as the psychologically naive might suppose. All is not pain that shouts its name. And which of us has never experienced the pleasure of pressing on precisely an inflamed part of our body, a pleasure that we often feel impelled to repeat? We often regret the passing of the inflammation (provided it was trivial). It is the same with feelings of moral outrage—and we rather regret when the supposed cause of them is removed. The inflammation of feeling, in fact, is sometimes an end in itself, indulged in for the sheer pleasure of it, which is not, of course, to say that no outrage is ever genuine.

The distinction between real and bogus anger and every state in between (for what may start as genuine may become bogus by degrees as one grows attached to one’s anger) requires an attempt at self-examination, the kind of self-examination at which Doctor Johnson was so adept and which we have largely abandoned in favor of psychobabble and talk of chemical imbalances, though we have not the faintest idea what the latter might be.

The other day I found myself embroiled in a telephone discussion-cum-dispute with a human being (to whom finally I was put through after having made a score of automated choices) about some merchandise that I had ordered but which had not been delivered as promised.

On reflection, of course, I realized that it didn’t matter in the slightest whether what I had ordered was delivered today, tomorrow, or next week: It was not food to a starving man. But a promise is a promise, and I managed to work myself up into a pleasant state of indignation. And after all, is not the customer (in this case, me) always right? When I phoned, I was spoiling for an argument, if not for a fight.

It did not help that the human being to whom I was eventually put through seemed as programmed as any computer and was unable, unwilling, or too frightened to depart from her very reduced script. She spoke as someone profoundly brain-damaged who could do nothing but repeat herself. As she had given the impression of being a live human being, this was in its own way as infuriating as a recorded message such as “Your call is very important to us” or “Switchboard is very busy today.” (The switchboard of one newspaper for which I once wrote was very busy today for at least ten years, which was not necessarily a lie, of course, since it might have been very busy every day for ten years, but the impression the message would have given most callers was that that switchboard on the day on which they happened to call was exceptionally busy. There is an art to lying without telling a lie—as every doctor knows or ought to know.)

Anyhow, my tone mounted as it became clear that I would not penetrate the wall of commercial langue de bois spoken by the woman at the other end of the phone. And then suddenly I stopped arguing when it dawned on me (what in reality I had always known) that I was enjoying myself, and furthermore that in playing the injured party I was actually not only enjoying myself, but enjoying myself because I was making my interlocutor uncomfortable, and perhaps even spoiling her day. Which, given the nature of her employment, was unlikely to have been all that grand in the first place. In fact I was bullying her because, for the same reason that she could not answer my questions like an intelligent being, she could not answer me back, whatever I said. The call was being “monitored” for “training and security purposes.”

My anger drained away, like water through sand. As I have mentioned, it did not matter in the least when the merchandise was delivered; not only was I not in urgent need of it, I was probably not in need of it at all. More likely than not, it was a waste of money, and even if it were not, it would hardly give me more than momentary pleasure.

My anger, even had it been genuine, was therefore stupid; but in fact it was insincere as well. It cannot be said that at any time I was wholly and completely unaware of this, but I chose for a time to ignore the still, small voice of truth in some part of my mind.

We have a duty, then, to control our indignation, for most of the time it will be liberally admixed with humbug. I do not, however, expect my message to be heard in Jakarta, to judge from the pictures of those hundreds of thousands of canting humbugs in the city’s streets.

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