Literature: In praise of indignation

7 January 2011 – Libération (Paris)

With sales of more than 500,000 copies, the pamphlet Indignez-vous [which literally translates as “Be indignant”] by 93-year-old philosopher and former member of the French Resistance Stéphane Hessel launches an appeal for social and political commitment fueled by the emotion inspired by injustice.

Just before closing time, a couple in their sixties rush into the bookshop: “Do you have Stéphane Hessel’s book?" "There's a pile of them over there,” the assistant answers. The pair, who look like retired schoolteachers, heave a big sigh of relief: they didn’t want to go home empty-handed.

Another bookseller tells us that some customers have started buying the pamphlet in bulk: in particular one old lady who announced “I’ll take ten, so I can give them to all my friends,” and later asked if the proceeds from sales were donated to a particular association. In just two months, Indignez-vous ! by Stéphane Hessel has become a runaway success. With 500,000 copies sold, it has been reprinted ten times, and requests for translation rights have flooded in from all over the world: from countries as diverse as Turkey, Brazil, Poland and Japan.

A society exhausted by tales of international finance

The success of the twenty-page pamphlet, which has a cover price of 3 euros, has been fuelled not by a magic editorial formula, but by the fact that it captures the spirit of the times. And like a song that everyone is humming or a film that is all the rage, the popularity of Indignez-vous ! has been spread by word of mouth.

Buying the pamphlet is a political act, a gesture of communion, and participation in collective emotion. It has filled a need for a society exhausted by tales of brinkmanship in international finance and the disastrous social consequences of economic crisis, which was searching for words to express how it feels. When Hessel writes: “The ongoing international dictatorship of financial markets […] is a threat to peace and democracy,” he is expressing a widely held view, which is rendered all the more credible by his remarkable personal history.

Ever since the collapse of the alter-globalization movement, a large section of the public has been seeking the means to affirm that it does not want to live in a world where affluence and poverty are two sides of the same coin — and now they have found it. However, notwithstanding his broad-spectrum left-wing readership, Hessel’s pamphlet is clearly inspired by a traditional brand of social democracy.

Should indignation be a value in itself?

The text of Indignez-vous ! is surprisingly moderate. Even the much remarked-on comparison with the French Resistance is carefully qualified: “Today the reasons for indignation may appear less clear-cut in an overly complex world. Who is in command? Who decides? Distinguishing between the different currents that influence our government is not always easy. We are no longer dealing with a small elite whose actions we can readily understand. We can clearly see that ours is a vast and interdependent world.” In citing the authority of the economic programme of the National Council of the Resistance, he acknowledges that he is not offering an innovative solution to the current crisis: “The proposals that figure in this text and the challenges that it identifies are not original in themselves.”

The title, Indignez-vous ! remains an effective albeit ambiguous slogan. For Hessel, indignation is the force that generates committment, however, as a consequence he largely ignores the other motives that could lead to political action: emergent awareness, rational decision, the desire to serve, a yearning for truth and justice etc.

And with his appeal to indignation, Hessel inadvertantly privileges an emotion fueled by spectacle — a position criticised by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who highlighted how a “politics of pity” based on an emotional response to the misery of others can undermine a more rational “politics of justice.”

Is a “politics of indignation” exposed to the same risks as a “politics of pity”? And should indignation be a value in itself? There was a time when the artistic avant-garde and anti-establishment protesters set out to shock the bourgeoisie: indignation was then a right-wing reflex. Perhaps the current vogue for the writing of an “indignant old gentleman” should be tempred by some consideration of the indignant protagonist in Brecht’s The Shameless Old Lady.

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