Passions are – like values - historical, relative, transitory, completely human. There are no passions that remain unchanged in time and space: what today moves us to shame is not what motivated the scarlet letter; what today moves us to pity (an abused animal, for example), a few decades ago could not have been perceived as damaging to some criterion of compassion; what still moves many of us to disgust today (an ant-based snack) is fully appreciated in other countries.
Regulator of passions
The “passionate regulator” that tunes perceptions, reactions and behaviors is common sense – an elusive form of knowing and feeling that Culture has often mistreated, as a degraded, simplistic knowledge, “folklore of philosophy” (so in Gramsci’s words) and that today, however, every now and then politicians demand, in a desperate search for consensus. Among the social passions on which common sense has an influence is indignation – a form of angry reaction that arises from the perception of a scandal: an ethical scandal. Indignation has to do with morality, with what is considered right and wrong, and for this reason it is particularly conditioned and dependent on common sense:
Even indignation undergoes the variability, therefore, of History: if yesterday we were indignant in seeing a young man who did not show respect and deference for an elderly person, today we do not even notice this type of behavior. On the other hand, we are indignant for many other things. Maybe too many.
Today, indignation on social media has become commonplace. What happened? Why did it happen?
More than on contingent causes, it is appropriate to think about the grammars of the media and the behaviors that predispose and facilitate indignation. Certainly the social networks solicit reactions: they ask for likes and dislikes, which are not just any reactions but a particular type of judgmental reactions: sanctions. And they solicit quick, short, unexplained responses: all emotional reactions. It is so easily found, on social media, to judge quickly, hastily, through a few words of indignation …
But there is another aspect that is radically changing the modalities of indignation: the impersonal dimension. Today the indignation is more and more depersonalized; even when whoever writes an indignant post has a name and surname, that identity is diluted in the cascade of shares and responses.
Online outrage is viral and shared, not personal and singular; and in the viral sharing he is de-responsible: there is indignation, yes, but quickly: the violence lies in the viral chain, more than in the single act of personal indignation.
The internet is a collective, popular court, not the court of a judge in charge of that role; and this makes it much more uncontrolled and much less actionable.
I mentioned these aspects only to throw a quick light on the fact that passions change also because the means in which they find expression change: the public square of a pillory was, after all, a place for a few; the public square of the medial pillory is a place where everything is amplified; and so the effects of indignation are different.
The public pillory
The resonance of outrage on the internet becomes somewhat overwhelming. And indignation, from moral passion, in losing the sense of proportion, risks failing precisely in its ethical vocation.
This is why it is necessary to return to reflect on common sense: because it is common sense to give the sense of measure, to create a shared feeling that becomes the regulator of the behavior of a social group.
Common sense defines the limits of the sayable (where do offenses begin?), The limits of the visible (how far can one go in the exhibition of violence?
The case of rape
We have seen a recent case: is rape visible, with the victim’s recognizable face?), The limits of the audible (when does a shouting start? Anyone living in an apartment building knows that these problems affect cohabitation), the limits of edible (why do we eat snails but ants still impress us?).
He does not fix these limits with edicts or regulations, but fixes them in the convergence of a praxis, and in the bet (in the Kantian claim) of universal sharing. It is these limits that define the perimeter of sociality, and therefore create communities; it is these limits that define the boundaries of reasonableness; it is these same limits that justify the expression of indignation, if broken.