Self-righteousness is a human trait

“I am a liberal. I am not a conservative. I am a Christian. I am not a Muslim.”

There may very well be a big difference between what I meant when I identified myself in these ways and what you understood when you read those statements. If you don’t identify as a liberal Christian, then you may have many questions (and assumptions) about me already: what do I value, how smart am I, where did I grow up, what race am I?

Everybody gets self-righteous sometimes. Some people get more self-righteous more often than others, but it happens to everyone, and I really do mean everyone. It has nothing to do with political leanings, religious convictions, or aesthetic tastes. There are many self-righteous liberals, conservatives, Christians, atheists, and indie rock fans. Self-righteousness is a human flaw, not an ideological flaw.

I definitely get self-righteous sometimes. You could even argue that this post is self-righteous! I don’t think it is, but here I am, some dude with a laptop, pointing out everyone’s flaws. True, but I am not calling out any one specific group of people, and that’s my whole point. We all share this propensity. It is very easy to spot self-righteousness in others, but it’s not so easy to spot it in ourselves.

Once we consider self-righteousness as a human flaw instead of an ideological flaw, then we can start to parse the emotion from the logic. We all hold very dear to us our ideas, values, and convictions, and we hold them dearly because we believe that our ideas and values are moral, just, and ethical, or else we could not conscionably believe or act upon them as we do. We all believe that we only believe logical and intelligent precepts and ideas, and we all care about what happens to us and to other people by way of our values (as in, we care about our influence on policy through politics). This represents an emotional attachment to our principles, not just an intellectual attachment: only certain kinds of people get upset about the inner-workings of a computer, or whatever it is that calculus does, because data holds very little emotional weight compared to values, opinions, ideas, and morals.

When it comes to values, opinions, morals, and policy, few people defend things that they believe are false, and if they do, there’s a very high chance that they’re getting paid. We just don’t get personally, emotionally agitated to defend something that we don’t believe in. We do, however, get agitated to defend what we do believe is good, right, just, fair, moral, intelligent, and so on. Defending and supporting our values, ideas, and opinions is not, in itself, self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness does not apply to the debate; it applies only to the debater. We can defend any idea with or without self-righteousness, and here’s how to avoid it in debate and conversation:

Give others the benefit of the doubt.

Self-righteousness is not a judgment of value and content, but a judgment of personal character. We tend to see our ideas as the only possible logical or moral conclusions, so folks who disagree must be misled, or maybe they’re just not very smart, or they might be (worst of all) willfully degenerate and easily provoked. Christians can be self-righteous about the morality of their character and the purity of their actions, and at the same time, in the same place, atheists can be self-righteous about their intellect and ability to see a bigger moral picture. Liberals and conservatives are often self-righteous about the same things: defending rights. It affects everyone, everywhere, often.

So is this a placid post about how we should all hold hands because “we’re not so different after all”? Maybe, but I’m talking more about recognizing our tendencies to judge one another’s character and intellect instead of judging their ideas. I don’t think that all ideas, values, and opinions are equally valid on moral or intellectual grounds. I think that we ought to have reason and evidence to uphold our ideas and convictions, and we should definitely expect the same from others. We ought to expect moral, ethical, and empirical defenses for our policy choices and the policy choices of others. We ought to condemn violations of rights, ill-founded ideas, and poor defenses. Self-righteousness, however, precludes any meaningful debate or progress on any of these points. It’s counterproductive; others will react not to the idea under fire, but to their perception that they are themselves under attack, and after that, everyone’s heels dig into the earth, and nobody moves.

Doesn’t that sound like America right now?


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