The Perils of Self-Righteousness

man with sword raised facing backward on horse at edge of cliff

We all have our pet peeves. One of mine is self-righteousness. “I am good and righteous and just and you are bad and maybe even wicked and evil.” Not that I never fall into it myself, but I try to notice it and pull out when I do. What are the earmarks? The self-righteous person fancies himself or herself better than others who think or act differently, or who look or sound different. If it’s one of your own tendencies, the chances are you don’t much notice it. You think you’re just in touch with reality. If it’s someone else and you agree with them, you may react that same way. But if you’re anything like me, you probably curl your lip with distaste and dislike (even if only internally and invisibliy) when someone else gets into a self-righteous schtick. It may be a raving rant like many of the venomous online “comments” sections or it may be snide and subtle, but either way it has several unfortunate effects.

First, it often involves projection, a common and often destructive psychological mistake that can easily torpedo our relationships. In projection I see you as the living incarnation of whatever qualities I dislike and refuse to recognize in myself. I deny my own inner reality and experience, project it onto you, and then either denigrate you or try to exterminate you, as if in doing so I could get rid of the disliked and unrecognized qualities in me. The projector does this over and over and over again. It is highly visible, and almost always present, in the phenomenon of self-righteousness.

Second, whether it appears in religion, politics, or in a marriage or other couples relationship, it often leaves whatever sense of shared community we might have had in tatters. After an incident or two, if you’re on the receiving end of the self-righteousness will always be at least a little on guard, at least somewhat reluctant to reveal your thoughts and feelings. This leads to a more distant relationship.

Third, you just might want to get the self-righteous SOB back, especially in contexts like politics and religion where in-group imperialism often runs rampant – WE are better than those other jerks and we’re going to run things our way and impose our ways on them. You end up with results like male committees and legislatures making decisions about women’s reproductive rights that take away women’s freedom (in some cases in direct violation of their own professions of a libertarian ideology). That can lead to a lot of bitterness and desire for revenge.

Fourth, self-righteousness often requires a person to lie to himself or herself. In something like eighty or ninety percent of situations there are at least two or three viable ways of looking at the situation, and sometimes half a dozen ways or more. The ability to consider such multiple perspectives increases internal communication within oneself and also increases a person’s creativity. A self-righteous attitude requires you to deny the possible validity of every view except your own. It commits you to your own monologue and makes it very difficult to engage in any potentially constructive dialogue. And who wants to listen to know-it-all blowhards besides people who already agree with them?

Finally, to anyone with the eyes and ears to see and hear, it boils down to ego. “I’m better than you are.” We’re better than they are.” And then it all to easily sildes into, “and so I’m justified in doing whatever I want to you,” or “we’re justified doing whatever we wish to them.” And of course often it turns into being the other way around. The organization, or our authorities, or some other influence requires me to do terrible things to you, and so I slide into the lie of self-righteousness to justify it.

But in the end, development as a person occurs when we work on shrinking our self-centered egocentrism, not when we inflate it. Self righteousness takes us in the wrong direction.

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