Faux Righteousness

There is one issue that is a hot button for me.  The issue is righteousness.  Actually, I don’t know if it’s just righteousness, but that is definitely a major part.

Like many people, I have tendencies towards righteousness.  I don’t like righteousness in myself any more than I like it in others.  I feel a visceral repulsion towards righteousness.  What makes me feel more righteous than anything is righteousness itself.  Which is a bit depressing as righteousness about righteousness doesn’t in any way negate or decrease righteousness.  But it isn’t a rational response.

When feeling defensive, it’s easy to feel righteous about one’s righteousness.  People often become polarized and feel more certain about their position than when they started.  For some people, this can become a permanent state… and I’d like to avoid such a horrible fate for myself.  I don’t want to spend my time looking for things to be righteous about, but admittedly there is plenty to feel righteous about without even looking for it.  The daily news, for example, usually offers any number of affronts to reason and morality.

In particular, American culture seems overly righteous.  Maybe this just goes along with the imperialistic patriotism found in any large and powerful country.  Whatever the reason, many Americans believe America is right about almost everything because many Americans think we’re on the winning side of history.  But Americans quite often turn this righteousness against other Americans.  And it goes beyond simply deciding who is the most American.  There is just a general atmosphere of conflict and attack, ridicule and criticism.  This tendency in American culture has become magnified as media has begun to dominate our lives.  We now have constant news reporting and commentary (with more emphasis on the latter) which feeds (and feeds off of) the constant internet buzz.  A popular form of entertainment right now is the verbal fights between the representatives of different tv news networks.  And then there are some silly pundits who think that constantly berating those in power somehow proves that they’re independent thinkers.

There are even those (whether preacher or pundit) who see themselves as prophets of moral righteousness.  They just have an inner sense of knowing they’re right.  They see themselves on a mission (possibly a divine mission) to save humanity and guide the righteous to the light of Truth.  This type of person seems rather arrogant to me.  This is the most extreme form of righteousness which can be used to incite extreme behaviors such as violence or else just incite general hatred and mistrust.  Righteous fear-mongering is particularly distasteful to me.  Somehow expressing either fear by itself or righteousness by itself doesn’t seem so bad as expressing fear and righteousness together… especially when further combined with populist anger.  I severely doubt anything good can come of it. 

Righteousness is opposite to so many truly beneficial values (humility, acceptance, sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, love, etc.) which are values I idealize even though I rarely live up to them.  Also, I see righteousness as opposed to knowledge and truth which are personal ideals I feel a bit more capable of living up to.  A very important aspect of humility is intellectual humility, knowing one’s limits and knowing one doesn’t have everything figured out.  Righteousness sometimes feels like false confidence, a bullying strength that hides an inner weakness.  When taken to extremes, there can be something cruel and hard-hearted about it.

I should point out that I’m not arguing for a relativist belief that there is no right or wrong.  A righteous person could be right (or they could be wrong), but my sense is that the correlation between being righteous and being right is often accidental.  Even if a person is absolutely right and can prove it beyond any doubt, is there any point in being righteous?  Perhaps it might be justified or at least it could be understandable.  But it seems most likely to me that the more righteous someone behaves the less likely they are to be correct.  The reason for this is that critical thinking is impaired to the degree intellectual humility is lacking.

I know that when I feel righteous I want to believe I’m right, and I want to believe that my hypothetical rightness somehow is important and somehow justifies my righteousness.  But I also know that when in a righteous state of mind I’m not being very impartial.  For certain, my critical thinking skills are impaired at such moments.  Because I value critical thinking, I try to counter my righteousness by determining to what extent I’m actually right or wrong.  The problem is that, even if I do (or think I do) determine that I’m right about something, it doesn’t make me feel all that better… nor anyone else for that matter.

Although I’m clearly not fond of righteousness as a general way of being in the world and of relating to others, it isn’t necessarily righteousness by itself that annoys me.  If a drunk or mentally ill person was righteously ranting nonsense on a sidewalk, I wouldn’t really care.  First, no one is going to mistake such ranting as intelligent commentary.  Secondly, this person doesn’t have much of an audience and if he has any influence at all it is very limited.  Or if someone just feels righteously angry about life in general,  I wouldn’t really care.  As long as they’re not trying to scapegoat some person or group for the world’s problems, there is nothing wrong with expressing one’s genuine feelings… but I wouldn’t consider righteousness to be a genuine (or not a genuinely worthy) feeling when an anger-fueled superior attitude is being used to cover up other feelings such as a sense of impotence or guilt.

Anyways, good or bad, isn’t it part and parcel of the American democratic sensibility to loudly declare what one believes to be right?  It’s definitely a part of the American mythos.  Take for example the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  It’s about the conflict of a truly righteous man trying to overcome false righteousness being used for devious ends, and it’s also about how easily the general public is manipulated by false righteousness.  There are any other number of stories (both true and fictional) like this which are about a person (often alone or with few allies) righteously struggling to get their voice heard.  On the other hand, false righteousness seems more common as it’s such an effective tool for those in power and for those who want to gain power.  But most people would like to believe their righteousness is genuine.  And there is usually a way to rationalize righteousness, a way to frame the issue so that one feels like the good guy fighting the good fight. 

It’s easy to deceive oneself when the stakes are high or whenever one is emotionally invested.  But how do you know when you’re seeing the world through a self-enclosed rationalization?  There are several ways.  First, if you have developed critical thinking skills, these can be helpful… but I don’t think that is enough by itself.  So, secondly, I would emphasize even more so the value of self-awareness (which correlates with awareness of the other).  If you are self-aware enough or have someone in your life to point out your blind spots (which to some degree requires sympathetic understanding of other perspectives), you’re more likely to be able to step back from your rationalizations.  Maybe it’s only when self-awareness starts to break in that you can then use critical thinking skills to come to understanding.  However one gets to this point of self-questioning, there has to be a desire to self-question in the first place.  Questioning the world has to be balanced by questioning turned inward (and if there must be an imblance I think it’s best to have too much emphasis on the self-questioning).  A person can only be genuinely righteous to the extent they question their own righteousness.

I guess that is the rub.  Righteousness is almost always turned towards someone else.  It’s hard to imagine the vocally critical type of righteous person being equally critical of themselves and being equally open in voicing those self-criticisms.  I can think of a number of political pundits and social commentators who are examples of extreme criticism of others.  Some of them may occasionally point out minor flaws of their own, but it is a small part of what they say and these meager confessions usually get lost in their larger message.  Maybe this comes down to entertainment value.  Watching someone attack other people is entertaining.  Watching someone morally contemplate their own weaknesses and failings would be boring… unless they were a particularly funny stand-up comedian.

My sense of aggravation towards righteousness is very much about the personal.  My own righteousness is constrained for the reason I don’t generally feel to be in a morally superior position.  I have no grand accomplishments and often I feel like a failure (or that I don’t live up to my “God-given” potential).  Yet, I do feel something like pride for what I’ve managed to accomplish (in that I’ve read and researched widely and have tried to gain some understanding on a fairly diverse set of subjects), but that which I’m proud of isn’t overly valued by society.  So, I do sometimes feel righteous when I meet people online who either are willfully ignorant (especially certain apologists) or else simply some combination of uninformed and misinformed (which everyone is to varying degrees).  But I know that doesn’t justify my projecting on to such people all of my frustrations and anger (and general unhappiness).  As a depressed person, I’m easily irritated and it isn’t anyone else’s fault.

The righteousness I feel comes from my sense of being an underdog.  Let me try to explain.  According to the social standards of success and respectability, I’m not all the way at the bottom with the outright losers and scum of the earth, but I’m no where near the top.  I’m not homeless and I’m not unemployed, and so I have that going for me.  But I am a bachelor who lives alone and I’ll probably remain a bachelor to the end of my days.  Despite having above average intelligence and some other natural abilities, I’ve always worked entry-level jobs and I just earn enough to get by (with little prospects for anything better in the future).  I haven’t had much in the way of external obstructions to moving up in the world.  I was raised with plenty of advantages and opportunities as a middle class white male in a developed country.  Still, I’ve struggled for “internal” reasons (some combination of psychological issues and genetics) and this just makes me feel all the more sympathetic towards those who didn’t have the advantages and opportunities I grew up with.  Life can be tough no matter where you begin, but it’s particularly tough for those who have so much going against them right from the start.

Plus, I have this basic sense of the precariousness of life.  Life can seem perfect one moment and hell on earth the next.  I may not be on the bottom, but it wouldn’t be hard for me to end up on the bottom.  People living in shelters and under bridges usually don’t start off life that way.  The majority of the homeless are mentally ill or traumatized veterans, but most of them once were normal people with jobs and houses, with families and friends.  The homeless aren’t a mutant sub-class of humans entirely isolated from normal (i.e., respectable) people.  Anyone can become mentally ill, get addicted to painkillers, get diagnosed with a costly illness, lose their job and house, go bankrupt, etc.  If you don’t have very strong social support (which fewer people have these days), it’s very easy to fall through the cracks and get lost there.

On the other hand, there are those who have lives that more or less work out as planned and they somehow avoid major catastrophes for most or all of their lives (death being the final catastrophe that finds us all).  They have a sense of being in control of their own life.  They feel they deserve what they have, that they’re entitled.  But I think most of this is just a matter of fortunate circumstances.  I understand why the illusion of control is so attractive.  What I don’t like is the sense of superiority that almost inevitably goes along with it.  If the rich person deserves being rich, then the poor person also deserves being poor.  If Americans deserve their power and luxurious lifestyle, then those in third world countries deserve to be stuck in slave labor jobs while their environment is destroyed and their natural resources stolen.  The unemployed and homeless deserve to live miserable lives.  Those without large savings and health insurance deserve to die of easily treated diseases.

Growing up a middle-class white American (and living for years in a very above average middle class town) has given me a bit of perspective.  I have some insight about what it means to have privilege and to take it as a given.  The issue I have with righteousness is that those who should feel righteous too often feel powerless and unheard… all the while the politicians, political pundits, and televangelists who act all righteous are usually those who grew up with privilege.  But it’s all relative.  One can almost always point to someone who had more privilege than oneself.  If you go by the words of the righteous people who get heard in the media, it’s not unusual for them to claim to be underdogs or to represent the underdog… which in most cases doesn’t seem authentic.

The facts are that most of the wealth and power in the world (including in democracies) is passed down according to relationships of family and class.  More money gets inherited by the next generation of the wealthy than is produced by means of capitalism.  A large percentage of politicians (including in democracies) are familialy related and of royal lineage.  Even today, research shows that a white male has massive opportunities beyond minorities and females.  Research shows that people born rich tend to remain rich and those born poor tend to remain poor.  Also, poor areas tend to be where there is heavy pollution which leads to low IQ and high rates of illness, and these areas are so polluted because of the industries run by the rich who don’t have to live in these areas.  IQ, in particular, has high correlation to economic success.  So, the game is rigged before a person is born.

Yes, occasionally someone through various factors (strength of will being the least of these factors) manages to escape their situation.  But, for every one person that escapes, there are millions or hundreds of millions of people equally worthy and equally determined who were crushed by circumstances.  The exception proves the rule.

As I see it, there is so much suffering and injustice in the world.  And despite Enlightenment ideals, the West has it’s fair share of underprivileged, impoverished and disenfranchised.  Where are the righteous voices to defend those who can’t defend themselves?  In the news, we constantly hear about what the rich and powerful are doing, but why do we rarely hear about the struggles of the vast majority?  Why aren’t there regular interviews with the poor and homeless?  Why aren’t there popular reality shows that follow the lives of people in war-torn countries?  Why aren’t there tv series based on families who live sick and hungry in refugee camps?  Why do tv commentators spend most of their time reporting on the same small set of topics and events all the while almost entirely excluding the everyday lives and experiences of the average and below average?

What are people who feel justly righteous to do in response to all of this?  Organize?

As an example, consider the peace protests against the invasion of Iraq.  They were the largest and fastest growing of any anti-war movement in American history, and the most widespread and most well-organized in world history.   That is a truly righteous populist movement if one ever existed, and it was ignored and dismissed by the faux righteousness of politicians (and the patriotic submission of the media in parroting that faux righteousness).  The justifications of the war were dubious, but it’s impossible to stop even an unnecessary war when it’s backed by political power and financial gain (which includes the revolving door between big government and big business and more specifically the corporate interest in media coverage). 

Consider how much worse it is when you are someone in the minority, someone with no ability to influence, someone with no ability to start large protest movements, someone with no ability to force the media to at least recognize you exist.

Part of my issue about righteousness is that public opinion has become something for those in power to manipulate.  There is a general mood that the news media isn’t doing a good job of informing the public.  Going by commentary I’ve read and my own observations, very little news seems to be based on investigative journalism or even basic fact-checking.  News reporters seem to rely too heavily on media releases by corporations and the government.  The media basically tells us what we should be righteous about… and the general public seems rather compliant.

I would be less irritated if I felt there was something worthy to be righteous about.  I’d love to live in a culture that was righteous about truth, where people weren’t just out for their own ideological interest.  Or why can’t people be righteous about compassion?  Why can’t we take all the money spent on the military and instead have a war on homelessness, poverty and hunger?

I feel demoralized by what I see in the world and I feel disenfranchised from what seems like a fraudulent political system.  I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.  There are many people who rightly feel the system doesn’t benefit them, but the problem is that when people feel insecure they most often react emotionally rather than rationally.  And when people are in this state, they’re easily manipulated and easily riled up.  This collective sense of dissatisfaction is rarely ever directed towards any morally righteous end.

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