Overcoming the Trap of Righteousness

Overcoming the Trap of Righteousness
Shedding Light on A Very Human Trait

Underneath the common agreement that the problem with the world is evil, and the solution is to conquer it, is an unmet psychological need for self-approval. Two-thirds of our political discourse goes toward meeting our need to be right, to align ourselves with Good. If the man who disagrees with me does so because he is stupid, naive, bamboozled, or wicked, then I must be smart, canny, independent-minded, and good. Positive and negative judgments alike hold oneself as a tacit reference point (lazy means ‘lazier than I’ and responsible means ‘responsible like me’).

Why do you really visit those websites that get you stirred up and indignant? Whatever reason you give yourself (e.g. to ‘stay informed’), maybe the real reason is the emotional gratification, the reminder that you are right, smart, and in a word, good. You are part of the in-group. If you want even more reassurance, you might start an online discussion group or a face-to-face group, where you and a bunch of other people get together and talk about how right you are and how awful, incomprehensible, evil, and sick those other people are. Unfortunately, because this gratification is addictive, no amount will be enough. (The real need here is for self-acceptance, and the proxy offered does not, and cannot, meet the real need.) Soon everyone will want to be even more right — more right than certain others in the group, which will degenerate into infighting and flame wars.

Maybe you want to be even more right still. Well then, go engage in some civil disobedience, get yourself arrested, get yourself beat up by the police. Demonstrate through your suffering the monstrosity of the powers-that-be. Look what they did to me!

'We?'...or 'me?'We should ask ourselves – is my activism really about ‘We?’ …or just ‘me?’

Now, I am not saying that protest and direct action are always, or even usually, coming from self-righteousness. They are also powerful ways of disrupting the story that allows injustice to flourish. They can expose the ugliness beneath the facade of normal. No doubt, most hard-core activists have mixed motives of genuine service and self-righteousness both. To the extent that the latter motive is present, the results will reflect it. You will achieve your goal — to look good and be right and make your opponents look evil. And you will increase the amount of hate in the world. Your sympathizers will hate and rage against the evildoers. I suppose the unstated hope is that if this rage builds up enough, we will all rise up and topple the elites. But what will we create in their stead; suffused as we are with self-righteousness and the ideology of war?

Activism and Inner Discord

When people are hostile to the angry feminist, the rabid vegan, the militant environmentalist, they are not merely defending their Story of the World and the complacency it allows; they are defending themselves against an implicit attack. If your activism, whether for social change or for your family to adopt a healthier diet, provokes hostility, that might be a mirror of inner discord.

Most often, actions taken from self-righteousness only end up validating the self-righteousness through the hostile response they generate. See? I told you those people are awful! Direct actions, protests, hunger strikes, and so forth are powerful only to the extent self-righteousness is absent. When undertaken in intentional service to a vision of that which could be, they are powerful indeed. They needn’t be acts of war; they can be acts of truth-telling, of kindness, or of service. How can you know whether your act is really one of these, and not war masquerading as love? Well, if you feel a sense of superiority over those not so engaged, a sense of condemnation, or patronizing indulgence toward those who don’t get it (and so, you must nobly sacrifice on their behalf), then the motive of proving yourself good is almost certainly present. And that is what you will achieve. You can go to your grave filled with admiration for yourself. You can have engraved on your tombstone “Was part of the solution, not the problem — unlike some people.” But wouldn’t you rather change the world?

The most powerful activism is that which serves a greater intentionActivism is most powerful when undertaken in intentional service to a vision.

Ask yourself, if you think that the wealthy, the powerful, the Republicans, the Democrats, the big game hunters, the meat industry executives, the frackers, or any other subset of humanity are evil (or shameful, revolting, disgusting, etc.): Would you be willing to give up that belief, if it would make you a more effective agent of change? Are you willing to take a look at how much of your belief system is a giant game of upholding a positive self-image?

The “What About Me?” Syndrome

If you feel any disgust toward the mindset I have described, judgment toward those who live in it, or defensiveness around whether it applies to you, then maybe you are not entirely free from it. It is okay. That mindset comes from a deep wound that civilization has dealt nearly every one of us. It is the cry of the separate self, “What about me?” As long as we keep acting from that place, it doesn’t matter who wins the war against (what they see as) evil. The world will not deviate from its death-spiral.

Many people (I hope I’m not the only one!) make what seem to be ethical or moral choices with a secret objective in mind: to demonstrate to themselves and others their own virtue; to give themselves permission to like and approve of themselves. The inseparable partner of this goal is judgmentality toward those who aren’t making those choices. “I am a good person because I recycle (unlike some people).” “I am a good person because I am vegan.” “I am a good person because I support women’s rights.” “I am a good person because I give to charity.” “I am a good person because I practice socially responsible investing.” “I am a good person because I have given up the rewards of society and cast my lot with the oppressed.” “I am a good person because I live in the forest eating roots and berries with zero carbon footprint.” We are oblivious to our own self-righteousness, but others can smell it a mile away. The hostility that we activists and do-gooders arouse is telling us something. It is a mirror to our own violence.

Who cares?!How much of your belief system serves only to uphold your positive self-image?

If constructing a positive self-image is the goal of our actions, then that is what we will achieve — no more and no less. We will walk through life congratulating ourselves for our superior ethics, deploring those who don’t see the light, and resenting those who don’t share our sacrifices. But the bleakness of our victory will grow increasingly apparent with time, as the world burns around us and our deeper need to know, beyond doubt, that we are contributing to a more beautiful world, goes unmet.

A reader wrote me an intensely critical response to an article I wrote about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, saying that my mention of the warlords there reinforces the narrative of African savages who need the white man’s help, and obscures the culpability of the real perpetrators in Western companies and boardrooms. In fact, the first third of the article was devoted to the external origins of the problem in colonialism, slavery, mining, and global finance. I wrote that under our current economic and financial system, there will always be a Congo. I even explicitly critiqued the mindset of the ‘Great White Savior.’ So what was the reader angry about, really?

What is driving our actions?If our actions are driven by a need to uphold a positive self-image, that’s all we’ll achieve.

My ensuing dialogue with that reader gives a clue to what that might be. I responded to him that I agree that the warlords are victims as well as perpetrators, but that the very same thing might be said for the CEOs and bankers, and it may be said as well for all of us who use cell phones made with rare earth minerals extracted, with great violence, from places like the DRC. We are all victims and perpetrators both, I said. The real culprit is the system; therefore, any strategy that sees the culprits as a certain group of rotten people is misguided and will ultimately fail.

The answer enraged my critic. “How dare you create any moral equivalency between these boardroom warlords who are knowingly perpetrating misery on millions of people and the ordinary consumer using a cell phone? These people must be exposed, tried, held to account.”


Aha, I thought. The reason he is angry is that my article doesn’t validate his righteous anger. Of course the workings of the system on all levels, including the boardroom, need exposure. But if that effort springs from the assumption that these are reprehensible people, and that punishing them and ‘holding them accountable’ will fundamentally solve the problem, then we will leave the core of the problem untouched. We might see temporary, localized improvements, but the main tide — a tide of hatred and violence — will continue to rise.

What Story Are We Supporting?

Some people are always enraged to read anything that does not, in some way, support the story of “Those awful people out there must be stopped.” They will deploy epithets like ‘naive’ or accuse the writer of being himself a sellout, a racist, or a dupe for his failure to see the evil of those in power. (This critic insinuated that I was softening my narrative in order to make it palatable to the gatekeepers of prestigious magazines.) Really, they are just defending their story. The vehemence of the attacks also reveals a personal, emotional dimension to their defensiveness. To see a few awful people as the problem puts oneself in the category of ‘good person’ and excuses one’s own complicity. Any threat to the story is thus a threat to one’s own goodness and self-acceptance, which feels like a threat to survival itself; hence, the ferocious response.

Sometime we don't even realise our righteousnessOften we react with righteousness because we’re simply defending our story.

Typically, the way one defends oneself against someone who believes one is evil is to level the same charges against the attacker. Look at the comments sections on articles online. Though the surface opinions on a right-wing and left-wing site might be opposed, the underlying narrative is the same: the other side is deficient in the basic qualities of human decency. They are ignorant, self-righteous, stupid, immoral, inexcusable, sick. It’s not only in politics — the same happens in every polarized debate.

Obviously, both sides cannot be right in the implicit thesis that their side comprises a better sort of human being. That is why it is so fruitful to bring together in a room opponents who have demonized each other and create conditions in which their mutual humanity becomes apparent (such as deep listening or temporary suspension of judgment). Israelis and Palestinians, pro-choice and anti-abortion activists, environmentalists and corporate officials learn that their convenient explanation of “They’re just evil” is invalid. They might retain their differences of opinion, and the larger systems that generate their conflicts of interest may remain in place; they may still be opponents, but they will no longer be enemies.

When both sides of a controversy revel in the defeat and humiliation of the other side, in fact, they are on the same side: the side of war. And their disagreements are much more superficial than their unstated and usually unconscious agreement: the problem with the world is evil.

Is ‘Evilness’ the Real Problem?

This agreement is nearly ubiquitous. Look at the plot of so many Hollywood movies where the resolution of the drama comes with the total defeat of an irredeemable bad guy. From high-concept movies like Avatar to children’s movies like The Lion King or Wreck-It Ralph, the solution to the problem is the same: conquer evil. Significantly, the type of movie that most often has this plotline, besides children’s movies, is ‘action’ movies. No wonder defeating the bad guy so often becomes the unquestioned programmatic assumption behind all kinds of political action. I need not mention that it is also the defining mentality of war. And since the label ‘evil’ is a means of creating an ‘other,’ one might also say it is the defining mentality of our relationship to everything else we have made other: nature, the body, racial minorities, and so on.

Our stories revolve around defeating evilWe are inundated by stories that revolve around defeating evil.

More subtly, Western notions of story and plot have a kind of war built into them as part of the standard three-act or five-act narrative structure, in which a conflict arises and is resolved. Is any other structure possible that isn’t dull, that still qualifies as a plot? Yes. As the blogger ‘Still Eating Oranges’ observes, the East Asian story structure called Kishōtenketsu in Japanese is not based on conflict. But we in the West almost universally experience a story as something in which someone or something must be overcome. This surely colors our worldview, making ‘evil’ — the essence of that which must be overcome — seem quite natural a basis for the stories we construct to understand the world and its problems.

Our political discourse, our media, our scientific paradigms, even our very language predisposes us to see change as the result of struggle, conflict, and force. To act from a new story, and to build a society upon it, requires a wholesale transformation. Dare we do it? What if I am wrong? Let’s look more deeply into the nature of evil.

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24. Max Tegmark, “Religion, Science and the Attack of the Angry Atheists,” Huffington Post (February 19, 2013). 25. “The significance of plot without conflict,” posted on Tumblr, June 15, 2012.



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Hannah Rowanwood
Hannah Rowanwood
4 years ago

wonderfully said…! I can’t really say anything else, except that I hope many more ‘dare to do it’. 🙂

4 years ago

Can there be such a thing as unmet psychological need for “group-approval” versus unmet psychological need for “self-approval”? On the more important issues, I feel incensed for my entire family and heritage, not just myself. Does this make any more righteous? Who thinks for the group? Our politicians? As usual, more questions than answers… The need for approval should be subject to critical thinking analysis, or just let go.

Mark Plummer
Mark Plummer
4 years ago

Charles – This is quite good. Thank you.
I have a fledgling pet theory I’d like to share: The human brain is essentially a chemical distribution system. Everything we think and feel is mediated by complex mixture of endogenous neurotransmitters: Adrenaline, Dopamine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Glutamic Acid, Anandamide, Nitric Oxide… ( there are presently 15 identified neurotransmitters) When we are angry or frightened we get a big dose of the neurotransmitter Adrenaline. When we are calm we are getting a dose of GABA & Serotonin. When we get a hug from our kids we experience an Oxytocin cascade. Each emotional experience is really our response to a complex mixture of these 15 neurotransmitters in various combinations and amounts. (People are drawn to drugs because the molecular structure of various drugs mimic the molecular shapes of the various neurotransmitters.)

My theory has to do with addiction. Addiction TO our own neurotransmitter mixtures. So, people who watch a lot of FOX News (for example) love that feeling, as you describe in your article, of righteous indignation they get when they watch FOX and agree with the angry negativity they experience. Rush Limbaugh knows how to work his listeners into a similar emotional state. People literally become ADDICTED to these emotional states and the neurotransmitters that cause and accompany them. Clever carnival barkers and touts have long known they can realize a larger take if they can “stir up the rubes.” My theory is that Limbaugh and FOX and similar types are stirring up the rubes by eliciting a state of “righteous indignation” in their audience, who become addicted to that feeling, which then leads them to return every day for their daily “indignation FIX.” So when someone wonders why do folks watch FOX or listen to Rush, it’s because they have become habituated to their own internal chemistry. [Note, I am NOT a doctor nor am I medically trained – this is just an idea I have formed via observation and reading. I’d be happy if anyone took this notion and ran with it if it leads to a better understanding of where we are and what we face.] Carry on.

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