So Self-Righteous

September 13, 2009

I always find it ironic when someone accuses activists of being self-righteous and judgmental. Because, hey, person criticizing and passing judgement on another person’s behavior? By criticizing someone for being self-righteous and judgmental, dontcha think you’re being a little self-righteous? And judgmental?

Despite the fun irony, I do have to recognize there are some serious implications to accusations that people who oppose the status quo are self-righteous. That trope prevents a lot of people from doing social justice work, or calling other people out for their misogyny, racism, heterosexism, etc. They don’t want to be uncool and no fun, so they shut up. They focus on not-self-righteous things, like watching football, or wearing the right American Apparel leg warmers, or reading the New Yorker, or whatever it is not-self-righteous people do.

You know what? Activists are self-righteous. Damn straight. We believe in our personal system of ethics and values, and we try to live up to those values. We take them seriously. I don’t think this is a problem. Because, when you come down to it, anyone who has a meaningful sense of lived morality does the same thing. They really believe what they believe. They think other people should too. There’s nothing wrong with that.

People who don’t have a sense of morality of some kind are generally quite mentally ill, and while they may not be self-righteous, they have other issues that make them a difficult golf buddy.

The only difference between those who oppose the status quo and those who support it is that those who support it are rarely put in a position where they must either accept behavior they feel is unethical or speak out against it. Their values are upheld by all of the institutions and structures around them. They rarely see violations of their ethical code, because their ethical code is dominant. When they do see violations, they can usually be sure that most people will agree with them, and violators will be punished by existing systems.

For instance, most people believe that serial murder is wrong. No one is considered “self-righteous” for saying that serial killers should not do what they’re doing. In fact, a judge at sentencing could give a long-winded, harshly worded speech about why a murderer should not have killed people, and most of us would consider that judge to be giving the murderer the talking to he deserves.

However, most people do not believe that war is wrong. So a pacifist saying that we shouldn’t go to war and kill people will not receive the same social approval as the judge. The pacifist will often be labeled self-righteous, although they really have not done anything different from your average murder denouncer. Even if they’re gentle and respectful and try to express their beliefs in the most loving way possible, people are likely to view them as a little bit sanctimonious. Just ‘cuz they’re challenging the Way Things Are and Always Will Be, and no one is supposed to do that.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to convince other people that your ethical code is worth following. In fact, I think it’s silencing and stifling, and even dangerous, to try to force people to keep their ideas about right and wrong private. We need people to challenge the status quo, and we need to have public conversations about ethics. The more we tell anyone questioning The Way Things Are to shut up because they’re being self-righteous, the less likely we are, as a society, to get ourselves checked when we go off the rails. When we start torturing people, or destroying civil liberties… You see where this is going? We need people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in.

When people get called out on stuff or have their privilege questioned, they get defensive. So they respond with a counterattack, claiming that whoever called them out has some kind of problem that devalues their observation. And anyone who won’t just let it lie when they see harm being done gets labelled “self-righteous,” “judgmental,” and “preachy.”

You know what? Martin Luther King was so preachy he was a damn preacher. There are worse things to be.

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2 Responses to “So Self-Righteous”

  1. Annie said

    Um, your argument that people who criticise activists are themselves judgemental is cute; however, it’s also irrelevant and dodges the bullet. A less defensive response would be for you to investigate why activists are preachy/self-righteous/smug and how they can modify their behaviour to get their message out effectively.

    Self-righteousness in activists is a huge problem because often their righteousness is a fake righteousness e.g. many activists are hypocrites (the animal rights activist who whinges about battery hens but ignores the confinement of human prisoners would be a good example). Furthermore, the self-righteousness of activists is frequently ill-informed, naive, baseless, or misplaced e.g. activists support causes they are ignorant about and spread their ignorance throughout society (e.g. the idea that gays would benefit from marriage, even though feminists have already amply demonstrated the toxicity of marriage to everyone).

    The biggest problem with activist self-righteousness is activists win arguments by appealing to emotion as opposed to reason. The whole of society suffers when we do stuff only because it’s politically correct. It seems activists are actually the ones suffering from “wanting to be cool at any cost” syndrome.

    I think activists should consider being more empathetic and compassionate toward people who don’t support their pet causes. The truth is all humanity is one. We are all one. Hence, the judged and the judgemental are really the same person, and all judgements are subjective.

    Inside every hoity-toity activist, there’s a sexist racist homophobic classist xenophoboic germaphobic pig just waiting to jump out the closet. Haha. You can deny it but it’s true.

    It’s bad to be preachy because preachy people assume and/or act as if they are superior to others. No one is superior to others. Activists certainly are not superior to non-activists.

    Activism is also bad because it’s moral. In case you haven’t heard, morality in the West died off in the 60s and was never heard from again. We are now no longer obligated to act in moral ways. Everyone can be as immoral/ammoral as they please. So why are activists still so hung up on morals? Beats me. Cue Doctor Freud, anyone?

    Try using other methods e.g. humour or listening, to get your message across if you’re an activist. Acting holier-than-thou is a sure way to turn people off your cause, as is pretentiousness.

  2. pathologicalnarcissist said

    Thanks Annie. It’s a good thing you would never do that. Because you’re not judgmental, like those activists. Who are bad. You are much, much better than those activists, who, as you have outlined clearly, are self-righteous, because they judge other people for their actions, and believe that some actions are preferable to other actions. Unlike you. You believe that all actions are of equal value. Except the actions of activists. Those are just unacceptable.

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