Self-Righteousness in the media and in my social media feed seems to have become almost as prevalent as Covid-19, driving people even farther apart than the six feet needed for safe social distancing. So while the scientists are searching for a medical cure to stop the pandemic, I thought I’d take a stab at addressing the symptoms of this other sickness.
My first breakthrough: like the stages of grief, self-righteousness seems to follow a familiar pattern. Here’s what I think the stages of self-righteousness are, and what we can do as leaders whenever we encounter someone exhibiting these symptoms.
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Monsters in the Attic
If you like movies with a heavy dose of dark humor and satire, you might like one I watched last week: Jojo Rabbit directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok). It is set in Nazi Germany, but one of the things that made it hugely entertaining to me was how the writers found ways to make the incidents in the film recognizable and applicable in a 21st century context.
For example, there is a scene in which the ten-year-old protagonist answers the doorbell to find five members of the Gestapo on his front step. They are impeccably dressed in matching trench coats, and are well-mannered but insistent.
Remove their fedoras, and they could just as well have been religious missionaries hoping to share a word with you. Or the nosy ladies from the Home Owners Association, or really any group of people with an inveterate belief in their own views of the world, and a mission to correct yours.
In the movie, these men have come to search the house for a suspected Jew in hiding. Entering the boy’s room and seeing Nazi posters and drawings on the walls, the Gestapo leader congratulates the lad, saying,
“I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.”
The boy nervously plays along, but of course by this point in the movie he is already starting to see the enormous gap between the propaganda he used to enthusiastically copy, and the reality that he can see with his own eyes.
It turns out that the Jewish girl hiding in his attic has neither horns nor tail; the real monsters may actually be the devout men standing in his bedroom.
Beware the “Truth”
The scene ties in nicely with something I read recently by French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire, who warned us of similar monsters:
I take some satisfaction in the fact that my friends and acquaintances span the full array of views and orientations, political, social, and personal. On my social media feed it’s not uncommon to see a meme espousing one view, and on the screen below, its polar opposite. Diversity – that’s great.
What is less satisfying is the dialogue that sometimes accompanies these posts. In the comments section, there tends to be one of two responses – either an “Amen” from the choir, or else a cry of “blasphemy!” from the church across the street. In the second case, all too often an escalation of negativity erupts that seems to follow a progression.
Because it saddens me to watch it happen, it seemed only appropriate to style it after the well-known stages of grief. The problem is that the stages of self-righteousness don’t end with “Acceptance and Hope.”
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar.
The Seven Stages of Self-Righteousness
1. Reflexing. Whether it’s a comment on social media, or a remark during dinner, a trip wire is tripped, a mental alarm bell sounds, and an automatic response sequence kicks in. Whatever was said does not square with their personal world view, and the moment cannot be allowed to pass without immediate corrective action.
2. Researching (optional). This stage is not so much focused on gathering objective facts, as on proving the other side wrong. It’s generally characterized by returning to familiar television pundits or social media echo chambers for bullet point arguments. When they feel they have enough “ammo,” they move on to step three.
3. Rubber Stamp. As they fill their bandoleers, they suspend critical thinking, simply rubber-stamping pat ideas, and preparing to send them down range. The most powerful bullets are the short, simple, one-size-fits-all answers. No need to question the quality of the source or adapt the idea to fit current realities. If it fits on a bumper sticker, it’s good to go.
4. Rattling Off. Now fully armed with these lethal slogans and catch phrases, they rattle them off with a self-assured smile, and watch for the impact on their target. Clearly there is no refuting their now revealed truth.
5. Raising the Volume. When the opponent doesn’t immediately leap to embrace their enlightened theology, frustration sets in, so they raise the volume. It’s like that clueless tourist in a foreign country who shouts louder and louder in English because the locals couldn’t understand him the first time. As the volume rises, so does the blood pressure on all sides, even as mental doors slam shut to block out the noise.
6. Rudeness and redundancy. When sheer volume fails to convince, labeling and name-calling is the next unfortunate step. The weaker the argument, the more they rely on this approach to bolster their position. It’s as if they think that painting their opponent with an unflattering label will suddenly cause them to thoughtfully consider changing their minds. Or perhaps they are really just laying the groundwork for the final stage.
7. Relegating. When all else fails, the other side is written off as hopeless. All attempts at communication abruptly cease, and the relationship is ended. Though there might be agreement on 95% of everything else in the universe, clearly if they can’t see eye to eye on this singular issue, there is no point in continuing the relationship.
This cycle repeats itself far too often, and as with the stages of grief, people may spend more or less time in the different steps. They may even skip steps, jumping from Reflexing directly to Rudeness and then Relegation.
The good news is that we can break the self-righteousness cycle.
Breaking the Cycle
1. Reflexing. Resist the urge to immediately engage. Take a breath, look at the bigger picture, seek to understand, be open to different perspectives. Not every hill is worth dying on.
2. Researching (not optional). We should do some research of our own, but dare to dig a little deeper. What is the media on “the other side” saying? What neutral primary sources can we check? Don’t just look for points of difference, see if you can find places of congruence.
3. Rubber Stamp. As we dig up our own information, we can ask a few questions: How does that apply in case X or Y? How might the rights and needs of individuals be impacted by ideas of cookie-cutter/bumper sticker policies? What would happen if the person espousing these policies had to abide by them himself?
4. Rattling Off. As the bullet points begin to fly, we can start by acknowledging the other person’s position and their passion for the issue. We can highlight those points of commonality we found in Stage Two. As in the Ransperger Pivot, when we focus first on the ways our positions are alike, it affirms our counterpart, lowers defenses, and it opens the door for constructive dialogue.
5. Raising the Volume. A race to turn up the volume knob just makes everyone hard of hearing. Clouded thought and poor decisions are the harmful byproducts of heated tempers, so it’s far better to stay cool. The louder they get, the more important it is to counter with calmness.
6. Rudeness and repetition. Like a long-running feud, evil just begets more evil as one side tries to out-do the other. In the end everybody loses. Don’t take the bait and succumb to verbal mud wrestling; counter with civility.
7. Relegating. We all have the right to our own opinions and to disagree with those of others, so leave them plenty of space. Agree to disagree if necessary, but don’t let the human connection be contingent upon a single issue. If we all stopped talking with people we have argued with, it would be a lonely planet indeed.
Stages of Self-Righteousness – The Takeaway
We should absolutely cherish those who seek deeper understanding; it’s when we stop trying that civilizations falter. But do be watchful for those who claim to have found the truth and are exhibiting the symptoms of Self-Righteousness. And remember: none of us is immune.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin relates that as a young man, a friend told him that he was overbearing in his views and seemed to relish pointing out where his opponents were wrong. To correct this offensive behavior, Franklin shares that with some “violence to [his] natural inclination,” he began efforts to become a more humble person.
The problem? Soon he found himself taking such pride in his humility that he was worried that he might be tempted to boast about it. We have to be careful in the same way. Even as we recognize that someone else is on the path to self-righteousness, we may be on one of our own.
Falling into the stages is easy to do – it happens all the time. Stopping the downward spiral to Relegation is much harder. It takes courage, self-discipline, and strength of character.
But if nobody tries, minds will continue to close, positions harden, relationships end, and the world will continue to grow smaller and colder for everyone.
The next time we open the door to discover the self-righteous on our front step, remember first that we may all be somewhere on that path and exhibiting the symptoms.
And second, keep in mind that good leaders, like good doctors, work with patience.