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The Trap of Righteousness

The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become. —Goethe
By Charles Eisenstein /
Jun 23, 2017
The Trap of Righteousness

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, 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 how monstrous are the powers-that-be. Look what they did to 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?

Militancy has the further disadvantage of alienating the uncommitted, who sense the goal of being righteous underneath the professed goal of changing society. 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.

Even if the response to militancy isn’t hostile, the militant is easy to write off: his commitment isn’t really to the cause, it is to militancy.

The activist Susan Livingston wrote me about a proposal she had written for an Occupy group at Caltech opposing its biofuels contract with BP. She said, “It came because I was troubled by the militant attitude of some of the folks at the teach-in. I didn’t see the care I’d like for the community of the conflict—the multitude of low-level bureaucrats, small stockholders, and franchise owners whose livelihoods depend on BP. What are they—collateral damage? And especially after seeing The Drilling Fields about the human and environmental devastation in Nigeria at the hands of Shell, I’m not real fond of singling out BP in response to the resentments of some privileged students who want to have their cake and eat it, too. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and with privilege comes the capacity to mount an effective campaign of resistance.”

In this comment, Susan is drawing a key connection between privilege and militancy. Militancy, the mentality of war, always involves collateral damage. Something must always be sacrificed for the Cause. The sacrifice of others (the “community of the conflict”) is also the defining mentality of elitism: for whatever reason, those others are less important than me, my class, my cause. The privileged are always sacrificing others for their (the others’) own good. If they sometimes sacrifice themselves too, that doesn’t mitigate their elitism.

This is not to say that the oil companies should be allowed to continue what they are doing in order to preserve the livelihoods of filling-station owners. It is just that everyone needs to be seen and considered, not written off. Militants think that giving up the fight means letting the bad guys have their way. If the world were indeed divided into good guys and bad guys, that might be true, but despite what the movies tell us, the world is not thus divided. Alternatives to fighting, then, can be more powerful and not less in creating change.

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? How can you tell what your own motives are in your political activities, whether online or on the street? 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?

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 is 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?

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.

Derrick Jensen, confronted with Audre Lorde’s saying, once said, “I don’t care whose damn tools I’m using.” The reason to avoid the master’s tools is not to avoid some kind of moral taint. It is not to distance ourselves from those who wield power and to demonstrate to one and all (and particularly to ourselves) that we abstain from using the same methods as the oppressors. Rather, it is that these tools are in the end ineffective.

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?

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 to account” 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.

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.

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. Physicist Max Tegmark, coauthor of the MIT Survey on Science, Religion, and Origins (and an atheist himself), was surprised at the vitriolic comments not just from religious fundamentalists, but even more from atheists. He remarked, “I can’t help being struck by how some people on both the religious and anti-religious extremes of the spectrum share disturbing similarities in debating style.”

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 antiabortion 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.

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.

More subtly, Western notions of story and plot have a kind of war built in to 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 predispose us to seeing 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.


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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