Edwin F. Kagin is a lawyer‑poet. He believes that, through grace and faith,
this will be a regular column and, if events are predestined, that whatever
he believes makes no difference whatsoever. He can be reached in care of
this publication, or through e‑mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Permission for non-profit reproduction is given, so long as credit is given,
so the villagers will not go after the wrong person with pitchforks and torches.
self-righteous: confident of one’s own righteousness, esp. when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary.
Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t. She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try not to do it anymore….And she took snuff too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself. Huckleberry Finn.
The self-righteous are everywhere, trying to control our lives. With the zeal of reformed nymphomaniacs peddling AmWay, they freely vend their negative judgments on the behavior and opinions of others. Unable or unwilling to control themselves and their unhappy lives of frustration, insecurity, and despair, these petty dictators seek solace in desperately attempting to control others. For they are right. Those who disagree with their toxic tyranny are clearly and obviously wrong, if not evil. And they do attract followers, persons easily led, seeking certainty, and willing to praise, to flatter, and to sing unto them, How great thou art. Self-righteous leaders reward fidelity and elevate select obedient disciples, especially worshipful ones who are confused but shamelessly self-righteous, to CULT (Counseled Until Learned Truth) status.
The existence of such personalities is not new. Jesus is reported to have said, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” There are similar references, for self-righteousness is justly and frequently condemned in the bible, a work that, for all its many and obvious faults, is not without certain merit. Indeed, we recommend you read it. The book is much better than the movie.
Self-righteousness and hypocrisy may be joined, as in the widow’s views on tobacco reported by Huck. But they are quite different concepts. Hypocrites, like the widow, do themselves that which they so freely condemn in others. Most hypocrites are self-righteous, but self-righteous persons are not necessarily hypocrites and may in fact practice what they preach. A priest who rapes little boys, and preaches against homosexuality and violence, is clearly both, while a practicing virgin, who moralistically urges this unhappy fate on others, is not. It’s all in how you study it. Many have rejected religion largely because it is home to lots of goodie-two-shoes type persons of self-righteous or hypocritical persuasion. Sometimes, in their attempt to live justly in an unjust world, the disillusioned seek solace from religion in the perceived rationality of secular humanism. And guess what?
This may come as a shock to some secular humanist readers, but the self-righteous are also to be found among the ranks of the supposedly rational, among those who look for meaning apart from the supernatural, among those who decry the artificial goodness of the godly. Bummer, ain’t it? Thus, instead of holier-than-thou, we have those who feel rationaler-than-thou, or skepticaler-than-thou, and who demean, abjure, reject, and avoid those they feel don’t quite measure up to their standards. Such are no less self-righteous than the widow.
Whether religious or secular, the self-righteous and the con-artist are sisters under the skin. Both become outraged if they don’t get their way. The slightest reasoned refusal to consent to manipulation or control is punished. The uncooperative mark may witness a presumably well meaning, but terminally self-righteous, friend go into an inexplicable rage, answering disobedience with irrational and unpleasant emotions, until the victim seems, as best worded by Shakespeare, “beyond reason hated.” To further complicate matters, the person deluded by self-righteousness cannot understand when others are disinclined to share their hostility and fail to concede the justness of their attitudes and actions. The world as one conspires.
The self-righteous are troubled by democracy. Why debate or vote on any matter of behavior or morality when truth is available by decree, and when correct answers may be so readily had from those who know the answers beyond any need for question or discussion? To challenge such persons is, in their view, malum in se–in the vernacular, reprehensible, wicked, and wrong in itself—denoting a defect of character revealed in the very act of rebellion against ultimate authority. Thereafter, every action or motive of the errant sinner will be understood and punished as an indisputably vile thing—another example of evil attacking good. The psychological mechanism of projection, and the transparent narcissism of the self-righteous, is beyond the scope of this digression. The analogies to theology are scary. If afflicted leaders possess small power, they are merely annoying, comical, or pathetic. If they hold real power over nations or ideologies, the graveyards of history harbour their heritage.
The sad part is that they don’t have to be like this. The self-righteous prigs can get over it, or get therapy for it. They don’t have to expose themselves to the misery. Misery is optional, for predator as well as prey, even if one thinks they have no free will. Rational beings don’t have to live with sustained rage, or with the chronic paranoia of waiting for some other imaginary shoe to drop. Those who live to control others could, using the power of reason they mock, come to realize that compromise and resolution of disagreements can be something more than capitulation or appeasement, and that, in some things at least, they just might be—as impossible as it seems—wrong. One is entitled to be smug, arrogant, and self-righteous only if one has figured out how not to die. The outcast may well be the better person. That’s what the bible story of the Good Samaritan is all about.
If we can’t avoid the self satisfied—the better option—we can laugh at them. A healthy person loves to see the pompous taken down a peg or two, and delights in mocking their phony goodness and proper ways. This is why the common folk laugh when a stuffed shirt slips on a banana skin. But what about self-righteous secular humanists who, in hardening their hearts and softening their minds, do real harm to those who actually favor free inquiry? Maybe we should create a Secular Humanist Hall of Shame. Here could be enrolled and acknowledged those whose actions have earned them the herein proposed SHAME (Secular Humanist Arrogantly Making Enemies) Award.
As adolescent fantasies are best left to adolescents, so childish needs to have one’s own way are best left to children, who will hopefully outgrow them. Adults should, to borrow again from the bible, “put away childish things.” It would be sad to die without growing up.
For everything there is a season,
For every act there is a reason;
As a garden reflects its seeds,
Deeds of life tell that life’s needs.