photo by Timothy Krause
I’m really good at self-righteousness, and I bet you are, too. It feels GOOD to be right, am I right? Satisfying. Important. Powerful. Like that time when my redneck cousin posted on Facebook that Planned Parenthood and people who support the organization (that’s me, monthly contributor here) are baby murderers. I posted an articulate take down of my cousin’s deeply misguided position. I made a passionate, principled defense of women’s rights to body autonomy. I presented well-organized, factual about information about what Planned Parenthood actually does. I’m a professional nurse specializing in women’s health, after all, an authority on the issue. I cited my sources. The result? My cousin and I are no longer Facebook friends, and I likely won’t be invited back to the next reunion of my staunchly conservative, “pro-life” family of origin.
I didn’t change anyone’s mind, with my compassionate, reasoned defense of PP, nor did I feel any better for making it. Don’t get me wrong, I still think I’m right. But nothing constructive came of trying to convince those who had already made other ideological commitments to see my point of view. I could have spent the time and energy more productively. I could have called my representatives to express support for programs like PP. I could have searched for information about public policy efforts by the professional organizations I belong to, and considered how I might contribute to those efforts. I could have volunteered. Instead of empowering myself and others, I gave my power away to indignation, frustration, and fruitless FB argument.
When I spend my mental and emotional energy being right about someone else’s faults, I get to avoid doing my own shadow work. In the PP debate with my cousin, I got to defend women’s and children’s rights to self-determination and healthcare, instead of having to take a hard look at my own role in perpetuating systems of inequality and injustice. Who made the clothes I’m wearing, and under what conditions? Who burns the oil transported by pipelines that I claim to oppose? Who’s going hungry, while my family’s greenhouse gas-emitting fridge is full? Uncomfortable questions with even more uncomfortable answers, but I know it’s important to keep asking, and I know I’m not innocent.
When we harden into the anger of self-righteousness, we forgo all flexibility, all hope of finding common ground, and we lose potential allies. I have no intention of apologizing to my cousin for supporting PP, nor will I send her a new FB friend request, after what was said in that thread. But if I’m honest, I’ll miss seeing photos of her kids joyfully swimming and eating ice cream this summer. I’ll miss laughing with her about weird things we did together as kids. And I’ll have one less person with whom to celebrate memories of my grandpa, when the anniversary of his death comes around this spring. Self-righteousness does more than burn metaphorical bridges. It burns relationships.
I know two things about self-righteousness. First, although it feels powerful in the moment, it is actually an impotent anger that bears no fruit. And second, we can be right, or we can be connected, but not often both.