Monday, November 11, 2013

Self-Righteousness and Complacency

Self-righteousness and complacency.  These twin failings are the malevolent Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee of our all-too-human moral lives.  They are the two heads of the hell-beast that would drag us all to perdition.  And like everything else that comes from the devil-- so the legends tell us-- they are deceitful.  They are nearly impossible to identify for what they really are-- especially when they proceed from within us, from our unconscious motives and idealized appetites.  Self-righteousness always presents itself to us as virtuous indignation, compassionate rage on behalf of one's neighbor or one's principles.  Complacency comes to us dressed like wise and worldly detachment-- the surveying calm of a saint or a philosopher elevated above the fray.  Self-righteousness and complacency-- they are so easy to identify in someone else-- impossible to find in ourselves!  That's why the cynic's dictionary might well define the first as "what you are being when you ask me to do something I don't want to do;" and the second as "what you are being when you won't do something I want you to do."

Like all other moral faults, they proceed from fundamental distortions in the world and in our minds-- fallings away from what should be.  The big distorting factors in the formation of our moral judgments and world-views are two: first, a crippling maladjustment to the world around us.  This is the lens through which reality and humanity seem bent-- for no particular reason-- on our personal annihilation.  Second, a too-easy adjustment-- a facile accommodation to the universe-- a "snug fit" that feels "just right."  Maladjustment and adjustment-- the two major distortions.  From the sound of it, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.  You're up shit creek without a paddle and it's emptying you into the waiting jaws of either Scylla or Charybdis.

But no-- there must be a happy medium somewhere.  Identifying it is the really tricky bit.  Doing so involves looking seriously at why adjustment and maladjustment both produce such distortions and monitoring our own consciences and actions closely for the warning signs.

The way in which a facile adjustment to the world produces complacency is rather obvious-- it is virtually synonymous with it.  If we slip into the world like it was made for us, if we take on the ideology of our time and place without question, then we will never have much sympathy for the person left out in the cold-- the person who was unable-- or was not allowed from the start-- to make the adjustment.  "Whatever is/ Is Right," said the odiously self-satisfied Alexander Pope, thereby setting off the rage of Voltaire on behalf of the victims of the random and unforgiving calamities of nature: "Come, ye philosophers, who cry, 'All’s well,'/ And contemplate this ruin of a world." (trans. J. McCabe).

The self-righteousness that is bred by an easy and confident adjustment to the world is a little harder to explain, but it can be done.  History's elite classes may have given us the most larded and loquacious Fat Cats-- infinitely certain that the universe was built with their personal wishes and desires in mind.  But those same castes have also given us the most pencil-necked moralizers and dyspeptic saints.  If your own success has been a smooth and easy ascent for you-- or else if you were born in the lap of luxury from the start-- then you will probably never realize the extent to which your behavior is motivated by egotism and greed.  You will never regard yourself as avaricious because it was so easy to get ahead-- you never had the sensation of having to strive or compete.  So you find such behavior disgusting in others, for whom it is not so easy.  You fancy yourself free of self-serving impulses, so it is easy to be repelled by those who are so evidently striving, grasping, gobbling up.

This explains those much-lamented limousine liberals, who look down their noses at the kids who started from nothing and will do whatever it takes to make it to Wall Street or Harvard Business School.  It also explains those repugnant conservative moralists-- the ones who think it is so self-centered for young women to want to protect their access to birth control or abortion so as to pursue other life goals-- the moralists with those powerful positions at think-tanks or major newspapers or university departments who surely never prioritized their careers when they were starting off in the world-- who surely, had they been female and pregnant at the age of 19, would have gladly abandoned their futures in various high-powered professions for the fun and exhilarating world of teenage parenting.  Enough-- I think I have made that point.

How about the maladjusted?  After the pack of rogues I've just been discussing, we turn to them with gratitude.  These-- the ones who refused to adjust, who just couldn't bring themselves into line with this stinkin' reality-- can start to seem like holy outsiders.  Like Christ, we might say, they are persecuted and suffering.  They are resented precisely because they see and proclaim the truth the rest of us wish to ignore-- that we would rather pluck out our eyes than observe.

But no-- we have to resist this urge to romanticize.  The maladjusted have their own form of complacency, brought on by some of these deeply-rooted myths in our society which tell us that the outsider is always right, and the insider always wrong.  This-- it should be apparent-- bleeds into the maladjusted's opposite fault: self-righteousness.  This quality the maladjusted has in spades, and it always takes a particular form of what Judith Shklar identifies as "moral cruelty": a delight in proving oneself morally superior; in dreaming up divine vindications for oneself and hellish punishments for the unrighteous; in the gruesome church-approved sado-masochism of the excessively conscientious.  Erik Erikson, who has made many appearances on this blog and is sure to make many more, put it in this way: "According to the characterology established in psychoanalysis, suspiciousness, obsessive scrupulosity, moral sadism, and a preoccupation with dirtying and infectious thoughts and substances go together."  These are the SOS signals of true maladjustment.

If complacency is the congenital failing of organized Christianity in its mainline, liberal Protestant form,  then self-righteousness maladjustment eternally afflicts its estranged cousin: evangelical and conservative Christianity.  Nietzsche famously found this particular form of cruelty in all Christianity-- and in all morality, for that matter.  Remarking upon the irony of the Christian emphasis on "love" and "forgiveness" when the Christian God never forgave the impenitent in hell-- Nietzsche traced Christianity to what he termed "ressentiment"-- a form of class envy.  Nietzsche may have been on to something about the character of a Christian "love" that does not blanche at the prospect of humanity writhing in agony for all eternity at the hands of its divine parent.  However, he was very mistaken about the class character of the resentment he analyzed.  The early Christians he quotes as moral sadists par excellence (Tertullian, Augustine, etc.) were mostly elite professionals-- lawyers, philosophers, teachers of rhetoric.  Augustine, perhaps the cruelest of the lot, was active at a time when Christianity was the state religion and he a respected functionary.  He had little cause, if any, for class resentment.  No, the form of alienation that breeds this deepest "ressentiment" identified by Nietzsche is actually a pattern most typical of intellectuals (perhaps Nietzsche himself-- it takes one to know one, right?), not of the "slaves" of Nietzschean jargon.  It is the alienation of people (like me, to a deeply disturbing degree) who turn to the written page in part out of frustration at the difficulty they find in participating in the normal social life around them.

It is often the most privileged people who are in fact the most deeply alienated from those around them-- just as it is often among the poor and working class that one finds the most genuinely solidaristic relationships.  I'm not trying to romanticize poverty or say that the poor are actually "better off" somehow-- just pointing out that Nietzsche's class angle on the issue was entirely distorted.  The still deeper problem with his theory is, of course, that if all morality is based on violence and resentment, we have no reason to condemn the hypocrisy Nietzsche traces in the early Christian conception of "love" as itself immoral.  Nietzsche insists he is content with that result, despite the obvious disgust he evinces toward cruelty and the hypocrisy which condones it as "love"-- but he never manages to convince on this score-- at least not this reader.

But my point is not about Nietzsche-- it is about the distortions suffered by the maladjusted, of whatever social background they may be.  Their maladjustment is based at heart in a lack of trust in the world.  They do not see humanity, fundamentally, as a good, if limited, thing.  They do not see human society as an institution which can be made better than it is.  They lack the moral clarity and basic sense of being loved that assured Anne Frank, even in the most heartless moment of human history, "that people are truly good at heart."  Frank's attitude is what Erik Erikson would have identified as "the life principle of trust."  Without it, "every human act, may it feel ever so good and seem ever so right, is prone to perversion."  This is the perversion-- not class envy-- that turned the Jesus of love, who forgave his persecutors even while he was still hanging on the cross, into the Christ of hellfire and Inquisition.

Is there a path beyond this?  Can we live without falling into either complacency or self-righteousness? Probably not entirely.  One can come closer by examining seriously one's own motives.  By growing to distrust the instinctive pleasure one feels in a perceived moral victory-- especially if it is a victory not over an unjust system but over identifiable individuals.  The key is to recognize that you are not free of any of the traits that make the rest of us such compromisers.  No matter how maladjusted you may be, you are an "insider" in this sense-- you share in our sin.

The ultimate irony is that what I am really calling for here is a Christian ethic.  I'm trying to convince myself and others to pay some heed to our "fallen nature," to "judge not lest ye be judged," to not neglect the beam in your own eye for the mote in your neighbor's.  Yet history courses rivers of blood because of Christians' persistent neglect of these commandments.  All the examples I gave above of "moral sadism," of the most unforgiving and vindictive moral judgments, come from Christians.  This may be my own biases speaking, but I doubt very much similar examples could be drawn from Cathar heretics, 19th-Century Universalists, medieval Rabbis, Hindu gurus, Zen Buddhists, and so on.  There is something strange in that Christianity should have lived to embody the things its founder protested so full-throatedly against.  I guess human beings have an extraordinary ability to proclaim as their inmost tendency the things they in fact find most impossible to do-- to find in their enemies the traits they subconsciously recognize in their own hearts.

I just finished this weekend a novel by John Updike called Roger's Version (1986).  The book is a sort of extended dialogue between complacency and self-righteousness.  Complacency is embodied in the form of the narrator, Roger Lambert, a specialist in early Christian heresies at an unnamed, liberal, faintly agnostic "New England Divinity School" (now which one might that be?).  Self-righteousness lives and breathes in his student, Dale, who is seeking to prove God's existence on a computer.

Roger has all the faults of his complacency.  Indifferent to racial and economic inequity, profoundly cynical about faith and morals and politics and social justice, Roger is difficult to love and impossible not to like.  His attitude to his work is one of bleak melancholia masked with irony: "To master a few dead languages, to parade sequential moments of the obdurately enigmatic early history of Christianity before classrooms of the hopeful, the deluded, and the docile-- there are more fraudulent ways to earn a living.   I consider my years in the active ministry [...] if not exactly wasted, as a kind of pre-existence, the thought of which depresses me," (3) he tells us.

But Roger does have one moral passion which breaks through his complacency: his rage against moral passion itself-- against Dale's self-righteousness.  Confronted with Dale's doctrinaire assertion that the Devil resides in Doubt, Roger insists: "Funny [...] I would have said, looking at recent history and, for that matter, at some of our present-day ayatollahs and Fuhrers, the opposite."  So too, Roger is half-correct when he remarks of Dale, "Not only did he bully me, he was trying, I thought, to bully God.  Most 'good' people, in my limited experience, are bullies" (316).  Yet it is also half-true, what another character remarks repeatedly of Roger: that he is "evil."

I suspect we all have a Dale voice and a Roger voice within us-- a little bit of smug self-righteousness and a dollop of equally smug complacency.  We can learn to recognize their voices, however, delight in their interplay, and draw whatever wisdom from their half-correct perspectives we can.  But when we hear those voices, we should also learn to keep a skeptical and wary distance.

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