Monday, March 10, 2014

Moral Unworthiness, Self-Righteousness and the Need to Endure Self-Examination

A polarization of dust-bowl dimensions is sweeping the West. It is not simply the product of growing philosophical differences, but also an absolute contempt for those on the other side.

Why do these differences have to result in contempt and intolerance? Is there hidden psychological baggage that has commandeered this often lethal engagement? Philosopher Charles Taylor thought so. Around 25 years ago, he astutely wrote:

  • The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum.

  •  Many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky's Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (“Sources of the Self,” 516-517)

Where does this “sense of unworthiness” come from? Our conscience is pre-packaged with high moral ideals of love, truth, and justice – ideals to which we inevitably fail attain, and we know it. How then do we deal with our resulting, crippling sense of moral failure and unworthiness? We have many strategies:

1.     DENIAL – We merely suppress this painful awareness.

2.     COMPENSATION – We convince ourselves that we are good and worthy people, perhaps through positive affirmations or by surrounding ourselves with others who will affirm us.

3.     RATIONALIZATIONS – We can either tell ourselves that everyone is garbage or that there are no objective standards by which we can be judged.

4.     SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS – We perform good deeds to convince the world (and ourselves) that we are really superior to the vast majority. We also denigrate others in this process.
The latter is the most dangerous form. It is what impels young people into what Taylor labels as “political extremism” and “implacable opposition.” This demonizes the opposing party to the extent that the self-righteous believe that they must be eliminated. After all, they represent the forces of darkness and the self-righteous have convinced themselves that they are the forces of goodness.

In contrast to this, there is healthy, necessary, and humble idealism. This idealism is not achieved by convincing ourselves that we are better than others, giving us license to subjugate or eliminate them. Instead, this is an idealism that is cognizant of ourselves and our underlying self-serving motives to use a legitimately righteous cause to promote our self-esteem at the expense of others.

It is also an idealism that is willing to endure continual self-scrutiny, knowing that we are capable of the same evil, which we decry in others. It is also willing to place the welfare of others – even that of the “bad guys” – on par with their own.

But how can we endure this painful light of self-scrutiny or how many of us solicit honest criticism? Few! While many of us claim that we want wisdom, we are not willing to pay the price.

Three thousand years ago the enlightened King Solomon wrote about the free offer of wisdom and its rejection:

Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke.
Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies.
For the turning away of the simple will slay them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them. (Proverbs 1:29-32)

With our denial, rationalizations and self-righteousness, we ultimately destroy ourselves. Wisdom comes at a price – the willingness to hear the painful things that it says to us. Consequently, we readily reject it in favor of something that feels good. However, Solomon’s father – David – knew better and asked his God to examine him:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

We should do no less!

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