Addressing Self-righteousness on the Activist Left
Self-righteousness is a special case of being self-satisfied, complacent, smug. But here, the smug complacency refers specifically to a person’s belief that he or she complies, to a higher than normal degree, with the demands of some strict moral standard. This claimed moral superiority in turn is supposed to justify an attitude of scorn or disdain toward others, who supposedly fail to respect this high standard and in this way discredit themselves.
Importantly, self-righteousness differs from simple “righteousness” – insistence on doing the right thing, simply because it is the right thing – in being a vice rather than a virtue. Why, though, is self-righteousness a vice, not a virtue?
It is a vice for at least three reasons:
1. First, because the self-righteous person helps himself or herself to a higher standing than his or her peers, and so claims to be superior, like a saint, whereas we only accept the status of moral superiority as something that is conferred on rare individuals by others, not as a self-appointed status to be claimed for oneself;
2. Second, because the smug complacency implies a confidence that one has little or no work to do to improve one’s own conduct and character, and thereby reveals a lack of concern for self-improvement, a confidence placed in doubt by the very behaviour that embodies it, since that behaviour itself is open to criticism and calls for correction; and
3. Third, because the most common marker or indicator of self-righteousness is the stance of self-appointed judge, issuing explicit or implicit decrees of condemnation toward others, for their supposed failings, and this judgmental stance reveals a lack of awareness about the universality of failings and shortcomings that motivate one’s finger-pointing.
Now, it is sometimes said that social-justice-oriented political activists are particularly prone to self-righteousness. I’m not sure whether or not they are unusually quick to indulge in this sort of thing. But I do believe that it is widespread, and certainly no less typical of activists than of others. And that’s a problem, because it obviously undermines what they are trying to achieve, if (as I hope) they are trying to draw in wider circles of people, and to break out of activist subcultures to engage with the larger world.
Clearly, a self-righteous attitude will deter engagement since one looks down on others and therefore won’t see them as potential comrades and partners in a common struggle; and it will also deter engagement on the part of others, because they will find one’s self-righteousness to be offensive and indicative of some activists’ contempt for ordinary people. Self-righteousness, in short, undermines both the interest of activists in engaging with the wider world and the willingness of the wider world to be engaged by activists.
I believe that this problem came up, as a practical matter, during the Occupy movement, when many longtime activists found themselves, consciously or unconsciously, unwilling or unable to engage with wider circles of people flooding into oppositional movement politics, because some of those people had (arguably) mistaken ideas about a range of issues, from the role of the Fed to the nature of colonialism and much else. No one would suggest that these ideas, where they existed, didn’t need to be challenged in various ways, by means of a process of popular education.
But having mistaken opinions is not actually a flaw or a defect or sign of inferiority, clearly. It is actually the normal state of everyone. We just have different zones of knowledge and ignorance. So, a stance of condescension in such situations is clearly uncalled for. But in fact, at the time, I believe that some activists retreated from the Occupy movement because they were particularly judgmental about the political opinions of some of the participants. (My evidence for this is limited, but it is a perception I had at the time.) Obviously, there were in some cases perfectly sound reasons that people may have had to shift their attention elsewhere. No one would doubt that; certainly, I don’t doubt it. However, I’m quite sure that at least in a few cases, self-righteousness was an issue.
If self-righteousness is a barrier to strategically effective movement organizing, what can be done about it? I don’t pretend to know. But possibly counting it as one of the threats to left-activism – along with other threats that we express concern about, like state repression, activist burnout, or sexist behaviour, etc. – will help us resist any impulse to revel in self-righteous feelings, which seem to have some narcissistic appeal due to their ego-elevating character. If we count self-righteousness as a danger, a threat to our organizing projects, we might better be able to notice its appearance, and to motivate ourselves to walk away from it.
You make presumption that people can’t criticize themselves but it is not like that. even if self righteous person criticize others, he can still criticize himself. It doesn’t mean he look down on others. I come from region where people expect from political activists to follow what they propagate, therefore they can be disappointed and break cooperation with others, some people make compromise some people don’t. So, if I am anarchists and patriarchal, and somebody criticize me, I can say like you: don’t look down on me and don’t be so righteous. patriarchy and anarchist groups don’t go together. The only mistake is if people can’t cooperate together, it is not mistake if they criticize each others on the basis of morality, ideology, etc. if there is no critics, there is fake unity, unity from outside but disliking inside, or unity in which you have leaders and other people follow them without objection.
Considering occupy, my opinion is that it was soup mixed with many different additions, and it can become bad, if people are not tolerant. my disliking was rich high level salary academics who propagated non violence. they have 10K bucks per month and they don’t understand poor angry people and their rage and violence. When you mix PhD and low educated and low paid paid workers, you get conflict about standpoints and methods of fight. professional activists can also work for FBI which infiltrate long existing political groups (antiwar, human rights, etc). they can try to keep mass of people under control. if there are really no leaders at occupy, more active activists should never try to impose their methods of fight on others.
In the end, people can stick to their group of thinking and participate in bigger protest, occupy or any other protest. but other groups should not force anybody to be the same like others, peaceful and violent should be together, but obviously the both of them dislike each other. so, without tolerance, there is no cooperation. I believe that diversity of protest is the only proof that we are not under control of secret service.
From rebel in europe on Apr 1st, 2015 at 10:58am