Friday, October 8, 2010

The Rise of Self-Righteousness

How did we end up here? When did we, as a society, become more interested in being right than in being virtuous? When did dividing, differentiating, and categorizing everyone we meet become a priority? The easy answer would be roughly 2010 years ago but I don't think that's accurate. Civilization began creating division and the "Us v. Them" mentality long before that with ancient nations and empires. But I'm not concerned with history lessons about where the roots of these values were laid because the truth of the matter is that, no matter how long ago a tree was planted or how deep its roots lay, it's not necessary to pull up those roots to kill the tree--cutting it down will suffice.

Self-righteousness seems to be among the core values of American society (and, certainly, it's a core value in many societies, if not all, but we live in America and nowhere is it more overt than here). Empathy and compassion always seem to take a back seat to "I'm right and you're wrong" morality. The desire to be on the winning side perpetuates into everything, from national (and global) politics right down to personal relationships. We prefer being petty to being compassionate. Tyler Durden's "ability to let that which does not matter truly slide" (as articulated in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk) seems to be non-existent in our petty, quibbling, self-righteous society. Moreover, the ability to look at things from the point-of-view of the person on the opposite side of any given issue is almost frowned upon. In politics, this ability is often misconstrued as "flip-flopping" (most famously with 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry). But this is a vitally important ability to our evolution as a species. The more we create division between each other, the more we will tear each other apart.

How many people do you know who hold petty grudges against people who did things that they interpreted as malignant simply because the end result caused them some sort of grief? No one ever tries to understand each other anymore--every occurrence or situation is viewed in the most narrowly subjective way. People tend to take everything in terms of how it affects them and only how it affects them. When Republicans talk about cutting progressive services that assist the less fortunate of us, people continue to vote for them because they can't muster the desire to care about cutting services they don't personally use. When a boy openly and unrequitedly likes a girl a lot and the girl happens to really like the boy's best friend and vice versa, the friend and the girl don't get to be together because the boy would never speak to them again if they did. These are merely two among a countless litany of such hypotheticals but the point is clear: human beings are self-absorbed.

But then, why shouldn't we be? Does it not make sense that every human being's top priority is to look out for itself? Of course it does. As overly self-absorbed as our society is, there is certainly also a somewhat unfair stigma placed on selfishness. However, there is also a significant difference between making yourself your top priority and making yourself your only priority. It's fine to care about yourself the most until you stop caring about anyone else at all.

It's also key to understand that we don't necessarily create these divisions ourselves. We have no inherent motivation to turn against one another and draw lines between each other. This mostly comes from above. There are a number of institutions, both political and religious, that benefit substantially from turning human beings on one another and fostering their self-absorption.

Most organized religions benefit from fostering self-righteousness because, without it, no one would have any reason to be part of any church because there would be no reason to believe that one is right and the rest are wrong--and that is, of course the central idea of pretty much every organized religion. We are right, everyone else is wrong. Faith and morals are seemingly secondary to the fear of going to hell. Faith and morals are something human beings have all the capacity in the world to formulate on their own--the important thing with organized religion is to be on the right Guest List on Judgement Day.

This is one of the main reasons that so many people choose to subscribe to a prepackaged set of morals handed down by spiritual authority figures: Fear. Also, laziness, but that's an issue for another time. Fear is a very powerful tool. Fear keeps people in line. It's used by politicians and clergymen alike to create the divides between preordained categories of human beings that help facilitate their agendas. And we let them do it because we're scared of what we don't understand and because we're too lazy to try to understand it. We want to be told what to do and how to live because figuring those things out on our own is, well, really hard.

The problem with that is, we need to evolve--and developing and progressing our understanding of the world around us is pretty much the definition of evolution. The more we allow authority figures to trick us into believing we are different and need to create divisions between us accordingly and that "we are right and everyone else is wrong", the more we inhibit our ability to evolve. And if we don't evolve, we will go the way of the dinosaurs. Into the Earth.

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