One of the worst aspects of the self-righteous is that those most guilty of it most vociferously deny that they are guilty at all. When, therefore, self-righteous groups compete the good of all is quite lost in the presumption each party makes that its own good must be the good of all.
Any group without exception – Cabinet, Party Executive, Company Board, Trade Union, Sports Association, Church, and a hundred others – must possess a sense of cohesion, group loyalty, joint purpose and self-worth. Though all around them have good reason to find fault, no group banded together can afford to lose this sense of common purpose and self-justification. Even the most worthless and evil among men – the Nazis of Germany for instance – never lose this self-image. There is a passage in Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection which perfectly describes this very human tendency.
“It is usually imagined that a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, acknowledging his or her profession to be evil, is ashamed of it. But the contrary is true. People whom fate or their own sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to preserve their view of life, these people keep instinctively to the circle of those who share their views of life and their own place in it. This surprises us where the persons are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murderers boasting of their cruelty.
But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth – robbery; when the commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories – murder; when those in high places vaunt their power – violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it…”
Katusha, the prostitute, saw herself as a very important person, and Tolstoy continues:
“She prized this view more than anything else: she could not but prize it, for if she lost this view of life, she would lose the importance it accorded her. And in order not to lose the meaning of life, she instinctively clung to the set that looked at life in the same way she did.”
Katusha’s fear is the fear of us all, the fear of our own meaninglessness. We all try to defend ourselves against this fear by building up our personal and corporate defences.
Nothing wrong in that. Indeed it is necessary for a reasonably satisfying life. But there is a great lurking danger – that this attempt to justify our existence will slide into the worst kind of self-righteousness, the kind which denies the relevance or worth of what other men, or groups, are for their part thinking or doing or trying to contribute.
In the great world, it is just such obsessive self-righteousness that once led to the Cold War, that has led to the Israeli-Arab conflict and the unending life and death struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
It also lies at the root of the shortsightedness and blinkered cruelty of how the Rich World treats the Poor World. It is also obsessive self-righteousness that leads to the hideous sectarian conflicts that disfigure so many societies around the world. Religious self-righteousness always tends to be one of the worst of the species. Recruiting God exclusively to your side is a certain sign of self-righteousness taken to the extreme limit.
In Guyana I cannot help feeling that ultra-defensive, not quite to say obsessive, self-righteousness has led to an unnecessary burden of conflict and counter-productive, simmering mistrust.
The main political parties seem to eye each other with exceptionally virulent suspicion and coldness, so that common ground seems seldom to be found – a sure signal that mutually exclusive self-righteousness is at work. When rampant self-righteousness exists everyone is always 100% right, the other side is invariably 100% to blame, compromise is never possible because some great principle is at stake on both sides, and goodwill is the only element 100% missing. In all this the interest that tends to be lost is the national interest for which both sides, naturally, claim to be the sole spokesman.
We are all self-righteousness. We all form into self-righteous groups. It is part of the condition of being human. But half the art of living well in society is to ensure that our own self-righteousness is tempered by forbearance and magnanimity so that at least others with different points of view are well respected, taken into account, and, better yet, allowed to play a part in getting the nation’s work done. Has nobody read, or does no one remember, that line in Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Star-Splitter’? “For to be social is to be forgiving”?