Self Righteousness – am I the only one who can see this??

In my last blog a few days ago, I was alluding to self-rigtheousness and our need for a sense of humour in this regard.  This is something I have been giving thought to over the last few months and it cropped up again this evening in a conversation with my friend and colleague as we were dining together.  In watching Have I Got News For You recently following the death of Maggie Thatcher and with public attention on her funeral and legacy, I was horrified by the tone.  The whole programme was devoted to vitriolic attacks on almost everyone and everything including Margaret Thatcher.

Self-righteousness and it’s bedfellow hypocrisy seem to be topics which are particular favourites of ours as human beings.  We all seem prey to this and it produces some pretty horrendous results.  We poke fun quite cruelly and incredulously at what we see as other people’s hypocrisy, safe in the knowledge that we would never suffer from such weaknesses.  How do we get away with such hypocrisy?  Jonathan Haidt describes this brilliantly in his book The Happiness Hypothesis where he uses the analogy of a small human rider sitting on top of an elephant.  The elephant, he says, is the mammal brain – sophisticated, millions of years old and operating almost exclusively unconsciously.  Atop this sits the rational brain, like a small human rider; this brain is only thousands of years old, but it is convinced that it is running the show and making decisions.  In reality, the elephant is making all the decisions – imagine a small human rider trying to control an elephant should it decide it is going to move in a particular direction…

However, as Haidt points out, the rational brain wants to maintain the illusion that it is in control and running the show so it indulges in rationalisation and justification to maintain this illusion.  Haidt’s point was that this creates the sense for all of us that we are the only rational being in a sea of irrationality.  We can see the way that other people act on jealousy, fear, anger, competition; the ways in which they are hypocritical or corrupt but we cannot see this in ourselves (other people can see it in us but we are blind to it).  What Haidt challenges us to see is that the role of the rational brain is actually to turn it’s conscious awareness on ourselves and that it is only through this that we can truly “tame” or influence our elephant.  I recognise that self-righteousness is a step on the way to self-development, in that seeing things in others is at least part of the stage of recognising it in ourselves.  What appalls me is that other people cannot see their own self-righteousness and hypocrisy when it is so glaringly obvious, what idiots………..oh dear!

In discussing this this evening with my friend, we were discussing the topic of bankers.  My colleague felt there was a line that he would not transgress and that what saddened him was that they did not even see the anger people felt but dismissed it as jealousy.  I was suggesting that I could understand how they would feel like that and that, in our case, since we both ran training and coaching businesses which had as clients, banks and professional advsiors who had profited from banks we were complicit.  I was arguing that I could see it was a matter of scale – we might think nothing of not correcting a petty amount of money or paying someone in cash on the odd occasion without seeing ourselves as being corrupt, yet if our actions were subject to the scrutiny of the media and spun in the right way we could easily be accused of being corrupt materialists out for ends.  He could not help but smile and agree at the fact that the temptation was there to fiddle the expenses slightly for clients who had messed us around, or taken advantage of us and that we have to challenge ourselves at times to think “would we be happy to be charged this”  to prevent us unconsciously justifiying these temptations.  Somehow though, in our minds, our deviations from our good intentions are small justifiable affairs; we are convinced we are intrinsically good.  The more we got into the argument the more it emerged how easy it is, if we identify with being good, to feel that our actions are different, that others simply aren’t motivated by the same quality of “goodness” that we are.  In the end he accepted the point I was making (difficult to do otherwise as he was arguing on his unconscious emotions and I don’t suffer from competition and self-righteousness) but challenged me by asking how we then deal with the dangerous actions of others; he felt we had to draw a line.  This reminded me of a hexagram I had recently thrown in the I-Ching – 61 Inner Truth which says:

Thus the superior man, when obliged to 
judge the mistakes of men, tries to penetrate their minds with understanding, 
in order to gain a sympathetic appreciation of the circumstances. In ancient 
China, the entire administration of justice was guided by this principle. A 
deep understanding that knows how to pardon was considered the highest 
form of justice. This system was not without success, for its aim was to make 
so strong a moral impression that there was no reason to fear abuse of such 
mildness. For it sprang not from weakness but from a superior clarity.

I was struck by the fact that we need to deal with such corruptions and hold people accountable at times, but if we are aware of our own fallibility it does not mean we do not act but allows us to do so with compassion and understanding rather than self-righteous judgement and moral pomposity.  In watching Having I Got News For You and the vitriol poured out towards someone who had died (Margaret Thatcher), the lack of humanity was deeply saddening and shocking for me, yet, whilst I might be saddened and not wish to condone the lack of humanity, I could not but help recognise that in my late-teens I felt exactly the same way and at the time of the IRA bombing remarked to my then girlfriend that I wished they had succeeded in killing Maggie.  Her disgust at my comment made me feel more ashamed of myself than I think I have ever felt since.  I still wince now to think I could have been so heartless and inhuman, whether I liked someone or not.

If my friend Chrissy’s model of the brain is correct (and the evidence from the New Scientist seems to support it more and more strongly) then the rational brain (or pre-fontal lobes) is represented by Uranus (Aquarius) and Saturn (Capricorn) and these in turn correlate to the top lines of Hexagram 1 (The Creative) and Hexagram 2 (The Receptive).  Given the dangers of self-righteousness and judgmental enforcement of rules without “penetrating their minds with understanding”, perhaps this is why the I-Ching provides such strong warnings in these lines.  For Aquarius:

Arrogant dragon will have cause to repent.

When a man seeks to climb so high that he loses touch with the rest of 
mankind, he becomes isolated, and this necessarily leads to failure.

for Capricorn:

Dragons fight in the meadow.
Their blood is black and yellow.

In the top place the dark element should yield to the light. If it attempts to 
maintain a position to which it is not entitled and to rule instead of serving, 
it draws down upon itself the anger of the strong.

Lastly, I can only say that I am glad, having understood all this, that it has freed me from ever falling prey to hypocrisy and self-righteousness as so many other less enlightened people seem to do.


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