I’ve been thinking a lot about what a self-righteous jackass I am. I don’t know if you also think about this, because – and I say this with the utmost love and respect – I have a sneaky feeling that you, being a fellow human being, might also suffer from this affliction.
Before the hot flood of indignation starts rushing through your veins, let me explain. I spend a great deal of time observing people, usually without their knowledge. Not in a creepy stalker/paparazzo way, but more like a curious writer looking for inspiration. And here’s what I’ve noticed about people. We all have very clear ideas about how the world should work. This is true regardless of who we are or where we come from. We believe that we know more than “the masses” because, you know, school and science, or religion and tradition, or whatever our poison happens to be. We are convinced that certain things are common sense, and for some reason these are often things that are open to interpretation. What’s even more fascinating is that none of us are ever part of “the masses”. The masses or “the world”, i.e. the stupid ones, are always other people.
Exhibit A: This morning my mother accused me of burning the lentils, and naturally I defended myself. The fact that I did burn the lentils is beside the point. She said, “Did the lentils burn?” and I heard, “You are a terrible cook. You can’t do anything right and frankly why you bother is a mystery.” Which is INSANE, but there you go. This is how our minds operate. So when someone says “racism”, or “LGBTQ rights” or “God” we hear a long, elaborate story based on any number of things we may have experienced or heard about or read. We can’t even begin to be rational, even if we speak in calm voices and tell ourselves what sensible people we are. Everything is charged.
This is why people will continue to think what they think, feel what they feel and believe what they believe, no matter what. We are all stubbornly subjective, whether we admit it or not, and we all want everyone to think as we do. Because deep down we know this, we have relied on two models of governance: either everybody has a say or one person has a say on everyone else’s behalf. Most of us claim to prefer democracy, and yet we insist that people we disagree with shouldn’t be allowed to express their views. Pretty sure that’s not how democracy works. We can’t have democracy and dictatorship. That’s just greedy.
We have a bad habit of assuming we know better – saints trying to save sinners, intellectuals trying to educate the masses, the liberated trying to emancipate the enslaved, the enlightened trying to wake the sleepwalkers. Everybody’s trying to “help”, but despite scripture, tarot and economists, none of us have the first clue what life will look like in a month, a decade or a century. The fact that I think I’m smarter than everyone else doesn’t make it true, though I take great pleasure in thinking it. It’s all very well to freak out about how “they” (read: we) are screwing up the world. Oh, all those wicked Not-Mes! How dare they? And as for you, idiot who doesn’t share my outrage, you are part of the problem! Sure. We’re all part of the problem, whatever the problem is supposed to be.
I don’t like being told what to think. I like to make my own mistakes, thank you very much, and I’m pretty sure that goes for most of us. So how do we not see the hypocrisy in imposing our view that people should not impose their views? On the flip side, how do I justify calling people out for calling people out? Based on my own argument, I can’t. See? It’s a mess because we’re a mess. The way our minds work is stupid and complex and awesome, and the only way to deal with it is to recognise it.
For the most part, the world is made up of good people with good intentions. Comforting, right? Yes, except the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So what do we do? How do we function? I don’t know. I already told you, I’m not as smart as I think I am. But I’ve figured out a way to interact with others that seems to work, when I get it right. I think about how I would like to be treated, and I try to extend that same courtesy to the people around me. Sometimes the people in question don’t want to be treated the same way I would, and I have to adjust my behaviour so that I can respect both my position and theirs. Sometimes this leaves me feeling like a contortionist. Sometimes I can’t be bothered. Sometimes I’m downright horrible, because self-righteous jackassness is a chronic condition that sneaks up on you.
But the point of this essay is not to offer easy solutions, because I don’t think there are any. The point, as always, is to get us thinking, and then get us thinking about how we think, and why, and what impact it has on the world around us. The point is not for you to freak out if you realise that you are also a self-righteous jackass sometimes. The point is to be aware, to notice when it strikes, and to be able to take a step back and re-evaluate. And maybe, one day, to be able to shake your head and laugh at the weirdness that makes us human.