The most deceiving and dangerous emotion that causes disconnection and conflict
The political season has reached fever pitch. Emotions are high and heated.
The moral fibers of our culture are unraveling at an alarming rate. Trust in our institutions is at an all-time low. Anger, frustration, disgruntlement, resentment, and disillusionment are at all-time highs.
We’re all looking for someone to blame. We desperately want some way to explain the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
In short, you can’t find a more ideal breeding ground for one of the most harmful emotions known to man.
This emotion is dangerous because it causes us to judge, shame, blame, and abuse others. It creates strong and heated divisions between people and incites fierce conflict.
It’s deceiving because it feels so justified, so good, and so right.
Try to guess what this emotion is as you consider the following expressions of it:
- “I can’t believe she’s wearing that.”
- “He ought to be ashamed of himself.”
- “They need to be punished for their deplorable behavior.”
- “Those gangster rappers are so degenerate. They should be shunned and shut down.”
- “Liberals are ruining our country.”
- “Gun lovers are so stubborn, backward, and stupid. They reject the simplest logic.”
- “Muslims are terrorists and ought to be sent back to where they belong.”
- “Jews are greedy and untrustworthy.”
- “People who believe in abortion are evil.”
This emotion is declared by outraged mobs brandishing fiery signs of protest. It is proclaimed by preachers pontificating on “what ought to be.” It is muttered by moralists bemoaning the deterioration of values and standards. It is ranted by reformers berating their perceived enemies.
This emotion is righteous indignation.
I don’t deny that there may be a valid and useful form of righteous indignation. Unfortunately, its counterfeits are the painful norm.
Neither do I deny that there are legitimate and serious problems in our society, moral and otherwise, that need to be addressed. However, these problems are much closer to home than most of us are comfortable to admit.
Righteous indignation feels so good because it justifies ourselves in our own shortcomings. Looking down our noses at others keeps us from taking a long, hard, honest look at ourselves. Making other people bad and unworthy makes us feel good and worthy.
It also prevents us from seeing the sinister emotions lurking underneath our indignation. For example, women ashamed of their bodies may condemn other women in bikinis for flaunting their bodies. Insecure men may disparage bold “players” who get the girls.
As author H.G. Wells put it,
“Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”
Righteous indignation separates us from other people by creating enemy images. It thrives on stereotypes, labels, and categorizing. It needs someone to fight against, someone against whom we can direct our anger and frustration. Judgment, shame, and blame are its currency.
But it does more than separate us from people — it puts us above people. Being righteously indignant puts us on a moral high horse, a condescending pedestal from which we preach to the wayward, the stupid, the ignorant, the selfish, the degenerate — all of whom just so happen to be anyone but ourselves.
“I’m right and you’re wrong” too often subconsciously becomes, “I’m inherently better than you.”
Thus, the heart of self-righteous indignation is self-deception.
The reason why it separates us from others is because it separates us from ourselves. We can only preach down to others when we’re not being honest with ourselves.
Iranian author and professor Azar Nafisi writes that righteous indignation is “the sort of anger one gets high on, the kind one takes home to show off to family and friends.”
This high is both literal and figurative — literal in the physical feeling it gives us, and figurative in its moral superiority.
Once we put ourselves above other people, it’s dangerously easy to cross another line and justify mistreating others.
As psychologist Erich From wrote in Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics,
“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.”
Historian Paul Johnson added in Modern Times,
“Men are excessively ruthless and cruel not as a rule out of malice but from outraged righteousness.”
Jews in the Holocaust weren’t tortured and murdered because the Nazis were bad people, but precisely because the Nazis deceived themselves into believing they were doing good.
You and I aren’t Nazis and we’ve never tortured or murdered anyone. But we have labeled, judged, blamed, shamed, and insulted our political opponents. We have justified mistreating our spouses by playing the innocent victim. We have created enemies of neighbors who haven’t lived up to our expectations.
All of us (including and especially me) heed the siren call of righteous indignation in small and seemingly insignificant ways every day of our lives.
Perhaps the most critical reason why it’s so harmful is because it prevents us from seeing unmet needs in others with compassion.
Viewed through the smug and sanctimonious lens of righteous indignation, promiscuous women are degenerate sluts. What’s not seen is the deep cry to be loved and wanted in the promiscuity.
Angry, tough, macho men are viewed as inconsiderate jerks. What’s not seen is their legitimate need to be respected and valued.
Rich people who claw their way to the top are seen as selfish and greedy pigs. What’s not seen is their desperate need for security.
Everyone we’ve ever viewed as our enemy, as somehow morally inferior to us, as tainted in any way, is just like us. We’re all in this together, and we are all more alike than self-righteousness wants us to know.
We all want the same things: to be loved, accepted, valued, and respected. To be seen and appreciated and to belong. To be safe, secure, healthy, and happy.
We all fall short of living our values. We all betray ourselves and do things we regret. We’re all just trying to navigate and make sense of this terrifying and excruciating existence.
Righteous indignation is a desperate attempt to change the world so we can get our needs met.
But what changes the world isn’t righteous indignation, but rather humble compassion. We change others not through self-righteous sermonizing, but rather through sincere service.
In the history of mankind, shame has never made anyone better; only bitter. Kindness, on the other hand, has changed countless hearts and moved mountains.
No matter what they’ve done, no matter how much harm we think they are causing, our worst enemies don’t deserve or need to be blamed, shamed, or punished. For they are just like us, and what we all need is to be respected and loved.
Righteous indignation does not justify our anger; it only hardens our hearts and disconnects us from our own needs and from other people.