Undermining Our Own Self-Righteous Certainty
Having too much confidence in our views is a sign we need to grow up.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats
Self-righteous certainty is always a problem. Its opposite, self-doubt, can also be a problem, but is much less dangerous.
As the great Irish poet pointed out, back in 1919, “passionate intensity,” what I am calling self-righteous certainty, can lead to violence, “The blood-dimmed tide.” Conversely, self-doubt, when we refuse to engage in verbal extremism, can be seen as a lack of conviction, which paralyzes action.
Those of us over a certain age sometimes do “lack all conviction.” I am much less certain of my views at 60 than I was at 30. I am even more certain of my values than I was at that age, but not so sure how those values should be realized in social structures or political actions.
I have just seen too many political and social experiments fail in my lifetime. I no longer believe in certainty. I no longer believe that any one ideology will save us from our own self-destructive human tendencies.
The problem is that humans love to be right. About everything. We love proving our enemies wrong. We love making other people wrong and by doing so, we justify our very existence.
History can offer us a few lessons.
Back in the dark ages, we would defeat our enemies by literally killing them. In fact, this tendency goes way back to a time when we were all hunter-gatherers. If someone was not a member of your tribe, they were your enemy. And if someone was your enemy, you more or less had to kill them if they entered your territory. Or you could make them a member of your tribe and they would be instantly transformed into family.
There were no shades of gray; other people were either your family or your enemy. These were the only two categories.
This kind of either/or thinking still survives today in North American political discourse. And our society is more polarized than ever.
The birth of civilization complicated things. People still killed their enemies (see just about any book of the bible as a case in point), but they needed complicated structures like armies in order to do so. After defeating their enemies in battle, they would erect flattering statues of themselves. Or sing heroic songs of their victories that were passed down from generation to generation. They might even carve some triumphant words on the base of the statue, like the ones immortalized by the great English poet Shelley from an actual ancient Assyrian statue: “Look on my works ye Mighty and despair!”
In other words, rhetoric was born, and also its shadow side, propaganda. Humans could now defeat their enemies with words as well as swords.
That’s what we do today. Warfare is just too costly and messy. We only engage in actual bloodshed when we feel we have no other choice. Unless we have psychopathic tendencies. But that is the subject of a different article.
It’s the human ego at work. And we all know we need an ego to operate in the world. A completely egoless person is not very effective in day-to-day life. It only works if you are willing to go live in a cave somewhere like Tibet and spend your life as a hermit contemplating the illusions of human existence while you wait to die and achieve Nirvana.
But our egos, necessary as they are, also make us dysfunctional in the world. We let our egos rule us and distort our thinking. The ego makes us paranoid if we listen to it too much.
The ego engages our primitive side. It’s what we turn to when we are feeling afraid or vulnerable. But it also can bring out our worst, most violent tendencies. And words can be violent.
And they can incite violence.
Just take a look at Twitter if you don’t believe me. Or catch Tucker Carlson’s show on the FOX TV network.
I follow a Substack blog that illustrates this tendency perfectly. It’s a newsletter that purports to promote civil discourse. But the people commenting on the posted articles cannot manage to keep things civil. They demonize teachers, teachers’ unions, people on the left, and even just people who wear masks outside. There’s a lot of praise for Tucker Carlson.
It’s like their life depends on defeating those enemies I listed. And on upholding their heroes, who include, among others, Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, and pretty much any opponent of Critical Race Theory.
Here is a typical response to a suggestion that calling mask wearers “idiots” is abusive and does not lead to civil discourse, the supposed purpose of the dialogues promoted on the blog:
Civil discourse left five years ago when the left couldn’t accept that a political novice beat their anointed queen. Since then, they’ve been on an endless, hateful, vitriolic warpath. If they want a fight, I am willing to give them one. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned — except for that woman’s supporters.
Just a slight over-reaction to a plea for toned-down rhetoric. Asking someone not to call someone an idiot for having a different opinion about masks.
Also, do you see the projection here? It’s pure, desperate self-righteous certainty. The things this person is criticizing are the exact things they are doing. Only the violence is projected onto the enemy, the left. And only the right sees the truth and is capable of engaging in civil discourse. Unfortunately, the virtuous right is forced to be violent with its words, because the “left” left them no choice.
No mention of the hateful, vitriolic words of Donald Trump and his followers. No acknowledgement of HIS refusal to accept the outcome of the last election, which has absolutely no basis in fact.
Hilary Clinton is apparently the left’s “anointed queen,” but Trump is not their all-powerful god-like leader for whom they display slavish loyalty. No that’s the enemy’s disordered thinking, not theirs.
Yup, we on the left are the ones full of vitriol. Not them.
Their enemies forced them to be violent. In order to defend themselves. From what? Presumably the left, aided by President Joe, will come for their guns, their assets, their women and their children.
Very tribal thinking. Primitive paranoia.
Not that we on the left are entirely innocent of the right’s projections. We can be verbally violent and irrational as well. But the real problem is actually in their minds: it’s an epistemological problem. They are too certain of what they think they know. They are convinced that a change in the power structure of society will spell the death of everything they love. The total and complete loss of all their power.
Power sharing is not an option. That is an unacceptable defeat.
And they must fight against this to the death.
It’s either us or them. There can be no compromise.
Things are not looking good. But hopefully some form of rationality, on both the right and the left and everywhere in between, will prevail. If we can grow out of our childish need for constant combat, for constant warring with the enemy who exists mostly in our own minds.
And we can only do this if we have sufficient self-awareness. Which can only be achieved with painful self-exploration. Violently denouncing everyone and everything we don’t like is so much easier.
It means we must have compassion for our enemies. A tall order for most of us humans.
It means we have to try to imagine the experience of others who are alien to us. People like “lazy” teachers or the evil people who run teachers’ unions. People who are against universal healthcare. People who think that when the police kill innocent civilians, they are only doing their jobs. People who support extreme political factions. People who insist that they can choose their own gender. People who don’t want to pay taxes. People.
All kinds of people with all kinds of ideologies we don’t want to listen to.
It may actually be too difficult for most of us. And it makes some of us sometimes want to live in a cave and avoid all human beings.
I will end with some hopeful words from the great twentieth-century thinker, Sam Keen, author of Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination:
True self-knowledge introduces self-doubt into our minds. And self-doubt is a healthy counter-balance to the dogmatic, self-righteous certainty that governs political rhetoric and behavior; it is, therefore, the beginning of compassion.