A good cause does not make a good person

By Matt Barnum

At the beginning of my first Sosc class last year, our professor had each of us say one thing that came to mind when we heard the word “liberal” or “conservative.” My half of the class was given “liberal,” and I—not a fan—had a few choice words in mind. But after dismissing the initial rush of vitriol and anger at hearing the word, I calmed down, and settled on the more diplomatic “tolerant.”

That was before the guy sitting next to me, when asked to describe conservative, said pompously, “hypocritical.” The look on his face—which said, “I’m so proud of myself, but I’m not going to show it”—set me off the most. I could almost see the gears turning in his mind as he thought of things that justified his accusation of conservatives: Christian teenagers are more likely to have abortions than their secular counterparts! While criticizing Bill Clinton for his affair, Newt Gingrich was having one of his own!

So when it was my turn to describe liberals, I said self-righteously, “self-righteous.” The class laughed, but after I was finally done patting myself on the back for my oh-so-clever remark, I realized what a fat hypocrite I was: Nothing makes me more self-righteous than others’ self-righteousness.

Aside from being disgusting, self-righteousness is one of the most ineffective persuaders. Last academic year, the U of C was home to two major activist causes, both of which, I think it’s fair to say, were abject failures. (Also, for the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I was opposed to these two movements.) Not only did both of them fail practically, but neither, from my perspective, was able to garner significant campus-wide support. Moreover, the failure to gain broad agreement in favor of these causes can be attributed, in part, to the self-righteousness apparent in both these movements.

Throughout last year, the Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND)—even the name is a bit pompous—made clear they felt the University of Chicago, because it had investments in Sudan, was partly responsible for the genocide in Darfur. Activists brandished signs proclaiming “My University Supports Genocide,” flooded this editor’s inbox with histrionic op-ed submissions, traipsed into the Gleacher Center—replete in business suits—to crash a Board of Trustees’ meeting, and stormed President Zimmer’s office, pouring hundreds of pennies on his secretary’s desk. Citing the Kalven Report, which demands University neutrality on social and political issues, the Board of Trustees elected not to divest from companies doing business with Sudan. Instead, President Zimmer set aside $200,000 for study of the genocide in Darfur; this, however, was deemed “blood money” by many single-minded proponents of divestment. Meanwhile, many normal students who would otherwise be sympathetic to the cause were alienated by STAND’s radical tactics. STAND members felt that they were so above reproach, so morally just, that they didn’t have to behave like normal human beings or make substantive arguments for divestment. It was this moral certitude that was ultimately STAND’s undoing.

The other chic campus cause last spring was the campaign to kick Coke off campus. Anti-Coke activists alleged union-busting, poor working conditions, and human rights violations in Coke plants in Colombia. For these purported offenses, some wanted Coke products out of all University-run dining facilities. While anti-Coke activists’ means of persuasion were relatively subdued and inoffensive—in fact it was the smug antics of Coke supporters that caused a minor backlash—their ends were self-righteous in nature. The movement wanted to remove choice from the hands of both Coke workers and U of C students. Self-appointed guardians of Colombians decided that they “shouldn’t” work for Coke because the conditions are too bad. (Never did these guardians stop to consider why the simpletons in Colombia would decide to work under such dire conditions.) Coke opponents also wanted to tell students what to drink. If some students believe that Coke warrants boycotting, then so be it, but the decision should be left to the individual.

When you have strong feelings about politics, self-righteousness comes with the territory, because of course we all think we’re right. How, then, is it avoidable? Well, to some degree it’s not. One key, though, is to figure out when you’re feeling self-righteous and to then take a step back. Even if you’re good at this self-awareness, then you, like me, will start feeling so proud about how non self-righteous you are. Then you’ll realize it, and the cycle will start again.

The other key is to remember that in politics, differences in opinion usually turn on means, not ends. That is to say, most of the time, we all want the same results, but we have different ideas about how best to get them. Specifically, people who are against the minimum wage don’t hate poor people, abortion supporters don’t like killing babies, and Coke supporters aren’t in favor of human rights violations.

When we choose to be self-righteous, there is an inherent dishonesty involved, toward others and toward ourselves. Because of the supposed rightness in our cause, we delude ourselves into believing in our own decency, our own self-worth, our own rightness; it makes us feel good, and that’s why we keep doing it. But in the end, it’s an empty feeling. None of us has all the answers—we’re all kind of smart, kind of clueless people who might be right once in a while, but that’s it. To pretend otherwise is just that: pretend.