The first group one thinks of on hearing the term self-righteousness is what is known today as the Christian Right. One imagines Jesse Helmsfulminating against obscene artworks, or Pat Robertson condemning homosexuality. But my thirty years in the academic world have taught me that the most self-righteous people of all are on the Left. No one is so certain of standing at the right hand of God as the–probably unbelieving–university-based liberal. The religious person, even the true believer, always harbors some doubt about his salvation; his very vituperativeness is a reflection of his incertitude. In contrast, the liberal is untroubled by doubts. His unrelieved contempt for his political opponents is grounded on his serene conviction that they are not merely stupid but above all criminally selfish. Liberal self-righteousness is grounded on faith in altruism.
In the old days, the philosophies of the Left were universalist, which means they included oneself. But we have all learned Marx‘s lesson about the hypocrisy of the revolutionary bourgeoisie who equated their own interests with those of mankind. Now that this lesson has been translated into the victimary language of the PC era, the academic liberal has learned to have no self-interest at all. He is on the side of the oppressed, whether this be a social class, an ethnic group, a species of animals, or the planet as a whole. His own unavoidable complicity with the oppressors provokes in him white guilt, whose whiteness, whether or not it correspond to his skin color, is that of the non-particular, the non-minority. But white guilt, unlike his Christian counterpart’s sense of original sin, is activated only in the presence of victims. In relation to ordinary people it produces a powerful rush of superiority. For one so aware of his own complicity with oppression, a Ronald Reagan voter is beyond the pale. Pat Robertson will tell someone whose conduct he disapproves of that he hates the sin and not the sinner; liberals do not make this distinction toward the sinners on the right.
Our two self-righteous camps have few kind words for each other. Yet both are heirs to the Christian moral ideal that René Girard has characterized succinctly and powerfully as the defense of the victim. The academic liberal imagines his ideals to be secular, but they derive from the Christian revelation, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, as much as those of his political enemies.
Today the market system has caught up with the Christian ideal. Two thousand years of humble love for the victim have led to two kinds of Phariseeism: that of the religious conservative who rejects modernity, and that of the liberal who embraces white guilt, the one condemning the ungodly in the name of the original victim, the other ever seeking new victims to protect from their persecutors. (The breakdown of this protection, in the form of the welfare system, reflects that of the cult of the victim in general.)
To reveal the persecution of the sacrificial victim is a great moral revelation, historically perhaps the greatest of all. But it cannot be the final revelation. If generative anthropology has a role to play in allowing us to transcend self-righteousness toward the ultimate horizon of mutual understanding, it is in showing us that society is not founded on victimization but on language and the deferral of violence, and that there is no absolute dichotomy, as Christian thought suggests, between sacrificial and non-sacrificial social orders. Putting oneself on the side of the victim cannot constitute a permanent moral discovery-principle for right action.
What will improve the moral atmosphere is not compromise or tolerance in the vapid ecumenical sense of seeing the other side’s point of view, but a new understanding of the common root of all our moral positions. As human beings, we all share the same origin; what we fight over are hypotheses, not foundations.
Those of the Christian right should remind themselves that the world cannot return to the human immediacy of Christ’s day, or of their grandparents’. Phenomena like the homosexual lifestyle, abortion, pornography, need not enter everyone’s life, but they are part of the modern world and must be accommodated to. Human desire is everywhere the same; we should encourage the reciprocity of love and resist the violence of resentment in all our interactions. As I tried to show in my last column, if access to abortion leads to the destruction of potential lives, it also permits the mother to freely choose the life of her child.
From my academic vantage-point, liberal self-righteousness is a more troublesome phenomenon. The flaw of liberalism is that it is based on an anthropology of difference; liberalism is a kind of inverted colonialism. Every culture is different; every ethnic subculture is different; every individual is different. It is imperialistic to expect members of other cultures to function in our culture as well as we do. Hence any attempt to submit everyone to the same standards leads to outcries of discrimination.
But this anthropology is wrong. We are all fundamentally the same. Cultural differences supply enrichment upon a common foundation; that is how we are able to study foreign languages and cultures in the first place. To respect other people’s differences is to treat them as choices we too could have made, not as signs of victimage.
What formula does GA propose to replace take the side of the victim in a world where everyone is claiming victim status? Let me suggest take the side that is less self-righteous. Self-righteousness is a sign of resentment, and resentment is the source of human violence.
Jesus preferred to hang around with (re)publicans and sinners, not because they were “victims”–publicans were tax-collectors–but because they were less likely than the Pharisees to feel and act morally superior to others. Qui veut faire l’ange, fait la bête, to quote our old friend Pascal.