Privilege Blog

Everyone Thinks They Are The Good Guys, Or, Saturday Morning at 7:45am

It has come to my attention that everyone thinks they’re the good guys.

I ran across this video, which is political, so let me sum it up more personally – all sides to any conflict believe they are in the right.

This plays out for individuals too. When I was young, if I thought about people who did bad things, I suppose I assumed they thought of themselves as Wicked.

They don’t. Over and over again I’ve seen, it, enough times now that I get what’s going on. People who do bad things are telling themselves an internal story that they are OK. That their actions are Correct, at least Justifiable. Few people bother with Simply Excusable.

And what’s weird, to me, is that often intelligence aids and abets in the story-telling. People don’t use their minds to analyze their behaviors dispassionately but rather to allow. In fact, sometimes the smarter people are the better they are at this act of self-deception. Very disappointing. When I was young I worked for a brilliant man. Golly gosh gee whiz the fancy fictions to justify terrible behavior.

This isn’t true of everyone, luckily. I have always loved smart engineers because they tend to dissect everything equally.

So in these days of retirement, when I have time and maybe an obligation to become virtuous, I find the best tactic is to stay still with my own impulses. To listen to my internal narration, and wait until it quiets, and in the silence is as much truth as I’m capable of hearing.

Now, I’d be lying if I said, that I always rise above my understood motivations to choose the virtuous act. Does self-honesty bring inevitable good? Nope. Even when I see what I’m doing I might do it anyway. I am just as selfish, weak, and greedy as the next person.

But I’d rather live truthfully with my sins than in deception with an invented virtue. And I’m getting better.

Add insult to injury. Complex spun stories of personal glory don’t just let you do selfish things, they also require everyone around you to participate in the narrative. It’s a burden to others. You’re going along, doing what you want, getting what you want, and yet you’re insisting that somehow you are in the right. You insist that everyone else plays along, even applaud. Even hold a parade.

On the other hand, once you decide to stare your own flaws clear in the face, you can’t just sit down and be done. Either you make a change, painful though it might be, or, you forgive yourself.

Anything else is just frustration and lies. Life is short and why not see it truly in all its harm and glory?

Forgiveness is such a relief. As is doing better. Even if it’s really hard work, it’s still easier – albeit more frightening – than fiction. This may seem harsh. I don’t mean it to be. It’s only as true as I can make it.

Have a good weekend. All the best to each and every one.

38 Responses

  1. What great thoughts this Saturday morning. With politics on all of our plates with November coming up, your realization that everyone thinks they are right is something to think about. We knew it already, but acknowledging that we know it is important.

  2. Without forgiveness,I think we all would end like Timon the Athenian-living alone,without living soul to lean on!
    It is relief to be myself ,with all flaws and sins I might have. Yes,I try to do good-but is my good always good to you?
    History,and not only history,is a rashomon phenomen!
    You are so right:
    I had to deal,while working with kids,with severe-sometimes!- family problems! It was hard to understand how can people act like this,neglect,abandon their children,even worst?
    And than I realized ,too,that they were masters of self-deception,they started with good intentions and than someone else was guilty,always someone else,not them.
    Even worst of them!
    Have a nice weekend Lisa!

  3. to forgive themselves is the best generosity and to
    forgive others the best dispensation

  4. As with many of the darker, negative sides of human nature, it is so easy for me to identify what you’ve described today in others whilst ignoring the same in my own actions and thoughts.

    I agree, forgiveness is key. Also, life as we know it any particular moment is short and liable to change unpredictably.

    I will be going into this new week with your words in my thoughts. To see life as it really is, both good and bad.

    SSG xxx

  5. Lisa, retired or not, you don’t have an obligation to become “virtuous”.

    Virtue is not a duty. Virtue is about being yourself and then sharing your unique gifts and abilities with others. Not for applause or rewards, but because it’s what you love to do. Joy is contagious.

    I think most of us were brought up to think that there’s no virtue without sacrifice, but I think there’s no virtue without joy.

    That being said, I think it’s a good thing to stare one’s flaws in the face and either change or forgive.

    I realize this comment is somewhat off-topic, but I do think if we all concentrated on sharing joy instead of worrying about politics, the world would be a better place.

    1. @Diane, Interesting. I agree, joy is part of finding virtue. But I think I can’t help but feel obliged to virtue, having grown up in so much privilege. I am not looking to sacrifice, per se, only to tell myself the truth as best I can and then make a truthful choice on way or the other.

    2. @Diane, Lisa,
      The whole concept of “noblesse oblige” is condescending.

      Anyone can ladle soup. Most people who do so, do so to make themselves feel better.

      On the other hand, if you make delicious soup and enjoy sharing it with others, be they richer or poorer, more or less privileged, then you are contributing in a meaningful way and are making the world a more joyful (and better) place.

  6. This is interesting. I was just discussing a similar topic with my husband. Hitler and the nazis thought they were doing the right thing, they needed a scapegoat during a hard time and found it. And apparently convinced many regular people to believe in them and fight for them. It’s scary. Especially considering some of the people (ok, really just one person) currently running for president.

    Have you read Daniel Kahnmann? In “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” he talks about the two thinking systems we have in our brains: one is automatic, instinctual and based on emotions; the other is more rational and good for complex problem-solving. Apparently most people used their slow, rational-thinking brain to explain away decisions their quick, instinctual brain uses.

    1. @Danielle, Ah so interesting! That’s what I see, that the desire chooses and the thought explains. Sometimes in terribly intricate and demanding narratives.

  7. Forgiving yourself is important. I prefer to go with acceptance when it comes to dealing with others who , IMO, consider themselves wrongly in the right.

    1. @RoseG, Acceptance vs. forgiving, that’s an interesting distinction. I think I am trying to move towards the emotional element of forgiveness. Essentially a release and a joy in acceptance.

  8. What a beautiful and honest post. If we could only accept ourselves, faults and all, the world would be so much nicer. Forgiveness is paramount, despite terrible behavior. That does not mean forgetting. And it does not mean absolution of responsibility. Nor does it mean we stop trying to be our best selves, understanding that even our best self is flawed.

    I think this path, toward reflection and understanding of one’s actions and thoughts, is part of the road to wisdom. There are traditions which would have it so.

    The people I worry the most about are the ones who insist the most that they are good people despite any and all evidence to the contrary. They drag themselves deeper into the mire, often preying on other’s fears, taking hostages. Cognitive dissonance to the extreme? Perhaps with fracture lines?

  9. I’m back. I just read something that reminded me of this post, and what you say here and have said before:

    “They saw that all they did must flow directly from what they experienced as true, and that if it did not, both the knowing and the doing became false. In order to keep the knowledge clear and the doing true, they stripped away anything which seemed to get in the way.”

    from a book called “plain living” about the Quaker path to simplicity.

  10. Lisa, I am a longtime lurker here, and have long appreciated your style and thoughtful approach to topics like these. If you’d care for a giggle regarding your thoughts today, take a look at the “Are we the baddies?” Mitchell & Webb sketch, easily found on YouTube.

    1. @Cat, Thank you. Very nice to meet you, I appreciate that you come out of lurkdom for a difficult post. And, yes, skulls;). Alexander McQueen might have had something to say about that…R.I.P.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this on and off today as it applies to parenting. As our culture leans toward accepting less personal responsibility and being careful not to judge others, we need to make sure we’re also able to see our faults clearly. As I raised my children, I often wished for that “manual.” My own mother passed away when I was a teenager and I wanted to know what kind of job I was doing as a mother. When our 6 year old son showed emotional struggles at school, one of the teachers insisted, in front of my husband, myself, and a team of teachers, that maybe something was going on at home. There were shocked looks. Among the teachers, an awkward silence followed. But I was glad my parenting was being questioned. Turns out nothing at home was causing our son’s pain – it was an undiagnosed learning disability. But oh the world problems and pain we could solve if parents everywhere could be open to their flaws, however small, forgive themselves, then move to fix them.

    1. @Jane S., Oh I agree, this is so hard when it comes to parenting. Especially because kids don’t come with meters to tell us when there are issues, and we want so so much to do a good job. And I think it’s important to be open to one’s parenting flaws, and yet, it’s also important to develop confidence. Hard work.

  12. You may be interested in further reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ work. He describes this phenomenon as “Altruistic Evil” in his book “Not In God’s Name”.

  13. I think – I am not sure, but I think – that some people are more motivated by believing themselves to be important (et al) than by believing themselves to be good. I do think most still do some moral gymnastics when being “bad” to explain why they’re not the worst or why their actions are justifiable, but some may sometimes simply be content with being Big rather than Good.

    I partly say this because I did not realize, for a long time, that there were people for whom winning the argument by any means was more important than actually being factually correct. I still don’t understand that, but it definitely exists, and I think it is related.

    There are also times when human beings are in extremis (physically, mentally, whatever) and concerns about logic and ethics and similar are subsumed in desperate action. In other words, sometimes “good” seems irrelevant. (but isn’t!)

    But your primary point – that, generally, people see themselves as “good guys” in a similar way to how they consider themselves “above average” – does definitely seem to be the case.

    And yes, in one’s own life, revise and resubmit…

    1. @KC, “there were people for whom winning the argument by any means was more important than actually being factually correct.” I can understand this in business, although I wasn’t ever good at it. But in one’s personal life, the toll taken by the lie, on you and on those who surround you, just not good:(.

      It is exactly like everyone thinking about themselves as above average, I agree.

    2. @KC,

      I suppose the question to ask is “what do you have to lose from learning” – and if the answer to that is integral to someone’s identity (as a “nice person who wouldn’t hurt people” or as someone “who never changes their mind” or “the winner” or whatever), then you can get some pretty strange-looking outcomes from people you would have otherwise thought reasonable.

      I’ve seen this in myself on occasion – if I feel like I’ve inconvenienced someone through carelessness or similar, then I will sometimes find myself building a narrative where they are somehow at fault, because “I’m not the sort of person” to offend. This narrative-building is patently ridiculous, but I totally do it… so if I’m being oddly critical of someone, I now often check myself for why – which is usually guilt over something or other, reasonable or unreasonable (sometimes an incident or interaction or accident is non-culpable, really, but that doesn’t always stop it from coming into collision with our image of ourselves).

      And yes, the truth is almost always more uncomfortable than the fiction – there is a reason the fiction is pulled into existence – but is so very necessary to who one wants to be as one grows up – and one wants to keep growing *up* however young or old one is. :-)

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. It is much appreciated.

      1. Your comments are equally appreciated. And, to continue *growing up* is precisely my goal.

  14. You hit that scenario bang on the nose! I see so much of this in life that it almost surprises me to find anyone who is not that way. There is a great deal of narcissism running rampant thriugh our society today. You are SO right about these people expecting others to join in applauding of self aggrandizement, and what a burden it is. A person who is really good at this can suck the life right out of you. I refer to them as emotional vampires. Great post, Lisa. I have never heard a better interpretation of this.

  15. I find that some people have one set of standards for themselves and another entirely different set for others. (They think they are the exception.)

    When you point this out, they freak and fold! Of course, all done in a calm, matter-of-fact manner.

    1. It’s the calm and matter-of-fact that gets me every time, if I’m all in emotionally.

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