Last week, I posted a commentary on the Penn Statechild-rape scandal, claiming, among other things, that university communities are generally close-knit enough to assume widespread knowledge of Sandusky’s crimes. In response, an anonymous reader posted the following:
“what an extremely ignorant, accusatory and self righteous statement. You need to come down from whatever supposed high moral ground on which you were standing when you wrote the above. You, yourself have probably done nothing to contribute to society in comparison to what has been accomplished by the “students, faculty and staff” you’re so quick to criticize above.”
Independent of the internet-obligatory insults, the person is accurate. I was being both accusatory and self-righteous. In the words of the great George Costanza, was I wrong? Should I have not done that? My initial reaction was to think that anyone who hasn’t raped a child or enabled anyone else to do so was entitled to be self-righteous about this issue. This, in turn, caused me to ask whether being self-righteous was a bad thing at all. I’m not convinced it is.
A cursory look at several definitions of the term suggests that someone who is self-righteous is “overly pious” or “overly confident.” Some compare it to the term “sanctimonious.” But I don’t know how it is possible to be overly pious about an issue such as child rape. Is it bad that I am 100% convinced that repeatedly sexually assaulting young boys (and girls) is a bad thing? John Stuart Mill famously reminds us that human knowledge is not infallible and that we always have to entertain the notion that we might be wrong. Should critiquing the sexual assault of children therefore be posited with some tentativeness? Is it not possible that at some point in the future, some new evidence will be discovered, proving that child rape is indeed good, not bad, and that Sandusky was a hero, not a villain? I suppose in the most abstract, most theoretical sense, this is possible, but in reality, no, I am not willing to entertain this idea. Such knowledge is not possible in any meaningful sense and if child rape turns out to be moral, then I don’t want to live in that world.
Other famous people have been self-righteous before me. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was self-righteous about civil rights. Gandhi was self-righteous about Indian independence and the end of the caste system. It seems to me that what prevented their condemnation was that in each of those instances, they were correct, and that those whose self-righteousness we object to are, in reality, those who we think are wrong.
The Westboro Baptist Church, is an example, as is Newt Gingrich when he discusses the sanctity of marriage. (For those who want a Democratic example, feel free to replace Newt’s name with John Edwards – here is a list of adulterous politicians to help you find someone of your liking.) So, it seems to me that the question isn’t whether I was being self-righteous in my comments about Penn State, but whether I was incorrect.
Now, someone may respond that I’m missing the point. The comment wasn’t about my condemnation of Sadusky, but my critique of the “students, faculty and staff” who may have enabled the crimes. I’m not sure I see the difference, though. If I turn out to be correct in my assessment that lots of people other than the higher administration enabled Sandusky, then I had every right to be self-righteous. If it turns out that very few people knew, then I didn’t have the right. What the poster and I disagree about is not the self-righteousness, but the facts of the matter. Either lots of people knew or they didn’t. I think they did, the anonymous poster thinks they didn’t. (I offer this horrifying petition and its comments as evidence for my point of view.) Time may clarify this, although I doubt it.
So, what I am hoping all of you will consider is the possibility that self-righteousness isn’t the issue at all, only that truth is. Why? because if truth isn’t the issue, then that reduces Dr. King, Gandhi, and so many others inspirational leaders to sanctimonious blowhards just like me. While in the end, that may be the only thing I have in common with these great people, at least it’s something. I’ll take what I can get.