Joan Didion on Learning Not to Mistake Self-Righteousness for Morality
By Maria Popova
“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in what remains some of the finest advice on writing and life. But if beneath the world “morality,” as James Baldwin asserted, “we are confronted with the way we treat each other,” then to be a moral human being requires an especial attentiveness to other human beings and their subjective realities. In consequence, any true morality is the diametric opposite of self-righteousness — the very thing that so often masquerades for morality.
That paradox is what Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934), a writer who has spent a lifetime mirroring us back to ourselves, examines with characteristic incisiveness in a short 1965 essay titled “On Morality,” found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (public library) — the classic 1968 essay collection that gave us Didion on keeping a notebook and her timeless meditation on self-respect.
With an eye to our tendency to mistake for morality what is indeed a “monstrous perversion” of the ego, Didion writes:
“I followed my own conscience.” “I did what I thought was right.” How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murderers? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on that most primitive level — our loyalties to those we love — what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?
Half a century later, Didion’s point seems all the more disquieting amid our present culture, where the filter bubble of our loyalties has rendered in-group/out-group divisiveness all the more primitive and where we combat our constant terror of coming unmoored from our certitudes by succumbing to unbridled self-righteousness under the pretext of morality. Didion considers how this tendency has made us less moral rather than more:
You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing — beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code — what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.
In a passage of excruciating timeliness today, as we fling our self-righteousnesses at each other from the two-finger slingshot of what was once the peace sign, Didion adds:
Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular fragment with Mark Twain on morality vs. the intellect, artist Ann Truitt on the cure for our chronic self-righteousness and James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s forgotten conversation about morality, then revisit Didion on grief, Hollywood’s diversity problem, and her all-time favorite books.
Published December 5, 2016