The Fem Spot

Self-righteous indignation

Posted in Feminist Theory, News by femspotter on November 27, 2011

November 27, 2011

We’re all guilty of it: self-righteous indignation (SRI) is the little voice inside your head whispering (or shouting), “I’m right and you’re wrong!” when we observe the actions of others. Most often, you hear this voice when you’re driving, notes one self-identified “licensed therapist”:

The term ‘self-righteous’ is defined by yourdictionary.com as ‘filled with or showing a conviction of being morally superior, or more righteous than others; smugly virtuous.’

Beautiful. That’s exactly it. Not virtuous, but smugly virtuous. It is about feeling superior to someone else. Most of us are most easily tempted into self-righteous indignation when driving. The driver ahead of us is driving too slow, too fast, cuts us off or makes some other terribly heinous error. And we are filled with outrage. We lay on the horn and yell and make sure everyone around knows that driver is not driving ‘correctly’ (or at least how we define correct driving). The nerve of that guy! What a loser.

As a mother, I deal with a constant flood of SRI. First, as a pregnant woman, I was subject to unsolicited advice about my diet, my sleep patterns, my maternity clothes, my exercise habits, etc. Apparently, everybody is an authority on pregnancy…even most men! I didn’t know much, so I listened.

Now, as mother to a 16 month-old, I feel I may know even less, because there’s a whole new strain of SRI coming my way: advice about her diet, her sleep patterns, the outfits I put her in, how much activity she gets, and more! Apparently, everybody is an authority on motherhood too…and the worst offenders are other mothers. 

Why? Because we can’t avoid that voice in our heads yelling that we know what’s best. And, because we’re mothers and thus very important people (certainly this is true in our own lives!), we feel we are obligated to make sure that other mothers know what’s what. That means openly criticizing everything other mothers do: from what they wear on/feed/do to their own bodies to what they put on/feed/do to their kids. I’ve even heard mothers criticize other mothers for totally unrelated things, such as only checking email once per week or volunteering for charitable causes in their spare time. “How come she can’t make time to check email on weekdays?!” “How come she has enough time to raise money for cancer research?!”

What it really comes down to is this: we all make choices. Some of those choices line up with those made by our friends and some just don’t. And it’s really hard to hear opposition to your choices if you’ve spent a lot of time weighing your options in order to make an educated decision.

Case in point 

A recent public service announcement issued by the City of Milwaukee Health Department (CMHD) claiming that co-sleeping with your baby is just as dangerous as positioning your baby next to a sharp knife has some parents outraged:

Downloaded from http://city.milwaukee.gov/SafeSleep

Downloaded from http://city.milwaukee.gov/SafeSleep

The CMHD justifies this ad reporting an alarming statistic: “Between 2006 and 2009 there were 89 infant deaths related to SIDS, SUDI, or accidental suffocation.  Of these, 46 (51.7%) infants were sleeping in an adult bed at the time of their death.  The overall rate of such deaths has remained high in the last decade, prompting public health officials to launch a provocative city-wide safe sleep campaign to prevent them.”

Sounds like their hearts are in the right place. Who wouldn’t want to prevent 46 infant deaths?! But to a parent who has put a lot of time, energy and thought into his or her choice to co-sleep, this ad comes across as flip, dismissive, insincere and of course – because it is – self-righteous. The CMHD is saying, “We know what’s best for you and your baby,” or, in other words, “You are doing it all wrong!” For a parent who has made a loving decision to create a family bed, receiving a message like this is like getting a slap in the face…or a knife in the back.

SRI: a good thing?

When you visit the CMDH Web site and read its rationale, you might reconsider co-sleeping based on statistical evidence that suggests it’s dangerous. Perhaps, if you’re a heavy person and a heavy sleeper, co-sleeping is not the best choice for you and your baby. Maybe the Department’s information will help you create a safe compromise: in-room crib sleeping, using a co-sleeper pulled up to your bed, opting for an in-bed nest with firm boundaries to keep you from rolling on top of your baby, etc. In this case, the information is a good thing: it has alerted you to the potential hazards of sleeping with your baby.

But if you have a principled stance in favor of co-sleeping in place – because you want to be able to breastfeed in the night or because you believe in continuum parenting, etc., then the information may be something you already knew and had considered…and the posters of babies sleeping next to knives might come across as snide. Snide is NOT a good thing.

While the posters, like much unsolicited advice, are meant to be helpful – and it’s up to all of us to accept this advice graciously because we too are just as likely to dish it, when messages are snide – or read as snide, they are hurtful. It’s not surprising that some parents were offended by the arguably glib suggestion that co-sleeping is akin to the Psycho shower scene, because it’s a deliberate exaggeration to make a point. And it worked! It got our attention…but that doesn’t mean that feelings did not get hurt in the process.

Is SRI a Feminist issue?

Yes. Feminism is, for all intents and purposes, a form of self-righteous indignation. It’s basically one set of people saying to another set of people, “We’re right about women and you’re wrong.” And, even when Feminists are not talking about how wrongfully men treat women, they’re telling other Feminists how to behave. It’s incredibly self-righteous for radical Feminists to refer to liberal feminists as “fun fems,” for instance, suggesting that the libs are trying to win favor with men by engaging in sex with them. Feminism is full of infighting, even though, supposedly, we’re all trying to eradicate the misconceptions that women are by default shrewish, ignorant, weak, etc. The best thing we can do for our cause is to conduct ourselves with grace, listen to and contemplate the opinions of other Feminists (even if they have a snide tone), and respond politely with, at the very least, egalitarian respect.

Consider this advice from the good “therapist”:

If you are guilty of this pattern (of SRI), how do you stop it?

1.  Instead of deciding what people should be doing, look at what they are doing and then decide how to react to it. 

2.  If you find yourself condemning people, examine your motives. Is the issue itself really that important? Is it really worth your time and energy? Is this really a battle you want to take on? Or are you doing it for some other reason? 

3.  Feel your feelings.  How do you feel when you are complaining about or reporting this behavior? Superior? Powerful?  Is that the true motivation for it, rather than righting a wrong?

4.  Examine the effects. What effects is this behavior having on your life? Has it damaged your career? Cost you friends?  Caused conflict within your family?

5.  Repeat after me: “I cannot change other people’s behavior, only my own.” You have no power over other people. Whatever they are doing is what they are going to do. The only person you can change is yourself. And most of us have more than enough work to do developing ourselves without taking on other people’s issues.

Self-righteous indignation is a heady, powerful emotion that can be quite (exhilarating). But it comes at a high cost.  If you can only bring yourself up by putting other people down perhaps you need to look at that. Perhaps your time and energy would be better spent developing your own character rather than shooting down other people’s. 

After all, my SRI isn’t any better than your SRI!

One Response

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  1. Mom said, on November 30, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    for every finger that points out another’s flaws….there are three fingers pointing back at yours.
    Nicely done


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