Let’s All Feel Superior

Erik Raymond —  November 15, 2011

You're awesome if you catch the typo here.

By now you are probably about ready to send back any further helpings of commentary on the Penn State Football scandal. At the same time I think that you would follow me down the path of intrigue at this morning’s editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks.

In his article, “Let’s All Feel Superior” Brooks is observing a troubling thread of social inconsistency: we are good at pointing out people’s flaws but when faced with similar ethical and moral quandaries we don’t perform very well. Brooks cites the following as data-points:

Online you can find videos of savage beatings, with dozens of people watching blandly. The Kitty Genovese case from the ’60s is mostly apocryphal, but hundreds of other cases are not. A woman was recently murdered at a yoga clothing store in Maryland while employees at the Apple Store next door heard the disturbing noises but did not investigate. Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was tortured for 24 days by 20 Moroccan kidnappers, with the full knowledge of neighbors. Nobody did anything, and Halimi eventually was murdered.

What is happening? How can people account for a pattern of public outrage of wrongdoing at the same time they model individual inactivity when face to face with similiar scenarios?

People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”

Interesting. The individual makes his or her call of what to do based upon what they want to do. There is nothing external forcing upon or compelling the individual to think or act. Biblically minded people may recall what happened in the Book of Judges, not good. And what characterized their behavior? “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17.6)

To get some perspective Brooks looks back. He also encourages us to look outside of us.

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

This is such a profound exclamation point to an article indicting the hypocrisy of personal superiority and inner wonderfulness. Indeed, we are not Puritans anymore.

As Christians we are encouraged that our worldview is an “outside in” not an “inside out” perspective. We understand the world around us based upon what God has said in the Scriptures. His word gives understanding and light to dark controversies like this. It provides the mental rebar necessary to walk across the difficult ethical and moral bridges. We understand that we are no better than the worst person on the planet. The ailment of Jerry Sandusky is the ailment of all mankind. We are all sinners in need of salvation. The fact is, Jesus Christ came to save sinners, even people like us. It is here, informed by the wonderfulness of Christ, that personal superiority and inner wonderfulness are undermined.

We are then, through the lenses of the gospel, given clarity for interpreting moral disasters and motivation for confronting them.

Erik Raymond

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Erik has been writing at Ordinary Pastor since 2006. He lives in Omaha with his wife and kids while pastoring at Emmaus Bible Church. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/erikraymond

7 responses to Let’s All Feel Superior

  1. Thank you for catching that typo. It always bothers me. Now, to the important thing: I agree with you completely. I can think of at least a dozen times when I have seen the right thing and ignored it. The sad thing is that when we do the right thing we expect a reward. We feel as if we are behaving over and above how we ought to behave, yet if anyone asks us we believe ourselves to be “good.” I must confess I feel this way often.

  2. I am left speechless in wonder and gratitude when I think of God’s mercy to me in not fulling giving me over to a depraved mind as I deserved. Although I have never had the tendencies that led Sandinsky to do what he did, I have pursued selfish pleasures to my shame. When I read about Penn State I echo what you wrote Erik – we find it evil and disgusting and at the same time we know that we are sinners capable of any sin and in need of grace. So grateful for Christ… the best thing in all the world is going to bed with a clean conscience…what we have in the Gospel.

    And God is amazing. Right now He is using the sin of this man to get a lot done in the hearts of Christians (like me!) everywhere and He is drawing sinners to Himself. Who is like our God?

  3. John T. “Jack” Jeffery November 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    I appreciate your blog post for calling my attention to this editorial. The main point Brooks makes is certainly needed and worthy of consideration. However, I don’t think the historical comparisons are credible or necessary to his thesis. I cringe whenever I hear about how it was in “centuries past”. No, we are not Puritans anymore, but it may be more appropriate to ask, “Were we ever?” In fact, the Puritans were in a minority if we consider the complexion of the 13 original colonies. Painting with a broad brush like this is common, but seems to engage in historical revisionism whitewashing the realities of sin at every level of society throughout Colonial America and elsewhere in the “centuries past”. Brooks speaks of systems, categories, and scripts in one of your citations. This is done without examples or citations. I am left wondering what specifics he had in mind, how that altered the sins in past eras (in the “unwhitewashed” version), and how they differed from those of our own era. After all, your point is that it is not about systems, categories and scripts anyway.

    • An excellent example of a system based on the depravity of man is our own governmental system. Checks and balances of the three branches of government are in place because no one person or groups of people could be trusted unchecked. There is good evidence this idea stems from a society in which the religious systems of the day had switched from single priest and Pope to elders and lay leaders. While it is true that Puritans were a minority, the ideas of the “reformed” religion affected the majority.

      Reading our Constitution might help you get an understanding of the “systems, categories, and scripts” of which he speaks.

  4. The Puritans executed people for belonging to the wrong kind of Christian church.
    I don’t see how they can be considered any more moral than Al-Qaeda or Nazi Germany.

  5. Dave,

    Your comment is immature. Comparing the Puritans and the Nazis is unhelpful in it’s extremity. Because it is extreme. The Puritans didn’t bomb the heck out of the Indians. They had extreme punishments for religious infringements because they did not separate church and state. That’s not a good way to run a government, but that’s the way they ran theirs. BTW in the future, Jesus will be executing a lot of people who aren’t in his church.

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