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Self-Righteousness Is Not A Strategy

2023 February 5
by Greg Satell

Not long ago I was participating in a discussion on the social audio app, Clubhouse, and I said something a lady didn’t like that triggered her emotions. “Obviously, you need to be educated,” she said before subjecting me to a prolonged harangue riddled with inaccuracies, logical gaps and non-sequiturs.

Yet putting the merits of her argument aside, her more serious error was trying to overpower, rather than attract, in order to further her argument. If anything, she undermined her cause. Nobody likes a bully. Perhaps even more importantly, silencing opposing views restricts your informational environment and situational awareness.

This is why Gandhi so strictly adhered to the principle of ahimsa, which not only proscribed physical violence, but that of words or even thoughts. Everyone has their own sense of identity and dignity. Violating that will not bring you closer to success, but will almost certainly set you on a path to failure. Self-righteousness isn’t a strategy, but the lack of one.

Forming An Identity With Differentiated Values

Humans, by nature, seek out ideas to believe in. Ideas give us purpose and a sense of mission. That’s why every religion begins with an origin story, because it is our ideas that differentiate us from others and give us a sense of worth. What does it mean to be a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, a socialist or a capitalist, if we’re not differentiated by our beliefs?

So it shouldn’t be surprising that when people want to express their ideas, they tend to start with how their beliefs are different, because it is the dogmatic aspects of the concepts that drive their passion. Perhaps even more importantly, it is their conspicuous devotion that signals their inclusion with a particular tribe of shared identity.

Humans naturally form tribes in this way. In a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to out-group members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. Evolutionary psychologists attribute this tendency to kin selection, which explains how groups favor those who share their attributes in the hopes that those attributes will be propagated.

So when we’re passionate about an idea, we not only want to share it and “educate” others, we will also tend to see any threats to its survival as an affront to our identity. We begin to view ourselves as protectors and bond with others who share our purpose. We need to be aware of this pattern, because we’re all susceptible to it and that’s where the trouble starts.

Echo Chambers And The Emergence Of A Private Language

Spend time in an unfamiliar tribe and you’ll immediately notice that they share a private language. Minnesota Vikings fans shout “Skol!” Military people talk about distance in terms of “klicks,” and might debate the relative importance of HUMINT vs. SIGINT. Step into a marketing meeting and you’ll be subjected to a barrage of acronyms.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explained how these types of private languages can be problematic. He made the analogy of a beetle in a box.  If everybody had something in a box that they called a beetle, but no one could examine each other’s box, there would be no way of knowing whether everybody was actually talking about the same thing or not.

What Wittgenstein pointed out was that in this situation, the term “beetle” would lose relevance and meaning. It would simply refer to something that everybody had in their box, whatever that was. Everybody could just nod their heads not knowing whether they were talking about an insect, a German automobile or a British rock band.

Clearly, the way we tend to self-sort ourselves into homophilic, homogeneous groups will shape how we perceive what we see and hear, but it will also affect how we access information. Recently, a team of researchers at MIT looked into how we share information—and misinformation—with those around us. What they found was troubling.

When we’re surrounded by people who think like us, we share information more freely because we don’t expect to be questioned. We’re also less likely to check our facts, because we know that those we are sharing the item with will be less likely to inspect it themselves. So when we’re in a filter bubble, we not only share more, we’re also more likely to share things that aren’t true. Greater polarization leads to greater misinformation.

The Growing Backlash

One of the many things I’ve learned from my friend Srdja Popović is that the phase after an initial victory is often the most dangerous. Every revolution inspires its own counter-revolution. That is the physics of change. While you’re celebrating your triumph, the forces arrayed against you are redoubling their efforts to undermine what you’re trying to achieve.

Yet nestled safely within your tribe, speaking a private language in an echo chamber, you are unlikely to see the storm gathering storm. If most of the people around you think like you do, change seems inevitable. You tell each other stories about how history is on your side and the confluence of forces are in your favor.

Consider the case of diversity training. After the killing of George Floyd by a police officer led to massive global protests in over 2,000 towns and 60 countries, corporations around the world began to ramp up their diversity efforts, hiring “Chief  Diversity Officers” and investing in training. For many, it was the dawn of a growing consciousness and a brighter, more equitable future.

It hasn’t seemed to turn out that way, though. Increased diversity training has not led to better outcomes and, in fact, there is increasing evidence of backlash. In particular researchers note that much of the training makes people feel targeted. Telling people that they owe their positions to something other than hard work and skill offends their dignity and can actually trigger exactly the behaviors that diversity programs are trying to change.

These misgivings are rarely voiced out loud, however, which is why change advocates rarely notice the growing chorus waiting for an opportunity to send the pendulum swinging in the other direction.

Learning To Survive Victory

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes the point that many of our opinions are a product of our inclusion in a particular team. Because our judgments are so closely intertwined with our identity, contrary views can feel like an attack. So we feel the urge to lash out and silence opposition. That almost guarantees a failure to survive victory.

I first noticed this in the aftermath of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. Having overcome a falsified election, we were so triumphant that we failed to see the gathering storm. Because we felt that the forces of history were on our side, we dismissed signs that the corrupt and thuggish Viktor Yanukovich was staging a comeback and paid a terrible price.

I see the same pattern in our work helping organizations with transformational initiatives. Change leaders feel so passionately about their idea they want to push it through, silence dissent, launch it with a big communication campaign and create strong incentives to get on board. They’re sure that once everybody understands the idea, they’ll love it too.

The truth is to bring about lasting change you need to learn to love your haters. They’re the ones who can help alert you to early flaws, which gives you the opportunity to fix them before they can do serious damage. They can also help you to identify shared values that can help you communicate more effectively and also design dilemmas that will send people your way.

But in order to do that, you need to focus your energy on winning converts, rather than punishing heretics. It’s more important to make a difference than it is to make a point.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash


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