I had several conversations earlier today that turned to the subject of self-righteousness. There is an unfortunate tendency among humans to know that we are right, and to feel it is our sacred mission to fix the error of other peoples’ ways.

The word “sacred” here is important. When we say that something is sacred, we usually believe, quite sincerely, that we are discussing some sort of inherent moral quality. But most of the time we are actually discussing tribalism. Somebody is doing or saying something that we perceive as an assault on our own tribal identity.

And I mean “tribal identity” in the broadest sense. It could refer to our nationality, our religion, our sexual orientation, or our choice of cuisine. Because our preferences in these things are generally the result of something other than purely rational thinking, those preferences are fragile. Since we cannot defend them by logic, we often resort to sanctimony.

It is hard to avoid the escalation from tribal identity to tribal warfare. To do so requires saying “Yes, this is what I believe, yet I respect that you believe something very different.” Cultural tribes, by their very nature, are constructed in a way that makes it difficult to say this.

I would like to think that I belong to the tribe of non-sanctimonious individuals. I aspire to look with respect and understanding at others with whom I disagree, and to accept that life among humans is never simple nor absolute, and that a person with different values from my own is as spiritual, in their way, as I am in mine.

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