Quote from ‘Fail, Fail again, Fail Better’, published by SoundsTrue

Letting go of Righteous Indignation

Shortly before the movie ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ was released, it came to light that Tim Burton has some unapologetically sexist views. A quote from an interview with him danced around the Internet, and I was immediately put off going to see the film.

My parents may or may not have seen the quote, although it doesn’t matter if they did. They were excited about the film, went to it, and gushed to me about it. They enjoyed themselves and had a lovely date together seeing a film by a filmmaker they enjoy, a filmmaker I too have often enjoyed.

I could have squashed their enthusiasm. I could have told them I refused to see the film because of what Burton had said, but I didn’t.

There was a time when I would not have held my tongue. A time that wasn’t so long ago either. When my mum told me she ate at Chick-fil-A, I said I refused to give money to people who were against my right to exist just because of my sexuality. I let my righteous indignation take the forefront and my mum’s response was pretty predictable: she got defensive.

By saying I chose not to spend my money where she did, I was putting myself on a moral pedestal. My mum just wanted to tell me about a good meal she enjoyed and my response was to tell her she was a ‘bad’ person.

No, those weren’t the words I used, but by stating my choice not to spend my money there, I was saying I was a better person than she.

Righteous indignation is invigorating — it really is. It builds us up when we are faced with huge, complex, historically ingrained social and political issues that we feel otherwise powerless to address. By not seeing Miss Peregrine, it felt like I was doing something in response to the sexism remarks I heard from Tim Burton. But did my not paying for a film address systemic sexism or sexism in the film industry?

No. I didn’t end sexism in Hollywood by not seeing one film. In fact, I didn’t do anything to address the problem at all. All I did was make myself feel a bit better about what is a complex, deeply ingrained problem that’s been with humanity since societies first formed.

I started thinking about all this after I went to see ‘Wonder Woman’, which is pretty phenomenal for a superhero movie. The message isn’t about ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, but about the complexity of humanity and the potential every single one of us has for both. If I put a Buddhist lens on it, I can say that Ares chooses to hate humanity for the violence of which he knows they are capable, whilst Diana chooses to love humanity for the good of which she knows they are capable.

This kind of message is pretty revolutionary in a mainstream summer blockbuster, and I said as much in a post I made on Facebook. I knew nothing of Gal Gadot’s infamous tweets. I was quickly informed of them, however, as is the nature of the Internet, and some people shared their reluctance to see the film because of this.

I gave it thought, reading the background and looking at a few articles regarding Gadot’s views. Then I checked myself: Do I feel bad about going to see this film (or the fact that I want to see it again and would have gone to see it the very next day if I hadn’t had to work)? Do I think going to see this film equates to showing support for one side of a very complex, ongoing conflict? Do I feel ‘bad’ about going to see the movie or do I think I, or anyone who goes to see it, is a ‘bad’ person for doing so? Would not seeing this movie in any way have an effect on the current state or eventual outcome of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?

These are important questions to ask. We are interconnected so what we do or do not do matters — but it is because no one is inherently evil or inherently good that the choices we make are also not inherently one way. There are some choice we make because they make us feel better about injustice, but that is the extent of their impact.

I was pretty convinced that my choice not to eat at Chick-fil-A mattered, and made it okay for me to pass judgement on my mum. But when I stepped down from my righteous pedestal, I realised that my so called ‘choice’ wasn’t much of a choice at all:

1. I don’t eat fast food.

2. I’m celiac, so there’s nothing of substance available to me on their menu.

3. It’s a place I’d never considered eating at, ever.

Yet, I still made a big deal about not spending my money somewhere I would never have spent my money.

Why?

It had nothing to do with morals or ethics and everything to do with ego-gratification. It’s a sneaky thing, the ego, but righteous indignation is a sure sign that it’s playing a game. It feels good to think I’m on higher ground. It feels good to think of myself as a better critical thinker or more politically aware. But there’s the hang over. I hurt my mum’s feelings, and that doesn’t feel good at all. I wasn’t kind nor a force for change. I was hurtful. That doesn’t feel good. Once I got honest with myself in this way, I realised that I let myself fall into a habitual trap of trying to big myself up by making someone else feel small.

Boycotting anything because it feels like something I can do in a situation where I feel powerless is fine. Using that choice to shame another person changes it into a demonstration of ego, and that is not fine.

This is a hard lesson to learn. It’s humbling to admit that righteous indignation, while invigorating, is damaging, hurtful and unkind. It will take a lifetime of practice, but I’m finding it’s worth the effort. The more I dismantle the seemingly clever things that come into play to build up my ego, the more I see how much we are all up against the same thing.

We all see injustice and suffering and painful conflict, and we all feel helpless to do something about it. We are all seeking to be ‘good’ and so we all find routes that allow us to ignore our less than savoury thoughts and feelings. Which is to say, we are none of us on a pedestal or ever capable of finding one. We are equally capable of waking up and being of benefit as we are of retreating into ignorance.

To my mum, I offer this as an apology. Thank you for helping me in my practice, always.


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Also, you might enjoy For Good People to Do Nothing about addressing our implicit bias, and I have a Marginalised Friend— both pieces about this kind of inner work of self reflection and taking personal responsibility.

Thank you!