Self-righteousness or Right?

This topic just keeps coming up for me; the concept of self-righteousness. There is a lot of bad feelings out there about hearing or reading opinions that come across judgmental or self-righteous. Everywhere really, but parenting in particular.

But where does ‘judgmental’  and ‘self righteous’ end and ‘activist’ or ‘advocate’ begin? The truth is there are some things that all of us feel are not so much about ‘different strokes for different folks’ and more about what is right. Period. Full stop.

I have some, I am sure you do to. Some of mine include not using physical forms of punishment, feeding kids healthy unprocessed foods (with room for an occasional treat), and giving kids age appropriate boundaries and limitations when they are young and then more choice and independence as they get older. You and I might agree on some of those and disagree on others. And you might have ones on your list that I don’t have on mine, like not using any form of sleep training or ensuring your baby is exclusively breastfeed for at least six months.

Here is the rub- I believe we have those beliefs based on our own experiences. And since everyone has a different experience, we are going to have different things we feel are ‘not optional’.The more people I talk to and the more I listen to their personal stories, the more I am convinced that there isn’t so much ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to us. I am not arguing here for 100% moral relativism. Rather an acceptance that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can change over time and flex to meet the current needs of society. We learn; we change our beliefs. But at an individual level, those issues we feel most strongly about; there is usually an underlying personal reason why we take up a particular cause. There is certainly value in that, but I think we do have to accept that not everyone’s experience is the same.

Maybe you didn’t get good information or have the time and money to cook your kids good, wholesome food. Maybe I tried to breastfeeding like a maniac and it just didn’t work. Maybe you value a different type of relationship with your children and choose to not give them strict boundaries. Maybe I tried all the ‘no cry’ methods for supporting my baby to sleep and she really needed me to give her some space to release some tension. Maybe you had a baby who cried themselves into an absolute fit the moment you put them down and so you never used any form of CIO ever; it seemed so cruel! Maybe you faced a challenge that you thought, in retrospect, you wouldn’t have had to make if you had made a different choice about one thing or an other. Who knows?

Our experiences shape our beliefs about what is right and wrong and therefore what we feel others should or shouldn’t do. And unless we really listen to each others experiences, it becomes very easy to assume that our experiences are the same or similar to others. It is easy to take up an ‘I did or didn’t do X, so why should anyone else have to? They must be ignorant, lazy or not care’. It is a personal pet peeve of mine to see or hear comments that start with “I can’t understand why anyone would/wouldn’t…”

We often don’t know someones story. Scratch that. We usually don’t know someone elses story. And when we make blanket statements about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, we often fail to recognize that there may be exceptions, or at the very least extenuating circumstances.

There is one post, early in my blogging career, where I discussed my belief that it is beneficial for babies to go to sleep early. (Actually, it was an admittedly judgmental post on taking ones baby out (particularly to malls) late in the evening, which I think is really detrimental to a kids ability to go to sleep cause there be so much stimulation. So if your kid won’t go to sleep at night and you are pulling your hair out, taking them to the mall (or anywhere else loud, noisy and bright) aint going to help, in my opinion. Anyway).  I still believe and early bedtime and low stimulation in the evening is the ideal. BUT. In the context of the discussion I heard from a number of parents for whom the early bedtime option really didn’t work, or it hit a sore spot due to circumstances they experienced with their babies. They felt judged, and I felt bad for that, because I really hadn’t thought through all the possible reasons why early bedtimes wouldn’t work for some children and families. I will say that again: I really hadn’t thought it through. That was my mistake. So I now accept that my preference is isn’t always preferable for others. That doesn’t change my opinion, but it does change how I would talk about my opinion.

I still think it is a good choice, and one worth considering, to put babies to bed early. At the very least, if one wants their baby to sleep through the evenings I would suggest one of the best way so encourage that is to have quiet, dim, low stimulation activities from the early evening on. But I wouldn’t say it is the only way or even the ‘best’ way. It is just my preferred way, that other may find benefit in, particularly if they come to me for advice on how to get their baby (and themselves) a bit more sleep.  I wouldn’t call myself an ‘early bedtime activist.’

Anyway. It is perfectly reasonable to advocate for changes in society or public policy (like health or education for example) to make better choices possible for families. Just because someone can’t/doesn’t want to breastfeed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have better access to qualified lactation consultants. Just because some people don’t have the information, time and money they need to feed their kids healthy food, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for better labeling of food and spreading the word about the benefits healthy choices. And just because I feel that my child was never neglected, ignored or harmed by letting her cry and fuss to sleep, doesn’t mean others don’t have a right to advocate to parents again using any form of ‘sleep training’. (Heck, a lot of what they are advocating for I agree with , like having more realistic expectations for infant sleep, for example. Or trying other options like co-sleeping, which I disagree with our local health region for telling people is ‘dangerous’.) But even if I didn’t agree with them, I would still respect their right to advocate for what they believe.

But I think when we advocate we need to be more sensitive to the range of personal experience. How we advocate and the language we use to do so is important. When we focus on ensuring parents have support to make good choices we lift everyone up. When we rail against the harm of parenting choices we disagree with, we just leave a sour taste in others mouths. We need to hear each other. Especially those who have an other perspective. But those with an other perspective won’t talk to you if you insult them right off the bat.  I truly believe social change is all about conversation. And those who need the advice won’t hear it if it is wrapped in a tone of self-righteousness. Right and self righteous are not the same thing. It is possible that your opinion may be right, but self-righteousness is not the way, in my opinion, to present your thoughts.

What I am saying is that we aren’t all going to agree on which parenting options are ‘right’ and which are multiple choice with no wrong answers. But we could do a heck of a lot better job at getting people on side with our personal ‘right’ list if we advocated in a much more positive, open and kind way. You know, ‘how to win friends and influence people’? The truth is that people get behind others who know how to lead. Who can speak with integrity. Who don’t engage in petty battles and name calling. Who don’t use debate ‘tactics ‘ to try and ‘win’ an argument. Leaders, true leaders, get a following because people look up to them as models of how we should be in our society. They try, as best they can, to keep things positive. Nasty arguments ain’t going to win a following. Period. Even those that tend to agree with your beliefs are more likely to turn away.

People, lets get out the honey.

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7 responses to “Self-righteousness or Right?

  1. shasta October 5, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I’m always uncomfortable with the idea that there are certain rights and certain wrongs because the classification of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ seems to come from nowhere, like it’s divinely inspired by some god who only speaks to that particular person or group of people.

    Instead, I appreciate when someone shows how a particular behavior or belief is beneficial and functional for a community or society, or even just one’s own family. I’m not interested in people being self-righteous just to make themselves feel superior to others.

  2. Fearless Formula Feeder October 5, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Beautiful post. You continue to amaze me with how you manage to bring the blogging act to a higher level, K. Really great work.

    I agree that a lot of “platforms” come out of personal experience. I think they also come out of anger, resentment, and frustration. For example, I recently read a post from a popular BFing advocate about why she thinks prevention is more important than a cure for breast cancer, and in her opinion, breastfeeding is the most important kind of prevention we have. Now, this woman is a breast cancer survivor – she had a double mastectomy at a young age – and you can feel the anger in her words. She feels cheated. She feels that she could have stopped this from happening to her, so now she wants to stop if from happening to anyone else – including female babies (she cites statistics that breastfeed girls have a reduced cancer risk). Now, I don’t agree with her position – and in fact, I kind of think it puts the blame on the victim – we don’t know definitively what causes breast cancer; in young women, its most likely genetics. Of course prevention is important – but I think she’s taken up a cause out of her own pain, rather than thinking rationally about it.

    Ok, what does this long example have to do with your post? Basically, that I would never judge her for feeling this way, b/c I’m sure if I’d been through what she went through, I’d feel angry, too. But at the same time, if the people who are advocating for issues are doing it out of passion, we need to take advocacy with a grain of salt, and not take it personally on the other side. The most passionate people make the most dedicated activists, but that also means they tend towards zealotry. And yes, self-righteousness.

    What I see the problem being is when leaders who are supposed to be impartial and rational take what these advocates say as truth, rather than doing the research themselves. Then we end up with public policies that are based not on fact but on passion. This is not a good thing, in my opinion.

    I’d love to see more open, positive advocates out there. There are some, and unfortunately I often see them alienated from the causes they represent b/c they don’t take the party line. That sucks, too. Whatever cause you represent, you should value members of your “party” who are more moderate. These are the people with the ability to provoke real change, you know?

    • amoment2think October 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm

      I totally agree with you on the connection between passion and advocacy and how that impacts public policy. Totally. It goes to that idea that whoever yells loudest is heard over the majority in our political systems. Sometimes ‘yells loudest’ means passion, sometimes it means cash. You know?

      And totally on the moderates. Yeah moderates! Yeah!

  3. Alan October 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Interesting…so we weren’t just being paranoid to wonder if others were judging us negatively for being out at the supermarket at midnight with our baby! LOL

    • amoment2think October 5, 2010 at 3:44 pm

      Alan, I have learned in parenting- scratch that, in life- someone is always judging. But they don’t know you or your story- so who cares. I happen to know from other conversations with you that you seem satisfied with your kids late to bed late to rise sleep patterns- so even more so who cares. My opinion only is useful/ applicable to someone who really wants their kid to sleep through the evenings. I get that that isn’t important to everyone.

  4. janetlansbury October 5, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Kathleen, your wisdom blows me away. You make some really good points.

    I also learned the ‘hard way’ when I presented a point of view (perhaps clumsily) that came off as judgment because I didn’t take into account the experience of others. It was a post about the term ‘babywearing’, not the practice, just the word. I had never heard it until I entered the web world a year ago, believe it or not. (I had never read a blog before I became a blogger, but that’s a whole other story.) Anyway, I was dumbfounded that a term that, to me, objectifies and demeans babies was so widely used by people who obviously care about babies. I didn’t take into account the fact that when you use a word again and again, it means what it means to you…you often don’t hear it’s objective definition anymore. (Now, even I’m becoming used to the word, but I still don’t like it.)

    I also didn’t take into account the fact that many websites, baby carrier companies, etc., use this word in their titles. So my issue with the word felt like a slap to all those people. The argument became about the practice of carrying babies…people couldn’t separate my criticism of the word from an attack on them and the practice. Aye, aye, aye…

    Still, I think some good things came out of it… I learned and understood much more about that particular AP practice. And, even though I’m certain I didn’t change anyone’s mind about the term, I think I might have planted a few seeds of thought in peoples’ minds about respecting babies.

    My point? I agree that we should learn to tame our zeal enough to consider others before we open our mouths. On the other hand, if we don’t share our viewpoints, we never get the chance to understand the experiences of others. And even when we feel insulted, we learn…

    Maybe a mom who believes in a later bedtime, but finds herself suddenly struggling with sleep issues will remember your idea, Kathleen, and try putting the baby to bed earlier.

    • amoment2think October 6, 2010 at 8:38 pm

      Janet this is so true. It’s totally a balancing act. And really, we are all human- sometimes we cause offense when really none was intended. I really think people are being sincere when they say “I just can’t understand why anyone ….” And by saying that and then hearing from people the reasons, we learn something. We shouldn’t hold back our opinions.

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