In his 2016 book, “I Know Best,” American novelist and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Roger Simon lays out a concept he calls “moral narcissism” and how he believes “[it] is destroying our Republic, if it hasn’t already.” If you’ve had a lengthy conversation with me about politics, you may know that I’ve adopted Simon’s thoughts as a mantra of sorts and that I find his book to have many compelling arguments. Moral narcissism, as defined by Simon, is a scenario where “what you believe, or claim to believe or say you believe—not what you do or how you act or what the results of your actions may be—defines you as a person and makes you good.” “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” writes Simon, “[we live in] a world where actual ideals and even truth are beside the point. People are either in or out of the game.”
This leads to a society where people find their identity in whatever ideology they subscribe to, and this extreme identification leads to a similarly extreme demonization of those who oppose their views. If you don’t believe me, go scroll through Facebook for an hour, read the comments section on a political news article, or watch the news. People seem to have lost the ability to find any good in those who they disagree with. For example: if you are a conservative, liberal ideology is “bad” and conservative ideals are “good,” while the reverse is true if you are a liberal. Understand, of course, that this example is a very generic stereotype, but if you look at the rhetoric surrounding our last election cycle, you may notice some similar dialogue.
Now, you may be asking, surely finding something to believe in isn’t all that dangerous. After all, if you don’t stand for something, you might just fall for anything. However, mere belief isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about an extreme identification with a specific ideology, an identification that Simon and I find dangerous. Simon puts it this way: “it is our identity tied up inextricably to our belief system in a way that brooks no examination.” This is one danger with moral narcissism: it so easily lends itself to extremism, where people on either side are unwilling to listen to the other. Again, this is not altogether too impossible to imagine. If you’re finding it difficult, take another scroll through the ol’ Facebook feed.
Where moral narcissism becomes particularly dangerous for Christians, in my opinion, is when it is carried out to its rawest and ugliest form. To quote once again from Simon, “[moral narcissism] is a narcissism of groupthink that makes you assume you are better than you are because you have the same received and conventional ideas as your peers. . .There is only one way to be, one kind of idea, and attitude to have. There are no others. Why even bother to look, consider, or try to understand them?” As Christians, hopefully Simon’s words cause something in you to stir, to speak up, to ask the age-old question that I am determined no amount of neon bracelets can tarnish or diminish: what would Jesus do? What Simon describes as the current order of things seems a far cry from the command to “love thy neighbor.”
I truly, truly believe that each person has a unique and God-given value: some difference they can make, a story only they can tell, a wound only they can help lick. I ask you this: how much do we stand to gain, and how much more to lose, by giving into moral narcissism? Speaking from my own experience, it is easy to find my self-worth in a community of like-minded individuals. It feels good. But my life has been much richer due to tough conversations I’ve had with someone I don’t agree with, and my ability to love my neighbor has been only strengthened by taking the time to listen well.
I’m not well-versed in anything remotely related to finance or economics, but the cost-benefit analysis seems pretty straightforward to me here. We have everything to lose and very little to gain by succumbing to the sweet siren song of moral narcissism. Live as Christ did, and step into those differences. Only by seeking to truly understand someone, consider their suffering as our own, and spread the love of a God who freely extends grace and redemption to a people who do not deserve it will we be able to flourish as human beings, as a community, and as a broader society. I live in J. Alvin, room 302. Come talk to me. Despite the title of this article, I don’t know best. I need you, my brothers and sisters, to help me understand. Let’s converse.