The Need to be Needed

Bill Maher made a compelling case for a National Day of No Outrage on last week’s Real Time.  After glancing at over the weekend and realizing that three of the front page headlines were about apologies for various types of behavior, I thought it might be a good idea to present the video of Maher’s comments:

I agree generally with everything Maher says here, and my only quibble would be that I would prefer we exist in a permanent state of “no outrage.”  There’s one point in particular that’s worth repeating: The idea that what fuels much of this outrage is a need for us to feel important by stopping “the bad people.”

This is an idea that I discussed last week when I said that “[b]eing able to dismiss your opposite number as inferior or trivial quite obviously enhances one’s own feelings of superiority or importance, as does attaching inflated significance to the success or failure of your political agenda.”

This is a commonplace “tell” for ideologues of all stripes.  It’s necessary for many people to feel as though what they do (or believe) is not only personally fulfilling, but absolutely pivotal to our society.  Put another way, they can’t accept the fact that something might only be subjectively important.  They need it to be important to the world at large in order to enhance their own sense of self-worth.  There’s a narrow-mindedness attached to this, to be sure, but there’s an element of narcissism or insecurity as well.

So, when someone equates a slight increase in the marginal tax rate of the very wealthy to “socialism,” or a modest anti-abortion measure to rape or war, or a voter ID requirement to the second coming of Jim Crow, or any American politician to Adolf Hitler, it’s best to take that information with an entire shaker of salt.

But also consider again why this is done.  Take any of the above topics.  Or, take, for example, recent postulations over the sad case of Trayvon Martin that assert that racism is as prevalent and significant as ever in the United States.  Much of the causation for that mentality is the same one that Maher and I highlighted.

If you believe yourself to be railing against a mediocre president, that might seem a little dull.  But opposing the worst president ever?  Or, even more spectacular, a latter-day Hitler?  That’s downright thrilling.

Likewise, if those on the far right believe that our current president is either trying to wipe out their religion, convert the United State to a fully-socialist nation, or both, then opposing him becomes (in their minds) as important as preventing communist infiltration of our government during the Cold War or stopping the Nazis in the 1940’s.

A requirement that a voter bring a driver’s license to the polls may appear mundane and procedural to the uninitiated.  However, convincing people that it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from there to repealing the Reconstruction Amendments can incite passionate citizens to fight for a cause they then believe to be exceedingly momentous.

The simple truth is that a lot of the major societal battles were fought and won (or lost) long before most of us were born.  Those who have a difficult time accepting that fact either conjure new battles to fight or delude themselves into thinking that whatever minor skirmishes are occurring presently are just as critical as the events of prior decades or centuries.

The great irony, of course, is that each successive generation will do the exact same thing.

I recall a class in college that touched upon many of these topics.  The young visiting professor brought up that our nation was now debating the propriety of having ethnic nicknames for our sports teams, especially those of Native American origin.  His conclusion was that we must still have serious racial issues in the United States if we were constantly having to engage in such debates.

I quickly countered that he was looking at the situation from an ass-backwards perspective (I phrased it more delicately).  I argued that the fact that our society was now debating something as trivial as a team nickname with the same serious tones with which we once debated desegregation was colossal proof that the major points were already settled.

He bristled at the suggestion that these were “trivial” matters, ostensibly because they involved that great boogeyman Maher also discusses—offensiveness.  However, I believe the professor was actually troubled because I had struck a very specific nerve by implying that the more consequential debates had been resolved long before he was in a position to be a participant in them.  He reiterated that these were weighty issues.

I was adamant in my stance.  I used the metaphor of a house in need of massive repair.  I pointed out that, once the homeowner had fixed the leaky roof, installed a functional HVAC system, and replaced several broken windows, he had solved the home’s major problems, even if the list was not exhaustive.  The professor’s argument was tantamount to saying that the fact that the house still needed a fresh coat of paint was proof that it was still in serious disrepair.  Likewise, having to debate mascots was evidence we still had a “long way to go” in terms of race.

Maybe we just have a little way to go.  Or at least much less distance than we did fifty or a hundred years ago.  Of course, making that point would be like telling the people toiling away on the metaphorical house that most of the important work is already finished.

Perspective has never been one of our strong suits as a species, and the United States, for all its immense virtues, possesses a population containing a healthy percentage of inhabitants that require constant internal and external validation for their conduct and beliefs.  That leads to an artificially-enhanced sense of self-importance, which, in turn, leads to a confidence in the moral right to silence or ignore those who run too far afoul of the “correct” way of thinking.

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11 Responses to The Need to be Needed

  1. Pingback: Best of 2012 | The Axis of Ego

  2. Pingback: Nine Issues That May Frame the Next Generation of Political Debate | The Axis of Ego

  3. Great post and very interesting comment discussion as well. In response to Chad’s comment, I’d never thought of that before but it makes sense. Plus the Internet (and it’s anonymity) have done a lot to uncivilize the discourse.

  4. Chad Dreyer says:

    Does this in any way have to do with the rise of “The Most Special Generation” as well though? The kids-now-adults who were told by their parents that their opinions not only matter but they are of the most important thing they as Americans have, and anybody dissenting from their worldview (inherited in no small sense from their parents naturally) is not only wrong but in need of convincing of why they are wrong. When those kids-now-adults from the same generation, and yet with a completely different political/social/religious orientation push back, we get the age of hyperbole we live in now. All Republicans are Nazis. All Democrats are Commies.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I definitely think there’s a component that’s a result of that, yes. People have a need, now more than ever, to believe that what’s happening RIGHT NOW is the best/worst/greatest/most important thing ever.

      This manifests itself in other ways as well. For example, anytime something good or bad happens in sports, ESPN quickly begins to discuss “is this the best EVER” or “is this the worst EVER” for hours at a time. All of this goes hand in hand with the need to be needed.

  5. Rod Johnson says:

    The opening argument within the panel discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Wendy Schiller regarding “hate crimes” was a prime example of someone (her) taking a very strong stance about an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue.

  6. Well said. No one listens to a guy who makes logical and ethical sense anymore, that guy is boring, let’s hear about the alleged and perceived sex habits of college students, and who is a racist. It sells.

  7. Life has become too easy for the western world so we become bored and need something to pass the time. We do not have to worry about surviving anymore.

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