Category Archives: self-justification

People feel responsible for everything except for what they do

Thomas Hamilton: perpetrator of the Dunblane massacre

Dalrymple writes that

querulous self-righteousness, combined with a refusal to look inward or to examine one’s own conduct and motives, is characteristic of our age.

He notes that

a curious reversal in the locus of moral concern has taken place: people feel responsible for everything except for what they do.

The querulousness which lies at the heart of such events as the Dunblane massacre,

and of which it is an extreme manifestation, is fostered daily, hourly, in almost all our newspapers and on radio and television. Our belief in a constantly expanding number of rights, and that everyone except for a tiny gilded minority is a victim of circumstance, favours a frame of mind in which revenge upon the world is justified.

Of course,

self-exculpation, self-justification and special pleading are nothing new in human psychology. But never have these rather unattractive human traits had so much material upon which to work.

No wonder Dr Johnson is not in fashion

Engraving from James Barry’s portrait (1778-80)

An incomparably greater psychologist than Freud, having no axe to grind and no sect to found

Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

  • contrived to be a moralist without moralising
  • was humane and charitable without sentimentality

This is a contrast to today, Dalrymple points out, for

we prefer mental contortions, self-justifications, evasions, rationalisations, and all the other methods of avoiding the truth about ourselves, to Dr Johnson’s discomfiting clarity of mind.

Johnson had a gift, Dalrymple notes, for saying things that were

both startling and obvious. As he himself put it, we have more often to be reminded than informed.

Johnson’s prose style

would no doubt strike many people (if they read it) as formal—we prefer expletives and the demotic now.