So this post will have to do.
There’s a moment in Nick Hornsby’s How to Be Good where the protagonist calls her husband from the car and asks for a divorce. Afterwards she thinks that doing this is not the sort of person she is — and then realizes that yes, she’s just proved she’s that sort of person (“Lee Harvey Oswald probably never started out thinking he was the sort of person who assassinates presidents.”).
Or as Thomas Jefferson put it “It is in our lives and not from our words that our religion must be read.”
Or Goethe: “How do we know ourselves? Never by thinking, always by doing.”
Or Immanuel Kant who said we should “act as if what we do sets a universal law.” Our actions tell other people not only who we are but what we think is acceptable behavior. Even if we don’t mean that, even if we think only we get to act that way.
A lot of us hate this kind of thinking. We’d prefer to believe that no matter bad things we may have done, we’re not really the sort of person who does them. One article I read about student cheaters said most of them don’t think of themselves as cheaters — it’s just a necessary step to get into the right college/get a good CV after which they’ll be able to conduct themselves with perfect honesty.
I’ve also read multiple accounts of right-to-lifers who get abortion while insisting they’re not the sort of person who gets abortions — it’s just that their situation is totally unique and they need this abortion, unlike all the filthy sluts they saw in the clinic when they were there.
Earlier this year, Rep. Ted Yoho called A-OC an “effing bitch” (he did not say effing) then insisted he’s totally not that kind of guy — he has a wife and daughters! Similarly comics artist Tony Harris insists his long rant about fake geek girls a few years back can’t possibly have been sexist or misogynist because he has a wife and daughters. (And yes, I think in both cases the words do express what’s in their heart).
Many more people feel that everything about them is so wonderful and respectable, it’s unfair to let a little rape/vehicular homicide/wife-beating sdefine them. People who have any sort of status — judges, clergy, the wealthy — get particularly outraged when people punch up about stuff they’ve done. How DARE anyone criticize a godly man like Roy Moore (for example) just for harassing a teenage girl or two? How unfair it is that the judge in Pennsylvania who sent teens to a for-profit detention center to line his own pockets be known as the “cash for kids judge!” It’s difficult to reconcile a sense of being a good person with our having acted appallingly; it’s easier to imagine that good and evil can be securely separated and we’re on the right side of the line. Ergo, nothing we’ve done can be that bad.
Some people do walk the walk. Some people fall off the path, make atonement and restitution and get back on it. Others will just deny they ever left the path, even if we saw them do it. And they’ll insist they still oppose leaving the path. But they don’t. To paraphrase A-OC, Yoho might believe it’s unacceptable to call one of his daughters an effing bitch, but he’s also signalling that he thinks this acceptable language to use on women; A-OC is someone’s daughter too. He might not think that’s the message that he’s sending, but he’s wrong.