The Righteousness Fix

AS A SOBER ADDICT and addictions therapist, I understand addiction as a likely outcome of the intersection of human nature and human cleverness. We are filled with longings and ingenious at devising shortcuts. These attributes have contributed to our spectacular evolutionary prominence — and have set us up to become a plague species. Intoxicated with our seemingly boundless powers, humans are “drunk behind the wheel,” endangering ourselves, and large sections of our intricately interwoven biosphere, as we willfully careen along. At bottom, addiction is the mistaken conviction that we can fulfill our longings — that, in the language of the heroin addict, we can “fix” ourselves — through some form of control, through willful manipulation. This belief system not only saturates our personal lives and behaviors; it is the defining orientation of our present-day culture.

Because addiction is so ubiquitous, the path of sobriety can evoke the circus VW that endlessly produces clowns. You stop drinking alcohol only to find that you’re addicted to marijuana. Or sex. Or food. Or anger. Or nicotine. Or work. Or all of the above, and more. So what is a poor addict to do? You can’t realistically address all of these at once. The standard pithy advice from those experienced in sobriety goes like this: deal with the addiction that’s killing you the fastest.

From a global perspective, then, the question is, which addiction is setting us up for disaster fastest? There are plenty of candidates, some glaringly obvious, like weapons of war. Or nationalism. Or oil — even George W. Bush vaguely glimpses that one. But my nominee, hands down, is the feeling of righteousness.

Like alcohol, which is the most epidemic of the chemical addictions, the sense of righteousness is endlessly versatile. It can become fuel for a rapacious crusade, or a comforting wrap into which we snuggle for affirmation and reassurance. This emotional fix is endlessly enticing, insidiously corrupting, and charged with such compelling authority that we can become willing to die — or kill — in its thrall.

At this point you may conjure images of terrorists piloting planes into skyscrapers or blowing up buses — rabid fanatics bent on vengeance. Or the Timothy McVeighs and Theodore Kaczynskis: alienated, forlorn figures stewing grimly in righteous vitriol. As with addiction in general, people prefer to think of the problem as involving others — not themselves.


But in the case of righteousness, such a belief is almost always mistaken. Most of us, whether we be timid or bold, liberal, conservative, or (especially) some version of radical, are prone to imbibing heady infusions of the stuff. Viewing ourselves as “good,” in fact we become grievously toxic, literally intoxicated. In this poisonous state of mind we are able to write off others — often literally billions of others — without hesitation or remorse, because they are “bad.” It’s on the news every day: people addicted to righteousness are wreaking havoc, at home and abroad. And as I view this madness, I feel myself swell up with — what? You guessed it — righteous indignation! As usual, addiction becomes a closed system, feeding on itself.

Fortunately, millions of sober addicts have shown us the recipe for sobriety. Whether we’re addicted to heroin or hallucinogens, romance or righteousness, our addictions are resolved as we seek, in fellowship with others, to abandon our control-based mentality, and to develop our capacities for personal humility, indiscriminate compassion, and responsible participation in the many layers of community in which we are nested. Any Self-Righteous Anonymous groups out there? Maybe we should start some.

Roget Lockard is writing Beginning with Fire: The Story of Addiction, Human Nature & Evolution.

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1 Comment

  1. The tendency to link the 'addiction' tag to every undesirable human behavior is a common trend, but it's worth remembering what actual physical addiction to a substance is: a biochemical response to the introduction of a foreign substance into the body, that results in withdrawal symptoms when said foreign substance is removed. If there are no withdrawal symptoms, there is really no addiction involved.

    What the author of this piece calls 'addiction to righteousness' can also be described as 'obsession with outrage porn' or 'wanting to get triggered'. It's an easy fix for the addict to obtain – anyone suffering this malady can just scroll Twitter or Reddit etc. until they find something that does the trick. Then they can add their voice to the chorus of condemnation or commiseration and get the biochemical stimulus they were craving, most likely a dopamine reward. Note that the story they're reacting too doesn't even need to be true, and I always assume at least 50% of the 'anonymous personal testimonials' on social media are just fabricated stories put out for the upvotes (upvote addiction being rather similar).

    One way out of that trap is to 'buffer' all the social media information you get, i.e. assume everything is untrustworthy, and if only it's something you think you're really interested in, something worth spending time on, only then move it to the 'active' folder, and do some work to verify the information is actually reliable.

    Warning: outrage addicts might suffer some withdrawal from the dopamine release effect if they do this. Long-term mental health will likely improve, however.