The joy of righteousness

Talking with my son recently – he works in the field of international development – we turned to the current phenomenon of young British men being drawn to fight for ISIS. I put forward a view I’d read in a recent article, that this could be seen as a form of narcissism, a means of gaining attention from a society that marginalises them. My son suggested another view. It’s all about the joy of being right, he said, and everyone else being wrong. As soon as he said it, I found myself agreeing. It’s a much under-rated drive, this need to be right. It manifests itself whenever we have an argument about a fact and turn to Google for the answer. If the screen proves us right, a tiny charge of validation thrills through us. When we get into discussions most often our hidden objective isn’t the discovery of the truth, but the gratification of being proved right. Expand this small pleasure to a whole way of life, and you get a religion. A religion offers answers and makes demands that many, maybe most, others don’t accept as true – and in this lies its seductive power. In the days when I was a believer, I was most happy among non-believers, because my faith made me distinct, and their scorn made me proud. It’s a heady cocktail, being both different and quite sure that you’re right. Opposition only feeds your certainty. Opposition that threatens you with death is the most intoxicating of all.

So what’s to be done? It seems to me that we must add to, and make more subtle, the stories of what’s going on. At present we’re offered two stories: that ‘terrorists’ are being groomed, or brain-washed, and we must find and shut down these sinister masterminds; or that ISIS has lured so many through skilful PR, most of all with videos of beheadings: the glamour of violence.  Both stories may be true; their limitation is that they are both other-stories. They’re about the behaviour of others, not us. What I sense we need to do is to discover that part of ourselves that could act as these young men act, so that it becomes an us-story. Then, with greater understanding and empathy, we may be better equipped to respond to this frightening new phenomenon.

The us-story is that we have all been drunk on righteousness. We have trumpeted our certainties on racism, or  war, or climate change, or benefit scroungers, or transgender rights, or freedom of information, or vegetarianism. The cause is real, but the rocket-fuel is the conviction of righteousness. A few small steps, and a couple of larger ones, and we could be off to fight to defend our beliefs, and therefore to kill. There’s a terrorist inside each of us. The less power we have in our lives, the more our inner terrorist grows, feeding on resentment and helplessness.

So I guess the answer is empowerment. For most of us, growing older achieves this, in small but sufficient ways. For the young, not yet inured to compromise, their situation can seem desperate. When there’s no way out, you reach for the axe to smash down the walls.

I’ve no idea how to empower the disempowered. But I do know it’s not just about our immigrant communities, the ones we secretly regard as  aliens-among-us. It’s about all of us. It’s about the values our society embraces, about who we respect and why. It’s about who we celebrate as heroes and role models. It’s about our modes of being right, and our willingness to be open to others.