Avoiding “Holier than Thou” Part II: Conflict Among Idealists

This is an excerpt from Naked Idealism, from the chapter entitled “Relating to Others Despite Differences.” I originally intended to post this later, but after observing similar dynamics in a few well-intentioned discussion groups, I decided it needed to enter the world sooner. I hope many of you find it helpful! Comments are appreciated.

(Continued from Part I.)

We must also be careful of the holier than thou attitude within idealist groups united by a common cause. I’ve observed this attitude combined with the need to appear perfect, creating conflict in at least one well-intentioned idealist group. This is often nobody’s fault at all, and is not necessarily contingent upon anyone’s initial intentions.
holier than thou

What seems to happen is that any large group of idealists bound by a particular cause will have individuals representing a range of other “priority causes” as well.

For example, a group interested in environmental issues may have a few members for whom race is also a key issue, a few for whom gender is also a key issue, and a few for whom vegetarianism and veganism are a key issue. They’re particularly likely to point out any violations of their own priority issues, e.g., if someone makes a racist, sexist or speciesist comment.

Given that many individuals in such a group probably have above-the-norm levels of pride in appearing fair and just (getting back to the “PC shoulds“), we may react very defensively if accused of such a violation – whether we were actually at fault or not. A very important part of our image and identity has suddenly been questioned, and it’s again easier for us to shoot the messenger as a short-term solution.

I witnessed this type of conflict in a very well-intentioned internet group joined by values including a desire for a more peaceful and compassionate world.

The primary individuals involved in the e-mail dispute, whom I had met in person, are very friendly and highly respectable. In this particular case, one male (whom we’ll call Male A) made an ambiguous “joking” comment to Female A. Male B, for whom gender equality issues are a strong driving value, communicated to the group that the ambiguous comment might be construed as a sexual advance. He wished to establish a group norm that was safe and egalitarian.

Male A responded angrily, accusing Male B of overreacting and trying to appear politically correct. Subsequent reactions from females then fell on both sides, ranging from an appreciation for Male B’s intervention to a concern that Male B was himself being sexist by assuming that a female “needed a male to stand up for her.” Things soon got so out of hand that the group moderator temporarily disabled email communication altogether.

Again, this is a conscientious group of people, driven by admirable values. However, some were probably unaware of the dynamics and assumptions driving themselves and others. As discussed in Part II of this book, we all have different hierarchies of values, and simply being aware of yours can help to avoid such conflict. Should somebody call you out on a difference, it certainly doesn’t automatically make you a bad person – and keep in mind nobody else is perfect either.

In a more recent example, again in a well-intentioned group founded upon noble values, I observed several individuals expend great energy in lengthy e-mails. They attempted to justify to their peers why their behavior and position on a particular issue was correct. Some went to great lengths to prove why they felt certain behaviors didn’t make them unethical people.

A few discussions appeared to become a “logic game,” with some members leading others into topics that would justify their stance. I felt bad that their time wasn’t spent creating something meaningful in the world–in such cases, debates often only lead people to become more entrenched in their stances, for reasons discussed earlier. However, I had been in their position not so long ago, so I understood the frustration they were feeling.

Relatedly, psychological researchers such as Patricia Devine have noted the tendency for individuals to seek adoption of an “ingroup” bias toward people they perceive as being like themselves in one or more important ways. Those who do not seem to fit this category are viewed as “outgroup” members. This may be a way of simplifying our identities, and may include race, gender identity, type of profession, age, class, beliefs regarding vegetarianism/veganism, or even favorite athletic team.

Given that a function of stereotyping is to simplify complexity, and given that idealists have an above-average tendency to see the complexities with which the world operates, I believe this form of stereotyping may be even greater among idealists. If we allow the complexity of the world’s issues to overwhelm us, we may seek superficial solutions such as labeling, even among groups with whom we share much in common.

I’ve engaged in much labeling in my own life. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a low-income environment and then attended very wealthy schools. Many of my classmates came from families with exceptional financial wealth and social status. However, it later became obvious that we weren’t so different, as they struggled with many of the same – or much more difficult – life issues.

For a time, however, I adopted a holier than thou attitude as a shortcut to bolstering my own identity. I secretly patted myself on the back for having endured more struggles to “earn my way” into my new environments, simultaneously distancing myself from many of my peers. My perception, however, was that others were distancing themselves from me. (Isn’t it amazing how we can fool ourselves and place responsibility elsewhere?)

Only at class reunions years later, when I was more fully present with many of the same individuals from whom I had previously distanced myself, did I truly begin to learn how interesting and compassionate many of my former classmates were. Of course, that happened only after I began to look more objectively at where I was, rather than expending so much energy justifying my righteousness.

When I worked in a corporate setting, I brought along my holier than thou attitude from the non-profit, public and academic sectors. Ultimately, I left partially because some of our client companies’ missions were out of line with my own values. Beyond that, however, I felt that many aspects of this corporate environment and culture were equal or superior to features of previous settings in which I had worked. In this case, some common stereotypes about the corporate sector seemed to fit, and some clearly didn’t fit at all. It took me some time to admit this, though.

While some well-known organizations have successfully employed the “external enemy” or “we’re better than them” method to improve motivation (e.g., Apple Computer versus IBM), this has often occurred in competitive market or war-related settings. In cases where we’re looking to create larger societal visions and we’re in the minority, we need to attract as diverse a base of people as possible, not label them as outsiders or drive them away. Otherwise, we may eventually end up alone in our visions, unable to attain them, unable to change the world.


Adams, C. (2001). Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Arbinger Institute (2002). Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Arbinger Institute (2006). The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Bennis, W. (1997). Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. New York: Basic Books.

Clipart licensed from Jupiter Images.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

3 thoughts on “Avoiding “Holier than Thou” Part II: Conflict Among Idealists”

  1. Well said! Unfortunate that so many of us trying to “save” the world are still so focused on our own selves that we get in the way of what we are trying to accomplish. I look forward to reading your book!

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