The charge ‘holier than thou’ might be self-betrayal

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 28, 2000

The women at the next table in the restaurant were talking too loud.

Monday, August 28, 2000

The women at the next table in the restaurant were talking too loud. It did give me an opportunity, however, to observe objectively a disturbing attitude I have encountered subjectively. One woman had said she disrespects a certain public official for his drunkenness. Another retorted angrily, "Don’t be so holier-than-thou!" The expression "holier than thou" puzzles, because it can be meaningfully valid or a self-serving excuse, which is itself self-righteous.

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I wanted to ask the disappointed women: Do you get drunk yourself very often? If she reported she has seldom been drunk, never in public, and never attempted anything that would harm others or even herself on those few occasions when she was, I would have a question for her critic. Would you not agree that, at least in this reference, your friend is in fact "holier" than the man whom she disrespects? If the concerned woman said she has never in her life been drunk and has never in her life imbibed sufficient alcohol even to be mildly influenced by it, the question to the critic would be stronger: Would you not say your friend is distinctly "holier" than he?

The critic might retort: Well, she doesn’t have to go around bragging about it! But, of course, she wasn’t bragging, because she made no reference to her own behavior or moral standards, however better they might be. She simply observed that she cannot respect the man for his drunkenness. She did not say she disrespects him for anything else or that her disrespect for his drunkenness causes her to reject him as a person.

How could even the second woman respect his drunkenness? She might be willing, as indeed she seemed eager, excuse his drunkenness. But, surely, she would not go so far as to say she actually respects the drunkenness per se. On the other hand, she might because subsequent remarks seemed to betray the fact that this is a problem for her as well. She seemed, as is often the case, not as much defending the public official as excusing herself.

In point of fact, she actually was setting herself up as being morally superior to her friend. You disrespect him because he was drunk, she said in effect, but I am more tolerant than you because I don’t disrespect him at all.

The English word "holy" is from the Old English "kailo." (But I have never known a person who throws the expression around gratuitously to have consulted a linguistic source.) This has the sense of "uninjured," "whole," "wholesome," and even "health." The Hebrew of the Old Testament has the sense of "different" or "separate from the profane."

You have a disease? I don’t. I am healthier than you. Is it wrong to speak the truth, a simple fact? You lied, and I told the truth. You are wrong and I am right. Am I to be condemned for being right or just for saying so?

The idiom "holier than thou" suggests, if it means anything better than an excuse, more a censorious arrogance than a moral judgment. Such is indeed wrong. If a person were to say, or even act as if, he is necessarily better than another or that he is intrinsically morally superior, the expression could be appropriately pinned on that person.

Moreover, if one should accuse another of being "holier than thou," as the second woman did, she is at least implying that she not only heard what the first woman said but she has the ability to look inside her heart and mind and know what she means and what is her total attitude. I find that arrogance, "holier than thou."

Not so incidentally, when a media commentator makes a moral assessment of a public figure, documents actual fault, and confines comments to the quality of the behavior in question without an attack upon the person, this cannot logically or fairly called "holier than thou." One who does either is ignorant of the English language, unfamiliar with ethics, or very possibly both.

Let’s be careful about charging another person with being "holier than thou," because it just might betray precisely this attitude in oneself.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays