Holier than Thou

Had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone I don’t know very well. This woman was coming to me for advice on a sticky situation and so spent some time defining herself and giving me a thumbnail of her personal narrative.

This is always fascinating.

I have a habit of sliding into a meta analysis of what and why people reveal certain kinds of things in conversation. Probably should have trained as a therapist or done less Lit Crit in college. It is also a trick I used to use at parties when I wanted someone to go away:

Them: “What do you do?”
Me: ‘I study feminist epistemology as it intersects with ancient Greek philosophy.’   Them:  “I need to freshen my drink – can I get you anything?”

Works every time.

So a key part of this woman’s narrative was how she came from money on the Upper east side of New York and rejected her WASP roots by converting to Catholicism and joining Catholic Worker. Both the action and the telling of it spoke volumes. Because I have run around the edges of the lunatic fringe I knew all about Dorothy Day and understood what the woman was trying to convey about her perspective on the world. Serving the poor and oppressed is how she defined herself.

She was both surprised and delighted that I was familiar with Catholic Worker which also told me, a) what opinions she had formed about me and, b) that she generally expected this to be “outsider territory”. I refrained from sharing my rejection of Catholicism and embracing of Atheism as this wasn’t about my belief system.

The part I don’t get – and its not the first time this has come up – is rejecting inherited money in order to stand in solidarity with the poor. I am not attacking her choice, but having been poor and knowing poor people, I am flabbergasted when I hear something like this. The person seems to expect to be congratulated because of their sacrifice for solidarity.

Every poor person I have ever known would love to get out of poverty, the bad neighborhood, the deadend jobs, and here is someone who had all that and rejected it. Makes no sense to me. Why not stay rich and use your money for good? No one needs to know you can write big fat checks, you can be an anonymous donor and still serve soup at the shelter.

This idea that poverty is somehow noble, or poor people have such dignity because of adversity, smacks of objectification if you ask me. I am not implying she has no true regard for poor people or that she is faking her commitment to social justice, but I do wonder if her act of rejecting her wealth planted a corrupting seed of self-righteousness.

Like I said, I find it fascinating to consider what people tell you and what they leave out.

It might be useful for folks to remember that the moral high ground doesn’t come equipped with safety rails or any other protections. Those cost extra.

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