Oedipus, Virtue Signaling, and the Self-Deception of Modern Self-Criticism

We find ourselves in an interesting time of Western history. I’m no cultural anthropologist and I’m definitely not a historian, but I find it interesting that the last 50 years (and maybe even since the late 19th century), American society and culture has become increasingly aware of the sins of our past. From the atrocities done to the American Indians to the bitter exploitation of migrant workers and lower-income families by the capitalist gods of the 18th and 19th centuries to slavery and Jim Crow, the sins of our nation’s youth continue to haunt our memories. But what we’ve been seeing in the last few decades goes beyond mere regret and shame for our past sins. The atrocities and injustices done by our forbearers have come to shape our discourse, our political agendas, even our moral codes. We are a nation who despises our fathers in the hope that we might not end up like them. And this fear of being as blind to our greatest flaws as our fathers has driven us to an unprecendented time in our nation’s history.

Lately I’ve found that much of political and social discourse revolves around the desire to not support anything that might later be condemned by our posterity as oppressive, exploitative, or wrong in any form. But this is a very difficult thing to pull off. An action supported by some and criticized by others in the present can become roundly condemned by the 20-20 vision of history books and critics. Of course, historians and cultural critics cannot rightly claim such 20-20 vision, given that the present always cataracts our perception of the past. But it doesn’t matter. Once sacrificed on the altar of history, there’s little hope of resurrection. To be “on the wrong side of history” is to forever find oneself the villain in the story of our nation’s progress toward enlightenment. To be blind to your blind spots results in forever being subjected to the fate of Oedipus: unaware of the atrocities of one’s youth, one must forever suffer the shame and reproach of the people, banished from the city walls and doomed to become an everlasting byword.

Today, our society has become hyper-aware of the reality of cultural blindspots and the unforgiving nature of history. In a sense, we might be the most self-aware society in the history of the world. We’ve become attuned to the fact that the present is merely a story read by and judged by those who come after us. And lest we become the villain, we must take pains to become aware of every blindspot so as not to find ourselves another Oedipus in another tragedy caused by our own hands. So we trace the mistakes of our past (racism, exploitation, oppression, injustice) into our own time and seek to stamp out any hint of it in political discourse, public policy, or personal conviction.

But what if in our hyper awareness of our own blindspots, we’re succumbing to an even greater fatal flaw: the presumption that we can know all things and control our own narratives?

This is where Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is very insightful. Many people think that Oedipus’ fatal flaw, the thing that caused his tragic downfall, was the fact that he killed his father and married his mother. But in fact, Oedipus’ fatal flaw was his prideful presumption that he could uncover the truth hidden from everyone else and in so doing, control his own destiny. Oedipus first reveals this flaw when he flees his (presumed) parents in Corinth in order to escape the prophecy that he would kill his father. He wrongly believed that knowledge of his fate could change his fate. On the road from Corinth to Thebes, Oedipus confronts a man on the road (his real father, Laius King of Thebes), and kills him. Upon reaching Thebes, he frees the people from the control of the evil Sphynx by solving the Sphynx’s riddle (thus establishing Oedipus’ vast wisdom and insight). In reward for rescuing the people, he marries the queen (his mother) and becomes king, unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy he thought his knowledge had helped him escape.

Years later, Apollo sends a plague into the city as judgment for the unpunished murder of King Laius. Confronted with the judgment from Apollo, Oedipus must find the killer so as to assuage Apollo’s wrath and free the people from the plague that has beset the city. But he is warned by the blind prophet Teiresias that the more he searches for the truth he is blind to, the faster he will move toward his inevitable fall. Of course, the moment comes when Oedipus realizes that “the blind prophet can see” and that he’s been blind to his own blindness the whole time. But by then it is too late, and the only thing he can see are the lasting images of the havoc he wreaked before blinding himself in self-absolution.

Oedipus’ problem was two-fold. He knew that the city had sins that threatened the population, but he never considered himself to be the real plague on the city, because he presumed to be the city’s savior. He considered himself equal to the gods, able to search out the truth everyone else was blind to and able to expose the sins that plagued the city in order to rescue it from itself. But by setting himself up as the city’s savior, he immediately blinded himself to the truth, for he himself was the city’s plague and Apollo’s scourge. By setting himself up as the one who could search out the truth, he found that he was the most blind of all.

This pride and presumption also led him to a place of unstable inflation. Once he does discover that he is the cause of the plague, that he murdered his own father and married his mother, he cannot bear the weight of the truth. So consumed with his status as an all-knowing god, he cannot bear the realization of being under the gods’ curse, beset by sins he wasn’t aware of and unable to escape a fate he tried to flee. By attempting to avoid his downfall, he actualized it. By attempting to see the truth hidden from others, he blinded himself to what was right in front of him. In his ignorance, he presumed to know.

I wonder if Oedipus’ sins are not so different than our own. One of the problems with our desire to be on the right side of history is that we presume to be able to see our own society’s blind spots. But in our attempt to see, we might find that we have blinded ourselves to the truth. One of the ways this currently happens is by the two-edged sword of virtue-signaling by exposing the flaws and blindspots of those opposed to our agendas or those who came before us. But in this gesture we are doing what Oedipus himself did, signaling that “there is sin in the camp” but assuming we are the ones to search it out and expose it. Having set ourselves up as the savior of society, we have blinded ourselves to anything that might indicate we are part of the problem. The pseudo-virtuous attempt to root out the blind spots of the group have made blind spots for the individual. The presumption to see things too big for anyone to see leaves us blind to the things we would otherwise have noticed in ourselves.

A less insidious example applies even to the well-intentioned citizen who tries to be more aware of his own biases and prejudices. Often this attempt to become aware of our personal blindspots can result in the same thing on a smaller scale. Often our attempt to search out things too hidden ends up creating arrogance, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism. The flagellation of those who repent for the sins of their fathers and seek to never commit sins of their own only serve to make them white-washed tombs of hypocrisy and self-congratulation. And often these attempts to be aware of our potential sins only exacerbates the problem. The attempt not to be prejudiced toward one group ends up leading to prejudice of another group. Often attempts at reconciliation or equality becomes forms of patronization and segregation. Presuming to be the city’s savior, we end up being the city’s scourge. By attempting to flee the fate of “being on the wrong side of history,” we might find ourselves living out our greatest fear. Like Oedipus fleeing his (presumed) parents only to unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother, our attempt to flee the sins of our parents may end up leading us into a double-fault: we murder our fathers in our self-righteousness condemnation of their mistakes while unwittingly uniting ourselves with them in a marriage too evil to imagine.

Of course, this isn’t to maintain that those who seek self-correction are the villains. Oedipus is the hero of the story, after all. But we must remember that without humility, the story the hero finds himself in might be a tragedy, and he might find himself falling by his own hand. There are no easy answers, particularly when the greatest evil is within us. We cannot presume the omniscience necessary to correct ourselves in a manner that will be commended by our posterity. And I fear that if we continue in this Oedipal trend, we might find that the result will be a generation of bastard children more ashamed of their parents than we are of ours.

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