The Anti-Virtue Manifesto

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When we’re kids, we’re given the same instructions from our elders: “Sharing is caring”; “Patience is a gift”; “Forgiveness is key”; “Selflessness is a virtue.”

We’ve heard these same tenets parroted to us in practically every institution we belong to, to the extent that it has more or less become ingrained in our consciousness as values constituting the haloed “good.” Of course, the above list is but the beginning of a rather exhaustive list of values that are packaged to create the ‘ideal’ human. And I say packaged because “these values are effectively marketed to people to seem the ultimate pinnacle of human goodness. But like all marketing, they’re airbrushed to hide the flaws” .

But before we head any further, let me first explain what I mean by virtues. Virtues, according to the Cambridge dictionary, refers to “a good moral quality in a person, or the general quality of being morally good.” While this may seem vague, I’m sure you all can think of qualities that would be considered virtues. This is because our society has taken it upon themselves to define what virtues are, and in doing so, defined the quality of being virtuous or “morally good.” Some of the common and oft-cited virtues would be patience, compassion, selflessness, generosity, and forgiveness. And these sound great, don’t they? 

But “what happens when virtues are blindly followed? When you take the high road every time?” 

Caring for Yourself by Letting Go of Others

In recent years, the concept of self-care has risen to prominence. Many Instagram-gurus are now advocating the need for self-care regimens or sessions to unwind and pay attention to yourself and your needs. Institutions and organisations too are now implementing—at the very least on a surficial level—mental health checks and wellbeing practices. This seems to indicate a culture that is moving towards an acceptance that the self requires love and attention too. But even through all the myriad instances and tangents the conversation has sped through, I have seldom seen it enter the realm of the so-called “virtues.” 

No one tells you to be selfish. Or to be impatient, or hold a grudge. It doesn’t sound…right. But that’s just a matter of phrasing, isn’t it?

The opposite of following the virtues isn’t discarding them. Just because you didn’t forgive your friend the third time they committed the same mistake doesn’t make you a bad person; it means you know your boundaries and respect yourself.

Continuing to take the high road in every situation doesn’t make you a saint, it makes you blind to your self-worth. gjkjk

Think about it: when you complain about your unhealthy, potentially toxic, relationship—whether it be platonic friendships or otherwise—what’s a common response that comes up? “Why did you take it lying down? If only you had put your foot down in the beginning, you wouldn’t be so miserable right now.” You can argue that this is a victim-blaming mindset, and you’d be right. But regardless of which mindset you use to look at this issue, the reality stays the same: you’re in an unhealthy relationship because the other person’s comfort apparently trumps yours. And even if they should be the one treating you better, they’re probably not going to. For some reason, you seem to think that they deserve better than you do since you keep erasing your boundaries so they feel better. It falls to you to treat yourself better. This may be harsh but no one else is going to do that for you. Stop finding excuses for their behaviour by telling yourself you should be patient with them, and show compassion, and instead demand a show of respect from them. 

The Construction of Virtues 

I think the virtues are overrated…

You’ve figured that out already. But hold your horses! I’m not saying the virtues should not be considered so. It’s not wrong to say that the concept of virtues is necessary for the harmonious conduct of society. But I don’t believe that they should be taken as gospel, in an absolutist sense. One of the main culprits for why virtues are so hyped up is the social contract. A social contract refers to a set of tenets that members living together in a society agree to follow for the proper functioning of that society. We need some base understanding of what is deemed acceptable and not in order to co-exist together in close proximity. My editor also pointed out the concept of generalised social trust: the trust members in a society have in an unidentified other member. A set of agreed behaviours and values need to be followed for people in a society to trust each other, thus leading to economic and social progress. 

Secondly, I would also argue that religion, or the religion currently fed us, is a major force behind the absolutism with which virtues are treated. As a Christian, my example follows from the Christian parables I was taught as a child. In Christianity, you are often told to “turn the other cheek” meaning to forgive all transgressions, and even contribute to the furthering of these by being passive. It’s a shortened quote from Matthew 5:38-40: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”  

These verses come from the chapter where Jesus explains the ‘sermon on the mount’ to his disciples. It has some pieces of advice we would call questionable nowadays, such as that marrying a divorced woman is adultery and that you should be glad when people persecute you. Also, note that getting angry will get you an afterlife-sentence in hell, so I guess I’ll see you all there. But I digress. To get back to the point, turning the other cheek is a rationalisation of passivity, of allowing bad things to happen by relying on the strong pillar of “moral good.” But will such “moral good” help us when police officers shoot-on-sight based on skin colour or institutionalised racism consistently disadvantages a specific race submitting them to a decades-long fight for something so basic as equal rights? Maybe Jesus could have done it. After all, he can come back from the dead. But I doubt we have that privilege.

But please, don’t take this critique to mean that I despise all religions. In fact, I do believe in the merits of religion, but I have to ask myself who constructed the religion we are familiar with today. And what I reference by this is the importance of social context and translations. Speaking on Christianity again, I think we all know the original teachings were not in English. And yet, most of us study the Bible in English. Therefore, the reliance we have on translators to do their job faithfully and consider the social contexts of the time when doing so is massive. But, considering all translators when the Bible was first translated to English, mostly comprised of white men, it is pertinent to ask whose viewpoints and ideologies are unknowingly influencing their interpretations of the original text. But while that’s an interesting thought to explore, it’s not the main point of this article so I won’t go anymore into its details. But if you’re interested to read about how interpretive errors could have influenced Jesus’ message in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ passage I referenced above, there’s a really insightful article here you can check out!

Lose The Virtues 

The so-called “virtuous traits” are far too complicated and nuanced to blanket them as ‘good’ without taking into account the possible problems that they can result in. Take selflessness for example. Out of all the virtues that come to mind, selflessness has got to be the one I abhor the most. The premise of selflessness is the giving up of oneself for another. Of course, a certain amount of selflessness must be practised for the smooth operation of society and the collective good. However, the mores of selflessness we are taught often advocate for a reduction or denial of the self in order to please another, and this just doesn’t sit right with me. Remember when parents or teachers would make you share your toys even when you didn’t want to? You might have had good reasons for not wanting to—maybe they had a habit of breaking toys or losing them. I would argue not wanting to is a good reason in and of itself. But you had to bow to social demands, and were forced to erase a very important boundary. Soon enough, with enough repetition, erasing boundaries in fear of inconveniencing others becomes the norm. And this can lead to rapidly declining mental health and an upshoot in stress.

While sharing toys may be a rather small, and in isolation, an inconsequential example to use, the principle behind it can be extrapolated to all sorts of social situations, many of them with the potential to have much bigger impacts. For me, the two resources I refuse to be selfless with is my time and energy. Time, I find, there never is enough of for all the things I want to do, and as an introvert, energy is not something I can afford to squander on things and people I do not like. This usually translates to behaviour that may be called anti-social at times—such as refusing phone calls or taking hours to reply to texts—but which to me is the reason for my good mental health. As well as I know this, I also know that not everyone can understand, and may not accept this. And this is where drawing boundaries, and knowing what you are willing to give up and what you are not is important. 

The same can be applied for most other virtues that come to mind. How long are you to be patient before you decide you’ve had enough? How much should you forgive before you decide to cut loose that tie? Are you even obligated to stick through someone and all their rough patches? I’ve often seen touted the idea that true friends must support each other when they are going through tough times.  And this is an admirable teaching. But what if their downward spiral is starting to affect you and your life? If your friend—who has a history of causing trouble—has committed a crime you are witness to, would you lie in court to protect them, and commit perjury? I wouldn’t dare make a moral judgement here, I’m simply thinking of situations where the virtue of patience and forgiveness may not be so ideal to follow.  

The essence of my argument boils down to this: you are not obligated to anyone. It’s not just selflessness or patience or forgiveness that this applies to; all of the so-called “virtues,” taken to an extreme or followed without careful reflection, can be harmful to oneself. You must know your own boundaries and take care to enforce them when they are in danger of being overstepped. While taking others into consideration is important, you must still look out for yourself first or risk giving so much away to others that you won’t even know it when you are unhappy.