One of the most valuable things my brief stint in Christianity gave me– along with some interesting stories, a fairly impressive knowledge of the historical and linguistic context of New Testament references to homosexuality, and the concept that I could, conceivably, perhaps not be the worst person since Hitler– was the concept of scrupulosity.
Some people, perhaps most people, have lax consciences– that is, they tend to believe that they didn’t do anything wrong when, in fact, they did. However, many people, particularly but not solely people with OCD or anxiety disorders, have scrupulous consciences: they believe that they’ve done wrong things all the time, even when they haven’t; they are afraid that something is wrong, even when it isn’t; they believe, for silly reasons, that something is sinful when it isn’t.
I am an incredibly scrupulous person. Many of my readers are also very scrupulous people; in particular, I think a lot of my anti-social-justice readers are anti-social-justice because when they tried to be pro-social-justice they landed in really awful scrupulosity spirals. So I figured I would provide some advice about how to deal with moral claims as a scrupulous person. I will be talking about this primarily in a social-justice context, because that’s the ideology I’m most familiar with (exciting flings with Christianity aside), but I believe similar principles can apply to many ideologies.
Scrupulosity is bad. It is really easy to fall into the trap of “oh, my scrupulosity is the only thing that is making me be a good person.” This is not true. In my experience, when I am trying to obey arbitrary rules that my brain makes up to hurt me, I am less kind, empathetic, and hard-working than I would be otherwise. It isn’t even good on a social justice level: a lot of times, scrupulous people wind up obeying the rules rather than actually engaging with the marginalized people they’re interacting with, many of whom don’t agree with or are even harmed by the rules. And think about it: even if you stop hating yourself, you’ll still prefer that people not be hurt and want to help them be happy. Your morality will still be there if you stop hating yourself. I promise.
Stick to literal meanings. A lot of times, scrupulous people tend to take things to extremes. We read someone saying “it scares me when men follow me around on deserted streets at midnight” and conclude that we should not leave the house after 9 pm because what if we scare someone? We read “I don’t like it when people are only interested in my fat and not me as a person” and conclude that it’s morally wrong to be attracted to fat people at all. Instead, you should look at what each sentence actually means, and not go into what it could possibly conceivably mean in some alternate universe. If the person seems amenable to conversation, you can ask for clarification or examples.
What if it doesn’t seem to mean anything? Well…
Avoid vague or unbounded moral injunctions. If a statement does not provide a concrete set of actions to do (for instance, “deconstruct gender”), ignore it. If a statement does not include a reasonable stopping point (for instance, “question your sexual attractions”), ignore it. If it does both (“check your privilege”), definitely ignore it. You should treat them as equivalent to someone going BZZT BZZT BZZZZZZZZZT I AM SIGNALLING THAT I AM A GOOD SOCIAL JUSTICEY PERSON. This is true even though a lot of times “check your privilege” is, in fact, a meaningful statement in context. Whether or not it is a meaningful statement, you will not be able to interpret it as such.
Stay away from venting people. A lot of times, when people are angry, they do not exactly have much in the way of ‘nuance.’ I myself have occasionally said things along the lines of “why are cis people even allowed?” This does not mean I actually want to not allow cis people (for one thing, I love my cis friends and partners too much); it means I’m frustrated and upset. However, when I see a frustrated trans woman going “why are assigned-female-at-birth trans people even allowed”, my brain is like “OH GOD I’M HORRIBLE I SHOULD BE DEAD.” I am sure said trans woman does not mean that, any more than I seriously meant that cis people should be banned; she is just frustrated about the transmisogyny of many assigned-female-at-birth trans people. But that doesn’t change the effect on me. She has a right to vent, I have a right to stay far away from her venting.
Know your triggers. There are some ideas I am completely incapable of engaging with in a reasonable way. They dig in to the weak points in my psyche and no matter how good-faith I try to be my brain’s instant response is “oh god I am BAD I am BAD and deserve to be DEAD” and it is no good for anyone. The solution is that, when those ideas come up, I ignore them. It’s okay. No one can fully consider every idea that exists in the depth which it deserves. “This idea makes me feel scrupulous” is an excellent reason to stick it on the bottom of your respectful-engagement stack.
Something making you scrupulous doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Once you’ve internalized that scrupulosity is a bad thing, it’s easy to backlash against the ideologies that make you feel scrupulous: to go from “actually, hitting on women is not morally wrong” to “…and the feminists are evil bastards for trying to convince me of that.” Social justice is, I believe, right about a lot of problems in the world. This point is particularly true if you aren’t aware of how your brain is distorting literal meanings: it’s very plausible that the Evil Bastard Feminists do not exist anywhere outside your cranium, and your engagement with Evil Bastard Feminists is not an engagement with actual feminists’ actual beliefs.
Some people will want to take advantage of you. Sometimes it feels like scrupulous people are waving a giant sign saying HEY, JERKS, OVER HERE. If you have a bias towards believing you’re evil, there are many people who will be happy to take advantage of that. So: if someone thinks that you should do whatever they want or you are a Bad Person, they are a bad person and you should not listen to them. If someone thinks that you are a bad person for having honest and good-faith opinions, they are a bad person and you should not listen to them. (This does not mean it is always appropriate to bring up your honest and good-faith opinions– for instance, if someone has asked you to stop talking to them, or if the conversation is about a totally unrelated topic. But it is correct to have them.) If you think those things are true, you should not listen to that person, whether they are true or not, because you are clearly not in a state to engage in rational discussion.
Your mental health matters. You have a right not to be suicidal. You have a right to like yourself. You have a right to live your life. As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. You will be much more capable of doing good if you don’t feel like shit all the time, because people who feel like shit all the time are generally not very good at things. And your pain matters just as much as anyone else’s does– even if they’re marginalized on a particular axis and you’re not.
You should still engage with criticism. This does not mean “you should agree with criticism.” It is possible to engage with criticism in good faith, seriously consider the evidence, and conclude that the person is wrong and you behaved appropriately. In fact, that’s necessary to be a moral human being! But as long as an idea is something that you are capable of handling, your scrupulosity does not mean you have a Get Out Of Criticism Free Card. It means that you have to take extra effort to make sure you’re listening to what people actually say, and not to what your self-hate is saying.