No one is truly offended by a man who criticizes others. A man who criticizes others can be easily dismissed. Mencken criticized Americans and Americans gobbled it up. No latter day atheist is more beloved of Christians than Christopher Hitchens, who mocked and belittled Christians in winsome fashion. The cynicism of Ambrose Bierce indicted all who breathed, and yet we read Bierce with a knowing smile. When I read a man criticize others, I get to criticize others with him. What is more, I am skilled at dodging the insults generally directed at others. I am not “others,” thank you very much. When advertisements for prescription drugs run with the caution, “May cause suicidal thoughts,” I laugh and say, “Not for me.” While self-important pudding heads like Maddow and Hannity— who do little but belittle— might vex and annoy us, they are part of a basically tolerable social landscape. At the end of the day, we know Maddow and Hannity have made gazillion dollar deals; the vanity of life under the sun dictates that a few people ape and caper on television in the evening in exchange for cement trucks full of cash.
However, the man who criticizes himself makes us quite nervous. St. Francis of Assisi and Simeon Stylites were perhaps the greatest self-critics who ever lived, and they are commonly accused of being mad. The man who willingly risks blindness, frostbite, and death to climb the Matterhorn is a brave hero, but the man who risks blindness to climb Mt Purgatory is delusional. We are content that a man should risk life and limb for earthly glory, but the man who submits his body to a little rigor in order to conquer his temptations is self-righteous. Our blood gets itchy when we hear of a man who hates his sin so much that he is willing to do something about it. The man who criticizes himself is criticizing me in a way I cannot easily escape.
I have angered otherwise pleasant strangers several times in the last several years, usually evangelists who accosted me while I lived in Florida and demanded to know, “Are you certain you are saved?” I replied, “I hope I am saved. I have faith I am saved. I love my salvation. But I am certain of nothing.” I argued with one such fellow for a few minutes in the produce section of a supermarket, and in the end, he angrily said, “You can go to hell,” and shoved his cart away. Ambrose Bierce was never so rude to me.