Posted by Mike

I’m inclined to think that there are two kinds of arrogance: the overt kind, which everyone can see, where some obnoxious person makes an ass of himself expressing his notions of superiority or putting down others that he considers less adequate in some way or another.  But there is another kind of arrogance that is more subtle, and that I expect lots of us are guilty of.  That arrogance consists of the ingrained notions that we have that somehow we are superior to others in some way.  It could be in beliefs that we have learned, religious or political or otherwise, and it could be in competence, or knowledge, or alleged “sophistication,” or in power, or prestige, or wealth.  It can be in social, cultural, racial, or nationalistic areas.  !

I always like to get a clear picture of what we’re talking about, so am checking out the meaning in my trusty American Heritage Dictionary.  It says, arrogance is the quality of state of being arrogant, and arrogant is being “overly convinced of one’s own importance; overbearingly proud, haughty, and characterized by or arising from haughty self-importance.”  The Latin origin of the word relates to assuming for oneself without right or justification.  The New Oxford American Dictionary adds “having or revealing and exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities: he’s arrogant and opinionated/ a typically arrogant assumption.” The New Oxford makes a very important distinction.  And that is that the individual can have or reveal the attitude in his or her behavior.  I’m suggesting here that it’s the having the attitudes that we’re talking about and utilizing them, generally unconsciously in our thinking and feeling, that is the main problem here.  Let’s have a little test!

First take the quiz below yourself. Then ask a couple of family members and friends to answer these questions YES OR NO ABOUT YOU about you. Do I believe that I live in the country that has the best kind of government, and that other governments should emulate what we have?  Do I believe that I have the true religion; that people who believe,  in religious matters, something else are unfortunately misguided and in need of bringing in to the fold?  Do I believe that my perspectives, values, and opinions regarding raising children, relating to strangers, in sexual and moral matters, regarding money, in politics and government, about how the younger generation is behaving, etc., are all the “correct” way to think and that the others are unfortunately misguided and have it all wrong?

If the answers to some or all of the questions on the above “test” are yes, then I think we have something we need to talk about!  Now you may not feel or believe that you have some of this stuff called arrogance.  I will say that I do; I think it’s endemic when you live in a society.  Did your friends who took the test from your perspective reveal assumptions or arrogance in you that you did not realize?  You may or may not agree with their responses, but they may be worth considering.

 We all learn, almost osmotically, attitudes, perspectives, prejudices from our society and cultures.  It’s just part of living in a group or society, in that we tend to adopt the attitudes and values that surround us.   How many white Southerners during the antebellum period opposed slavery?  Likely very few. How many white Southerners from 1870 to 1965 were uncomfortable with how the institution of segregation in the South made a mockery of the fruits of the Civil War? How many Christians believe that there might be something to Judaism, or Hinduism, or Buddhism?  Or vice versa?  We could talk about the German peoples, and their attitudes prior to World War II. Every society and culture would have its examples. We adopt the mold of values and attitudes pretty much that our culture establishes for us.  That’s not always necessarily bad; but it is just the way that it is.   In a primitive tribal society it wouldn’t have even occurred to a member that maybe his (or her) tribe could have some particular way of thinking wrong, and that the tribe across the river might have it right!  Humans in tribal groups, in societies and cultures in general don’t think that way – because it’s not adaptive.  That kind of thinking would lead to social disruption.  And the way humans developed, in small groups that very much needed close social cohesion and cooperation to survive, questioning the group’s values wasn’t adaptive and had little to no survival value.

Things not only are different now, but they have to be different. In the United States in this 2009, if you look around you, you will see that we have actually become multicultural.  In a variety of ways, we are more than ever a mixed society.  In addition to being multicultural, we each have an incredibly vast and varied access to information that can offer us broadening perspectives in our world view.  The arrogance that is reflected from those more hidden attitudes and values mentioned above still exists in each of us.  Our hope can be that over time as we continue to be exposed to perspectives that differ from ours and become more comfortable with and even honor diversity, our own individual arrogance in these areas will be tempered.  In the present, however, it is incumbent upon each of us to become more aware of our unwarranted attitudes of superiority and our prejudices based upon the groups that we identify with, to make that wonderful discovery that we truly have no need to “be better than” anyone – in any area – to be  worthwhile and fulfilled persons ourselves. 

 The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their most common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos. 

–          Stephen Jay Gould



Filed under values

4 responses to “Arrogance

  1. I received a fuzzy “yes” on two of your questions. I say, “fuzzy,” because the questions and your presupposition are in some ways “arrogant” themselves, and thus difficult to assign a black and white “yes” to. Let me explain. There’s a hidden arrogance in the ideas laid out here that there’s no truth and/or no way to know the truth. And to say that one has to follow this perspective or else they are arrogant is not only arrogant, but it can be manipulative under certain circumstances. Now, I know you fairly well, so I don’t think you are being manipulative. But others can use the same argument in a manipulative way and have so for quite some time.

    Arrogance all depends on the deeper motives. I certainly don’t expect that your deeper motives are arrogant and manipulative. In fact, I think your deeper motives are in search of justice, but I can only guess what your deepest motives are.

    People could answer “yes” to each of your questions and not be arrogant. And people could answer all of your questions with a “no” and be arrogant. Arrogance is what goes on at the deepest level of motive. And we are not privy to each others deepest motives. We cannot access that level of information. We can barely access that level of knowledge about ourselves.

    Arrogance is a pride that says I am heirarchially above you. Arrogance is a force that expects others to carry his burdens. Arrogance is a manipulation device that says, “I can pull your strings and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it.” Arrogance is a state of being that says you are unimportant and disconnected from me and my greater purpose. Arrogance is a wicked act of the will.

    Love, on the other hand, is an act of the will also. Love says we are on an equal plane. Love says we are connected. Love says I’ll take your burden of injustice on my shoulders. Love says, “I’ll die for you.” Jesus is that love.

  2. I was interested in Mike’s above entry to the extent that the affirmation of singularity and uniqueness among religious groups is often seen as arrogant. To be sure, a certain arrogant posturing takes place if fear and insecurity are the emotional springboards from which claims to exclusivity are made. However, as a matter of critical analysis that is (insofar as this is possible)unencumbered by agenda, cant, and ideology, the affirmation of claims to exclusivity among particular religious traditions has more to do with accuracy than arrogance.

    For example, it is often assumed that different religions are expressions of a common “God-consciousness” or “religious experience.” Paul Tillich said this was to be “grasped by ultimate concern.” It is assumed that this experience is present in all human beings as some kind of primordial human experience. This comes from a philosophical view articulated first by Descartes and then finally by Immanuel Kant in the 18th c. that has formed the modern “turn to the self.” Thinkers of this tradition and all of us as inheritors of the enlightenment and modernity locate ultimately signifigant “religious” experience in the experiential depths of the self and they regard the diverse religions as expressions of the same experience albeit in different cultural contexts. These structures that we have inherited have also created the kinds of people who say that they meet God first in the depths of their “soul” or “spirit” (the soul was an invention of Platonic philosophy and is not a biblical concept although Augustine, a disciple of plato and plotinus, baptized this notion) and then if they find something in “organized religion” which meets with their liking, they join up. It has created people who are “spiritual” and not “religious.”
    It has also produced a kind of liberalism which dictates that the various religions are simply diverse symbolizations of the same core experience of ultimate concern or God or whatever, and therefore they must respect each other, suppress their differences, and for goodness’ sake stop acting like their religions or their religions’ claims are unique! Unitarians are products of this mode of thinking. The Deism of Thomas Jefferson and other founders is also “enlightened” in this way.

    However, what if the starting point for all of this is not correct? What if a culture or a language or a symbol system like a religion makes possible the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments? What if it is a communal phenomenon, like language, that shaped the subjectivities, the selves, of individuals rather than being an expression of them? What if human experience is constructed, shaped, molded, and constituted by cultural forms? What if there are thoughts we cannot think, feelings we cannot have and realitities we can’t behold unless we are able to use symbol systems, languages, religions? LIke Helen Keller, unless we acquire a language of some kind, we can’t actualize our capacities for thought and feeling. Experience is linguistically structured. In this fashion, religion, as a “language system” with symbols, rules, and norms come first which then shape experiences. And so, different religions don’t diversely symbolize the same experience, they evoke and mold according to their interpretive/symbolic/conceptual schemes. So, while religions may bear resemblances to one another, concepts like Buddhist compassion and CHristian love are never the same. They produce profoundly different experiences of what it is to be human and oriented to one’s self, one’s neighbor and the universe. The Christian has no way of accessing “nirvana.” To say that these things are in any way the same or that they bear any more than sometimes a faint resemblance is not only intellectually inadequate but also arrogant. Confessing exclusivity is perhaps honesty and in some cases an example of deep humility insofar as it recognizes the deep arrogance in assuming that my Buddhist or Muslim friend is really the same as me and that Jesus is really the same as Muhammad and that they are really representative symbols of some internal inclination to god.

  3. Mike Zelenka

    Your argument that specific religions do offer unique and likely profoundly different experiences makes sense. By extension, perhaps we need to recognize more that cultural differences are more than “skin deep,” and that coming to “understand” from the perspective of a different culture is much more complicated and requires more respectful work than we adequately recognize (ironically, as individuals within a culture we often have profound difficulties in understanding each other {it may be that the basis of the barriers to such understanding are the uniquely individual experiences in life, especially in our developing years, that we each have had}).

    Regarding a culture as well as a religion claiming uniqueness then, I see it as not the claims to uniqueness as the “problem,” but rather the claims to absolute truth (and concurrently the offhanded rejection off alternative conceptualizations {recent statements of Pope Benedict seem to me to have reflected this attitude}). The claims to absolute truth that I have seen seem to be based upon mythology that is completely unable to hold up to scrutiny as being reality-based. Mythologically-based perspectives provide a richness that may not be available to a culture in any other way; however, we continue to use such foundations to argue that the beliefs of, for example, my tribe are not only better than but more “true” than your tribe’s beliefs.

  4. Mike Zelenka

    for Matt:
    Re: “It has also produced a kind of liberalism which dictates that the various religions are simply diverse symbolizations of the same core experience of ultimate concern”: to some extent this appears to be valid, and I might add, reasonable. However, that, “Therefore they must respect each other” (certainly, a degree of respect among religions appears appropriate, unless they believe in human sacrifice, etc.), “…suppress their differences, and for goodness’ sake stop acting like their religions or their religions’ claims are unique,” differences can and should be respected, and some uniqueness is always present. However, it is the claims to what appears to be absolute truth that is alleged by Christianity as well as Islam and possibly other religions that bother me. Unless I am mistaken, Christianity appears to claim absolute truth for all people (certainly this is clearly evident in Roman Catholicism). The foundation upon what I understand are basic Christian beliefs and the beliefs themselves – such as the divinity of Jesus, Salvation and the nature of Jesus’s sacrifice – rests upon what appears to me to be very shaky ground at best. To categorically state that what is true for me is also true for you is a retrenchment to a basic impediment of tribalism. I also think you are characterizing Unitarianism and the Deism of Jefferson inappropriately. The statements that “Unitarians are products of this mode of thinking,” and that the “Deism of Thomas Jefferson and other founders is also ‘enlightened’ in this way” profoundly simplifies and denigrates the complexity of others’ thinking, something that we all tend to do when we are buttressing our own cherished assumptions and often hard-won conclusions about life and living.

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