Been thinking lately a lot about arrogance. My own, the arrogance of others, how it affects us.
Been thinking quite a bit about how to define it, if that is possible. A certain male family member has brought it to my attention that a certain female family member has called him “arrogant,” for his own good — she has often called me the same thing, for my own good. I’m sure there is truth in both cases, but at the same time it is clearly being used as a defense mechanism by the common denominator. A certain code-word for “I want him to do this thing, and he’s off doing something else so that makes him arrogant.” Well — these are not mutually-exclusive things. It is not at all a rare occasion wherein that, and nothing more, is called out by someone else as arrogance, and it is fair to call it that. Nor is the arrogance necessarily a bad thing. Although, of course, it wouldn’t be good to make a habit out of it.
I recall many years ago, as in that distant time in the early days when the female of the species and I were just starting to get to know each other, when I suffered the same confusion that befalls most males at that age when we hear: Confidence is sexy, cockiness is to be shunned. Of course they/we all want to be a Casanova who knows everything, so no one is wanting to be the boy who calls out the Emperor’s nakedness and says: What the heck is the difference? Those who pretend there is one, and that they are knowledgeable masters of what exactly that difference is supposed to be, say something completely unenlightening about it: Just be yourself, falling short of being a jerk, and it’ll all work out. That turns out to be the right answer. Observe the “don’t be a dick” rule, just be yourself, it works out.
And because it all works out, we don’t inspect it any further. We all like to pretend we know everything. While we’re not being cocky or arrogant.
But there is something to be inspected, further. If it is worth the time & trouble to call things and people out as arrogant, it is worth the time and trouble to define what exactly that is. But it seems we never get that far. Some of us are guilty on occasion, and can identify what, when, where and how it has cost us something. One would think that would then be sufficient incentive to define what it is, especially if we’re going to resolve to avoid being that way from then on. Still, we never quite rise to the challenge.
Arrogance can be a good thing sometimes. Saturday, I hoofed it somewhere and back again, not much more than a whole mile round trip. My exercise regimen, what there has been of it, has mostly consisted of riding my mountain bike, and after my return I discovered this left me out of shape from the ankles down. My foot felt like someone was driving a knife into it, all night long. Arrogantly, I decided to steer in the direction of the skid, relish the pain, and plan an errand involving several times as much hoofing the next morning. To drop off some clothes. At the dry cleaner’s. On a Sunday. Many, many pounds of clothes. When common sense counsels dry cleaners are not open that day of the week. Which they weren’t, of course. Well, that’s arrogance on some scale, isn’t it? Yes I had other things to do that were higher priority, and I did have an expectation of carrying the backpack full of clothes back home again. And yes, it was more about getting the exercise than dropping off the clothes. And yes, it worked, because I didn’t have shooting pains through my foot that night. My body needed to have the message sent to it that we’re not ready to rot away into flabby and sedentary old age just yet. Gee, that’s almost humility, not arrogance, right? And yet it was arrogance, because deep down on some level I was thinking: If I just will the dry cleaner’s to be open, they’ll be open when I want them to be.
We do a lot of that, don’t we? It’s going to work out this way, just because I want it to.
Saw an apologist for ObamaCare — an “Opologist”? — chide me and a lot of other people over on the Hello Kitty of Blogging, for daring to expect the system to be absolutely perfect and free of any setbacks at all on opening day. The Internet-stranger continued on, proffering the fantasy that from this time onward, things were going to get better and better. Didn’t provide much by way of reason for the rest of us to think so. I don’t think it looked like what he wanted it to look like. It came across as delusional. See, there it is again: Arrogance. Things are going to go this way, just because I want them to.
Individuals can show great diligence in stripping themselves of the human sin of arrogance, while the organizations and institutions they make up by coming together, can positively reek of it. This is institutional arrogance, a greater problem I think than the individual brand. It carries much more inertia. When that happens, I think I may have come up with a way to define it, objectively, measurably. It has to do with how much learning you need to do to achieve a mission, especially to solve a problem. And most especially within that, an internal problem. I would define it as a fraction between zero and one: If it is your impression that what you need to know to solve the stated problem, entirely exists within what you already know and therefore there’s no need to learn anything new, we could call that arrogance. This definition seems, to me, to be a good one because it calls out so much of what we understand to be part of what we’re trying to capture. It is antithetical to the healthy accumulation of new knowledge. When we solve a problem that is internal, we should rightfully think of this as an occasion to learn new things, suitable for this purpose in ways most other situations are not. The problem had to have been caused somehow, right? So a behavioral change is due somewhere, if we have agreement that there’s a problem that has to be solved, and things are working differently from the way we want or need them to. That’s what learning is supposed to be: A non-instinctive behavioral change. Like Einstein said: We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
I have now & then observed that technology has a lot of subtle ways of magnifying human weaknesses like this one. It certainly does have a way of boosting arrogance. You do this “programming” of some kind, during which time you may have to do some research into how things work, refining first your design and then your implementation. If you make a lot of money doing it, there is pressure on for you to offer this illusion that you already know everything and don’t have to learn much of anything because you’re just so knowledgeable and wonderful. A lot of doctors have this problem, and therefore this reputation for pretending they know everything. It comes from this occupational pressure toward the 1.0, to act like all facets of knowledge required to produce the desired result, have been learned already. Some Presidents of the United States have that problem too. But with the software thing, at some point you hit the “compile” button and then there is “run time,” during which absolutely, positively, every single jot and tittle of the behavior has been defined, and correctly. All the thinking has been done in advance. There is no need for any decision-making at all, other than that which was anticipated and implemented, with the decision criteria properly defined, along with the actions to be taken if-yes and the other actions to be taken if-not. After all, that’s what programming is. The machine makes the decisions faster than any human can, because a human somewhere already defined those decisions and the machine is merely executing. The machine comes out of all this just fine. The human ends up damaged, laboring under the falsity that all variables in life can be anticipated and decided in advance, prior to compile-time, every conditional and iterative construct. That it’s all definable. That a mortal can play god.
This gives rise to another definition of arrogance we might consider: Knowing more about the ideal solution to a problem than about the problem itself. I think inwardly we all understand what’s wrong with this. Shouldn’t your certainty about what is to be done, be limited to something equal to or lesser than your certainty of what’s hosed up? Oh yes, there are some exceptions to this. Pitching something in the trash bin, is safe harbor for the habitually arrogant. And it looks so macho: “Just toss it!” You’re just too cool to sweat the details. Well, there can be a lot of merit to that sometimes. Pitching and replacing avoids unknowns, and when there is a history of connection between confronting the same ol’ unknowns and wasting a lot of energy, this does indicate an apparatus somewhere that should be tossed over the side. But, a lot of opinionated loud people counsel toward destruction simply so they can appear to be in control, without their having to confront any of these unknowns. To avoid confronting details. This often connects back to that other definition I offered, of the institutional arrogance: I already know everything I need to know to solve this problem, there’s no need to learn anything new.
There is a fine line to be walked here. Arrogance is ultimately blockage against the acquisition of new knowledge that may be needed. However — from years of interacting with people, I have come to appreciate a new wrinkle to all of this: The fraction between zero and one is not quite so simple — it is not a spectrum beginning at the zero and ending at the one, after all. Not a line segment, more like a Möbius strip. Picture the man at the zero who has managed to expurgate any trace remnants of arrogance from within him, and is completely ready to learn new things to solve this old problem. Now, have you actually met that guy? If you have, I’ll bet you’ve already noticed what comes next: It’s rather difficult to quantify him as the picture of non-arrogance, isn’t it? Not only is he sure the solution to the problem exists within that knowledge that has yet to be learned, he will insist on it. The Möbius strip covers back around and completes a circle; he knows not and knows that he knows not, is intransigently certain that the solution is out of sight. Because he doesn’t know the answer, he won’t allow anyone else to know it either. His confidence in his knowledge is at the healthy and humble zero, but his confidence in the confidence of the knowledge is at the one.
Bottom-lining it: We’re all arrogant, and we darn well know it. It’s like having a pulse. The trick is not to rid oneself of arrogance, but rather to position oneself over that point on the Möbius strip that is most conducive to getting productive work done, and solving the problems that occasionally result most expediently, judiciously and beneficially. Avoiding arrogance? That’s a fool’s errand. Closest we can come to that, I think, is to say: An adjustment may be due if our arrogance has cost us more than it should’ve. And I think it’s fair to say everyone is going to have that realization at some time or another, if they’re honest about it.
Oh yeah, and it should be said: Girls who say they avoid arrogance like the plague, by-n-large, don’t. Every red-blooded male who’s interested in females, by the time he’s graduated from tenth grade, has noticed the arrogant guys get most of the attention from the girls, and those are the very same girls who claim to loathe arrogance. Cockiness and confidence? There is precious little meaningful difference there, and most of it has to do with the designs, or lack thereof, of the female upon the male. Think of James Bond. He’s not “confident without being arrogant”; that smarmy bastard is as cocky as anyone else, in reality or in fiction.
Arrogance has an appropriate time for implementation. It does its damage to us when it is exercised outside of the “seasons” in which it would do the most good. It is the confidence in what has been learned, the determination to put it to a proper and pure test. Further learning is suspended, temporarily, for sake of purity of such a test. It is the test that should be pure, not the arrogance; if the test is to be pursued in a way that will help us, there’s always going to be a little bit of humility laced into the arrogance, a little bit of “let’s see how this turns out.” Implicit in that is an admission that there is learning to take place here, that has yet to be done. So the pure-arrogance situation is problematic, bound to do damage. The no-arrogance situation is a myth. You can’t get rid of all the arrogance until you get rid of the people, along with probably all other living things.