Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The downside of arrogance

For a few days now, I've had several tabs open in my Web browser with the intent of springboarding them into blogs. Some involve the recent hoopla over a New Orleans transplant daring to suggest the city doesn't run on voodoo spells (which I addressed once already, and which earned kudos from the Esquire blogger), while another defends "arrogant atheism."

But really, they can all be one blog, because of arrogance.

If I had to guess how I've changed the most in the past few years, I'd say my tolerance for arrogance has dropped to negative levels. It's never been my favorite trait in people, but I was more selective about who it applied to — if they had the truth on their side (or if I thought they did), I mostly let it go. I gave off a fair share of arrogance myself in those situations. I believed, subconsciously if not consciously, the old saying, "It's not bragging if it's true."

But over time, something changed. Maybe some people whose opinions I agreed with became too smug. Or that their unblinking gloom and cynicism as political waters shifted revealed their need to feel smarter than everyone else. Whatever it was, I was no longer enchanted by ideological brethren who browbeat their opponents.

I've never been a fan of street preachers and similar types who love to tell people they're going to hell. No one screaming in my face that I'm wrong and a terrible person is going to change my mind. Yet, many people holding perfectly sensible views wield the same hammer. Some of the most brilliant progressives are obnoxious people in mixed company. They care less about people seeing their view than about basking in their own superiority. What does that accomplish? Nothing.

And no, it doesn't matter if they're right. The human brain is wired to be defensive in those situations, so all it does is make the target of the harangue even less likely to entertain another view.

Atheists are especially prone to arrogance these days. Emboldened by recent strides to make America less of a theocracy (which I fully support), many atheists are displaying a certitude that rivals that of religious fundamentalists — as if making laws more sensible in the United States means God has been disproven and they win the universe. Which in turn means they're exempt from humility and decorum.

But the right and wrong of society is on a different plane than the Ultimate Truth, which is all guesswork, whether you believe in God or not. In the meantime, we know society is a real thing and that maybe its laws shouldn't be based on the arrogant certitude of unprovable beliefs.

Arrogance also reared its vain head in the recent New Orleans/Louisiana magic debate. The attacks on Dave Thier's transplant status I thought were especially vile. "Oh, he's only been there for three years! What could he possibly know?" asked at least one person who's lived there for five. "These hipsters couldn't possibly understand. I was here before it was cool."

Maybe it's because I've been a transplant many times (sometimes for far less than three years), but I don't think you have to live in a city your whole life to have an opinion about it, and in fact it helps to have a fresh perspective. In any case, I'm less inclined to consider what a lifer or longer-term resident has to say if they have to act superior while saying it. Humility helps. After all, someone who has never moved doesn't know any more about the trials of transplantation than a transplant does about a lifetime in one place. No one's right or wrong in that respect, and thus no one can claim absolute truth.

All arrogance is undeserved, because no birthright, no achievement, no higher ground, no sense of certainty ever justifies it. Arrogance arises not from being correct, but from the narcissistic need to be right, and better, all the time. When that urge takes hold, people can be very, very wrong. Even when they're right.

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