An Epidemic of Arrogance

Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18

Arrogance is habitual to the ignorant – Persian Proverb

The past few weeks have brought ever more into relief a concern I’ve had for a long while now: a general rise in arrogance among people.  I’m fortunate enough to have friends from different backgrounds and ideologies, so it is interesting to compare and contrast viewpoints.  An unfortunate common trait they all seem to share is an increasing air of superiority that seems to be even more on display via social media.

Something I hate to see on Facebook is when people share stories or articles that claim some advantage or benefit of liberal vs conservative; secular vs religious; urban vs rural; etc.  Some examples would be articles about how much better of a work ethic farm kids have or others about studies that show secular children are kinder than religious children.  I must point out that I am NOT discussing or advocating the validity of these or other similar stories.  To be fair, one is an obvious opinion piece and the study behind the other has been called into question.

Rather, what I want to point out is the underlying reason we share these types of stories.  Do you think that it is urban parents sharing the “work ethic in farm kids” stories to discuss how they can adapt their parenting to improve their children’s work ethic?  Are religious parents sharing the “secular kids are more generous” stories to ask themselves hard questions about what might be going wrong?

Of course not.

Farm parents are sharing the “better work ethic in farm kids” stories and secular parents are sharing the “more generosity in secular kids” stories.  And they are doing it for the exact same reason:

“We’re better than those other people and here’s the proof.”

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have a sense of pride in yourself and your background.  I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up on a farm, and if I end up having children of my own, I want to pass along that experience.  I also feel both my personal and religious growth benefited by stepping away and taking a more secular view for a while.  However, while I love both of those aspects of my life, none of that makes me any better than anyone else.  I’m no better than someone that grew up in the city or someone that has always stayed with their childhood faith.   The only person I should worry about being better than is my past-self.

And my past-self was a prime example of arrogance.  Academically, I was the proverbial big fish in a small pond.  I thought I knew everything.  I promptly received a rude awakening upon arriving at college, and have continuously received those awakenings throughout my life.

I’ve been privileged to have met many incredibly talented and intelligent people over the years.  People that are true geniuses, without exaggeration.  And I’ve had my preconceived notions and self-importance humbled again and again.  The more I’ve learned, the less I know.

Last month, I read Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.  What struck me, that we don’t learn in school, was how much George Washington failed in his early military career, long before the American Revolution.  A common theme in these early failures was a belief that he knew better than others with more experience and more perspective.  Luckily, he learned from those humbling experiences, and used them to his advantage during the Revolutionary War.

A couple of months ago, I wrote in a blog post that the wisdom of Socrates was not in his knowledge, but in his realization and acceptance of his ignorance.  I also mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who often have little skill or knowledge in an area have an incredibly high level of confidence in that area.

Unfortunately, we are seeing so much of that effect now.  People are claiming to know more about subjects than actual experts.  The level of arrogance that entails is astounding.   Whatever your profession is, I assume that you are good at it and that you have dedicated many years and much of your life to it.  Now imagine someone comes along with no prior experience in your field and tells you that they have read up on it over the past few weeks and that you are wrong or corrupt.  What would you think of that person?

In a slightly flipped scenario, what about that typical mid-level manager or trainer that you might have had at some point in your life.  They know more than you did at the beginning, but it was obvious they didn’t know everything.  Yet they continued to lord their slight advantage in experience over you and act superior.  And you see them do it to other people.  What do you think of people like that?

This arrogance is all around us, and I freely admit that I fall into it myself on occasion.  No matter the subject area, we need to remember a little bit of humility.  Whether we are discussing a pandemic, or religion, or politics, or something at work, we need to operate under the assumption that we might be wrong.  Instead of actively seeking out information that confirms our preexisting views, we need to question our preexisting views and attempt to see what others see.

We should not try to prove ourselves right, we should try to move ourselves to what is right.