In defense of arrogance
April 24th, 2016
I remember a conversation that I was having with someone many years ago in San Diego. The talk came to the topic of books at which point I mentioned, in gushing overtones, the incredible joy I found in reading Catch-22. "Of course you would, since it's such a sarcastic book," came the immediate response. That person was a good friend of a good friend and at that moment, politeness and civility barely managed to eke out a slim victory over a harsh and stinging response. The statement was correct (only partially of course) but the person making it was not the correct person.
I'd have taken the exact same comment with good humor had it been made by some specific people that I have known in my life (countable on the fingers of one hand.) These people, in my opinion, were well read (better than me in any case) and had developed an acute thought process over time. In my eyes they had earned the proper right to make such a comment and be taken seriously. Those who are brought up on a steady dose of bestsellers, suspense thrillers, book-club suggestions, self-help trash, and young adult garbage would be well advised to at least cultivate humility in these matters. Their observations are better suited to a much more monochromatic world. One in which a hero is always good and he has to suffer in order to be good, one where there is such a thing as pure love which is excruciatingly painful but ultimately redemptive, one which deals with the inevitable besting of adversaries and adverse situations in a long and linear story-line culminating in a success which could not have been otherwise, one with simple morals and certainties for the simple people that they are geared towards. Quality sarcasm of the Voltaire and Heller variety is a domain these people have no business commenting upon.
It is clear to me that this attitude, which I hold in all walks of life, can be taken as extremely arrogant, especially in this society which teaches how unique and special everybody is and, by extension, how valuable everybody's opinion is. I disagree on both counts. I disagree that this is arrogance and I obviously disagree that every individual is special in the sense that his/her opinion is worth listening to. What is referred to as arrogance is often just a pruning mechanism: an essential tool for separating the wheat from the chaff. I think everybody has this general attitude to differing degrees and in different domains. What they do not like is when it is directed against them. I am perfectly fine with it. I have met some very "arrogant" professors and have been at the receiving end of their impatience and brusqueness but I have always felt okay if there was something backing up their "arrogance" (specifically, some relevant talent or understanding that they had which I understood to be much more refined than it was in me.) I felt that not only was this behavior efficient on their part but it was also a rite of passage for me. To not expect respect for my opinions automatically - this is a deep lesson I learned from the "arrogance" of those who could carry it well. On the other hand arrogance in those who are incompetent in a certain domain really drives me up the wall, from whom I expect humility instead. However, this is never true. In this life I have always found that those who understand the least are also the most confident. They are the quickest to offer what they consider is their very special and singular insight. And the world is full of such people - they spend their days watching trash TV, reading trash magazines, following the humdrum lives of others through social media, who then feel no hesitation in moonlighting as the great philosophers of life. In this world I find that a little arrogance is essential in maintaining my own sanity.