On Arrogance

arrogant
adjective
having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.

A friend of mine once mentioned on a comment written in response to some post or another in a facebook debate group that he had knowledge of maths far above the Brazilian average. That is a simple factual sentence, a true statement (which isn’t exactly surprising given what the Brazilian average actually is). The next few comments called him arrogant.

(ETA: This is an even better example of what I’m talking about here.)

I wonder what goes on in people’s heads when they say something like that. And by “wonder” I mean “sigh exasperatedly at the silliness of rules of etiquette.”

It’s clear, if you look at society and people in general, that people do not like feeling inferior. Not only that, people dislike feeling inferior so much that it’s become a generalised heuristic not to show superiority in any aspect. It’s rude to be seen as better than anyone at anything. It will give you trouble in most social circles. That can probably be easily explained: if you’re superior at something, everyone feels jealous, and stops helping you socially, so you end up being worse off than if you were just average.

It’s okay to want to be better than yourself. But being better than other people? You have to be more humble! How can you possibly think you could actually be better than other people?? That’s incredibly arrogant of you!

Yudkowsky makes a distinction between humility and social modesty: the latter is the kind of social thing you have to show, the “don’t-stick-out” heuristic; the former is actual, real, rational humility, the kind that recognises exactly how sure they are about the outcome of a decision and what steps must be taken in order to minimise the possibility of disaster.

So people calling you arrogant is frequently, in fact, a motte-and-bailey argument. The definition I presented at the top, of a false belief in one’s superiority (or even just a belief in one’s “general superiority” as if that existed), that’s the motte. The bailey is expressing superior aptitude at anything at all without paying your due to social modesty; it’s acknowledging your skills when they’re actually good. How dare you claim you’re better than anyone else? You’re just as flawed and imperfect as all of us! Even if you’re not. You have to pretend you are, just to not commit social suicide.

What I usually say is this: it’s not arrogance if it’s true.

Let’s pause that part of the argument and be more charitable here.

See, I wrote a post very similar to this one on my tumblr about a year and a half ago. In fact, the first paragraphs of this post are exactly the same, word for word. And upon rereading it? Gods, how arrogant that person was!

Except not really. I wasn’t arrogant. I was naïve, and I sounded very condescending. There was some unashamed cheering for my team. (“Don’t worry if someone who’s not trained in the Arts calls you arrogant.” Jesus.) I think I’ve learnt some in this past year and a half. I’ve learnt to be kinder, and more charitable, and I understand this a bit better now. And this kind of falls in my “don’t be an asshole principle.”

People don’t call you arrogant for nothing, or just for acknowledging your skills at anything. There are many, many ways of showing superior skill or knowledge without triggering the “gods you arrogant lil’ shit” alarms in people’s heads. I have found this. I have also found that there are roughly two kinds of people, here.

The problem with showing skill, the problem with unashamedly admitting you’re praiseworthy about something, is that it can signal two things: one, that you think you’re better than other people (not better at something, just generally better); two, that you think other people are somehow lesser. If you act in a condescending way, in a way that makes people feel like you’re basically crapping on their faces and invalidating their experiences and achievements, it’s no wonder they’ll dislike you, or call you arrogant, or something.

And what I have concluded here is that many people, especially many nerds, can’t actually tell. Upon rereading my own words, one year and a half in the future, I can see that I was acting and talking in a way that came off really wrong. “Don’t worry if someone who’s not trained in the Arts calls you arrogant.” Don’t worry about the opinions of sheep. That’s the tone that reads as. When you write something like that, it’s an implicit attack on other people, on your outgroup. Bam, K.O. I win. I scored the points, I humiliated my enemy.

Without ever meaning to! Without ever realising it!

So this is the… “reasonable” aspect of the tendency people have of calling each other arrogant. This is why nerds in specific but many other people can rub others the wrong way. What would you expect?

This is all true. But it’s not the whole story. There’s more to it.

See, there are some people, some situations, where even being nice isn’t enough. Where anything short of denying all possible skill is condemned. As a personal example, I was once called sexy by someone. I said I knew that. They got really shocked and called me narcissistic. What was I supposed to have said?

“Thank you,” of course. I was supposed to accept the compliment, but not own it.

In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington led expeditions to Brazil and to the island of Principe, aiming to observe solar eclipses and thereby test an experimental prediction of Einstein’s novel theory of General Relativity.  A journalist asked Einstein what he would do if Eddington’s observations failed to match his theory.  Einstein famously replied:  “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord.  The theory is correct.”

Einstein’s Arrogance – Less Wrong

Look at the example I chose to start this post with. Yes, there is such a thing as the correct tone one should use, as minding other people’s emotions and not implying other people are sheep, lesser, or something like that. But yes, there is also such a thing as the policing of anyone who sticks out. There is also such a thing as a generalised tendency to minimise other people’s achievements, skills, or just traits perceived as good/desirable whenever they show any agency in it, whenever they try to own it.

You can’t say “I know.” You can’t mention it in public, you can’t use it as part of an argument, as an example, as anything. And while the advice I gave above is still valid, and you should be careful not to come off as dismissive or condescending, the flip side of that advice is also important. Just like, when talking about your own positive characteristics, you can hurt other people, so can you hurt them by conforming to that social modesty tendency.

The other post I wrote was called “Do not criticise people when they’re right.” That post also has the problem of sounding a bit condescending, but less. Probably because I wrote it from a more personal/intimate point of view. But the point there was: when someone is actually claiming an accurate thing about their skills, when they put their money where their mouth is and are correct, you don’t call them arrogant. You don’t repress them, you don’t tell them to shut up. You may tell them to phrase what they’re saying otherwise, but you don’t punish them. From my original post:

How do people feel if you yell at them every time they show lack of social modesty, even if they’re perfectly correct?

I can answer that. They feel repressed, they feel sad, they feel irritated, they feel tired and they feel like they don’t want to be around you anymore. It’s very frustrating to be around people you can’t honestly talk to about your own achievements, you always have to say, “No, that’s not true, you’re pretty good, too,” instead of simply admitting the fact that you know you’re in fact more than pretty good at what you do.

I guess, in the end, it all boils down to the “don’t be an asshole principle.” It’s an asshole thing to make other people feel like they’re worthless and inferior. It’s also an asshole thing to make other people feel like they can’t be proud of their achievements or talk about them. Don’t be an asshole.

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