Person using drugs on having his offer to share refused—“You think you’re better than me?”
Person doing the refusing—“Of course I am, have you looked at yourself lately?”
It might be wrong to respond to an offer of drugs, or any other vicious “good,” with the lack of charity encapsulated in the very judgmental statement “yes, I am better than you.” Still, I should like to extol the virtues of a certain kind of attitude and conduct currently termed “arrogance.”
In times such as ours, it may sound strange to speak well of arrogance. The cult of self-esteem has taken over our educational institutions, not to mention the various “helping” professions infesting our educational system and corporate human resources departments. Self-esteem is seeing to it that we and our children never lack for affirmation of our inherent wonderfulness, however deplorable our work and conduct. As for our public life, those in power, whatever their party affiliation, have come to treat their offices as personal property to be defended at all costs, with the price of reneging on promises to the voters considered beneath notice. We have a President who feels entitled to rule by decree, a press that steadfastly refuses to report on even the most outrageous revelations of infanticide for profit because such revelations do not fit their political program, and a Republican establishment that responds to the rise of Donald Trump, not by addressing the long-ignored issues of immigration that underlie his current popularity, but by insulting their own conservative base as ignorant and racist. Today, arrogance seems both in great supply and highly damaging.
But I do not propose to praise arrogance in and of itself, let alone to praise it as a cardinal virtue. Rather, I seek to point out that, among the vices so rampant in our society, arrogance is less common and damaging than our social media and popular culture would tend to indicate, and that certain aspects of that vice currently called arrogance should be rethought and reconsidered as elements of the important virtue of self-respect. More self-respect could go a long way toward limiting the damage done to good people by a bad popular culture, perhaps even helping good people to elevate those around them instead of being dragged down with them into the muck of self-indulgence marketed to us like heroin for the soul. And it is unfortunate that such self-respect is being drummed out of our character by the false charge that anyone who holds himself aloof from vice is thereby himself engaging in the vice of arrogance.
Our culture has too much of the phenomenon of cultural “drag,” whereby those engaging in harmful conduct, from drugs to alcohol, to sexual promiscuity, to simple laziness, attempt to shame those they know are trying to better themselves for being “too good” to be just like them. This is not just a phenomenon among the poor; it also is common in the suburbs, where middle class white kids dabble in various chemical and other stupidities and sneer at those who would hold themselves aloof. Like most bad things in America, cultural drag’s increased influence is easily traced to the Baby Boomer generation, with its assaults on “bourgeois values” and the concomitant ethic by which people once sought to act with propriety (especially in public) and to avoid scandal. The claim, as with all things Baby Boomer, was that “liberation” would mean just that: we all would be able to follow our own bliss, leaving public opprobrium in the dustbin of history and building for ourselves freer, happier lives. In the event, what the Boomers created was a crowd culture of the worst kind, in which those who sought not to engage in self-destructive behavior were “uncool,” and those who did the worst to themselves were paraded about as heroes.
We no longer have a culture that promotes excellence, or even decency. How, then, given the nature of what our children will face in school, at work, or socializing, will they avoid the favored vices of our age? If we are living in straightened circumstances, how will our children avoid becoming part of the culture of the streets? If better off, how will they avoid becoming self-indulgent snobs who care only for their own pleasures-of-the-moment? How will we ourselves avoid being dragged into the latest self-indulgent fad, including especially the call to accept the abnormal as normal, lest we be ostracized for our “arrogance?”
The answer cannot be merely to keep oneself aloof. The notion that one can be an island of virtue in a sea of vice is utopian in the worst sense. Without friends and family very few of us will stay on the path of virtue. That path is laid by force of custom, by the ingrained recognition of the difference between right and wrong, the habituated choice of the right, and the refusal to lower ourselves into the swamp of vice. This means, of course, that mere “self-esteem” will never be enough to steel any of us against the pressure to conform to prevalent, vicious practices. Self-esteem—the unearned, standard-less proclamation of one’s own goodness—can bring only a fragile desire for affirmation of one’s bravery, a false pride that leads to excessive risk-taking in the false expectation of applause and risk-free adventure.
One cannot rely on oneself to be good—such a view is truly arrogant. Instead one must recognize in oneself the spark of something outside and higher than any human self. The dignity of the person is rooted in God, who has placed His goodness in us. It is by recognizing and trusting in this higher power and way, along with the impulse within us to pursue the higher good it promises, that we are enabled to choose well. Few of us can make these choices on our own; we must choose to be around people who will reinforce our good and discourage our bad impulses.
None of this lessens our need to exercise and cultivate virtue within ourselves. But it indicates that the path toward right conduct involves both the choosing of the good and the rejection of vice. Recognizing the good in ourselves and those whose virtue we recognize and seek to join with are critical to leading a good life. And they require that we say “we are better than that” when faced with the lure of bad choices as a group, as well as “I am better than that” when alone in facing such choices.
Choosing the good includes rejecting the bad. And if this be termed arrogance in our age, so much the worse for our age.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.