It’s a strange thing, arrogance. You hardly hear arrogance listed as the key defining trait in anyone’s self-description. People like to be likable and to embody socially approved characteristics. Being kind, just, supportive of others, several cookie-cutter virtues. Tell me a little about yourself. Who you want to be. Arrogance is not one of the traits you have on your list of introductions. Although not everyone has the comfort or luxury of abnegating negative social traits. Not everyone fits the social type that turns negative attributes into endearing quirks (as the philosopher Agnes Callard recently talked about).
Once you set out to grasp the concept of arrogance, it becomes clear that arrogance is not something you directly embody. Instead, it is something someone thinks of you. It’s a trait that emerges in relation to another. It originates in interaction.
Frankly, I think you are arrogant. Yes, I pass judgment on you, about how I think you behaved toward me. (Now, anything you can do about it?) Arrogant people, we find, seem to claim more about themselves, their abilities and ideas, than someone else attributes to them — notably, in relation to that other person’s self-perceived skills and image. In passing judgment, we reclaim the level we think the other person owes us… and sometimes even a step higher (since some of us are humble!).
I’ve met several arrogant people by now. Not all were actually unlikeable. Some were insufferable at times, true. Yet fun at others. Some were… say, a little optimistic about their abilities. Others later surprised me with their ideas and skills — which I did not know they had! I had not looked long enough, and I did not know about their history, their sometimes slow-burning potential. At that moment, however, I was captured and distracted by the present interaction in which this behavior did not sit overly well. And why should it? Our interactions are snapshots of a person’s life and development.
When you take a selfie, it’s seldom a one-take procedure. You look awful, right? People’s beauty lies in their dynamics that do not front-forward weird facial angles but tell a story of movement, embodied spirit.
Arrogance is a snap judgment. It’s a filter placed over an interaction. Who do you call arrogant? Me? Well, yes. You actually can. I sometimes say things you could consider arrogant. I recently was called arrogant. (It was not meant as a compliment.) And that threw me instantly back to one of my teachers in high-school. She was loud and grating, she was heavy, and she shocked every inch of my timid little pre-teenager self. And I loved her for it.
“Who of you thinks of themselves as arrogant?” Surprise, none of the kids raised their hands. “Well, I am.” Stunned looks. She went on to explain how having a form of self-confidence is always a walk on the tight-trope. You need some grasp on a sensible arrogance not to get lost in the forest of people’s judgment. Because that judgment is seldom about you. Too often, it is a two-way mirror about something that goes on in their minds. Some people can (really) grate you in their arrogance because they throw something back at you that’s still part of a construction site on your end. At the same time, you may overshoot a sense of arrogance for your own good. So the measure is never a stable one. It’s a negotiation between the people you interact with and your own desire to move on and move further.
Hannah Arendt was called arrogant. By whom? You cannot remember their names either, can you? These were people who did not call her arrogant because they thought she’d be a better thinker if she dropped some attitude. No, these were people who thought they should be where she is. Well, tough luck. Hannah Arendt never took the spotlight away from them. She just was doing what she thought was her way forward. And some people may have felt that’s where they’d like to see themselves. If that is seen as arrogance, I’d like to reclaim it.
So it’s feasible, sometimes unavoidable, to have some sense of arrogance. Just not all the time. Because then you’d be a delusional idiot.