We all use words sometimes in ways not intended. We don’t, after all, have a dictionary to hand in every conversation and memory plays tricks, not to mention there is always some “drift” in common usage that’s culturally-driven. Often it’s just sloppiness that becomes wired into daily use and when we go back to the dictionary it’s occasionally a surprise to find out that what we thought a word meant isn’t really what it means at all.
Sometimes, though, it’s the right word applied to the wrong circumstance or a label correctly remembered but used for the wrong reason.
Arrogance is one of the biggies. I looked it up this morning in the dictionary—the Websters Compact Desk Dictionary of the American Language, a book I’ve owned since about sixth grade. It says:
“Arrogant—adj. [see ARROGATE], full of or due to unwarranted pride; haughty.”
The telling word there, I think, is “unwarranted.” But that’s not how the word is used usually. Most often, we see it applied in situations where someone feels they have been put down by someone displaying an uncomfortable opinion, superior information, confidence, or making a general statement about things the user feels is intended as a personal judgment against them. Manner is important, and anything short of self-deprecating kind of visible humility can be taken as sure sign of arrogance. What is said is less important than whether it contradicts common prejudice or simply a personal belief, and in this situation the term becomes an ad hominem attack—the information being conveyed is thereby discounted because the person giving it is arrogant and therefore need not be listened to.
Often this is a tactic, a way to discount something disagreeable. If the person talking can be made to appear self-serving or bullying or ignorant, what he or she says can be safely ignored because it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s a defensive posture, accusing someone of being arrogant. It puts the emphasis on establishing something that has nothing to do with whatever debate brought the accusation about, wastes time, distracts, and often says more about the accuser than the accused.
The difficulty of defending one’s self from a charge of arrogance is part of the reason it can be an effective dodge. Now we’re talking character references, examples of past behavior, and an endless definitional conversation about just what that means. Is someone arrogant because they stand on principles, never bowing to counterarguments? Maybe. It depends on the issue and whether or not all that’s being argued is an unsupported principle. If, however, there is weight to the principled position, evidence, experience, associated support…if the principle is something that has been shown to work in action and not just a matter of opinion…
See the problem? It’s been used too often to derail legitimate dialogues about serious issues. Take for instance education. We’re having a national debate among several states on a relatively low level about what to include in science curriculum (yes, I’m talking about evolution). There is a faction opposed to its inclusion, and in order to get their way they have been forced to be devious—assertions that we should “teach the controversy”— which run aground on the fact that there is no controversy in the science, only in the politics. But a tactic used repeatedly in public debate is, when a scientist, someone who knows the subject, states that something like Intelligent Design is not science, at some point a charge of arrogance is made. “You scientists are so arrogant, you think you know everything.” Or some such phrase.
This, for the lay public, can be a huge distraction. Because now the scientist has to defend against a personal attack, which has nothing to do with the merits of the argument. What it is, basically, is an admission that the one making the accusation has run out of anything useful to say.
The fact is, a charge of arrogance is one of those things best left for historians or for private arguments. it’s interpersonal, complex, and irrelevant. Someone can be arrogant as Napoleon and still be demonstrably wrong—or right. More likely, the one making the charge is the one being arrogant, because they have assumed their rightness regardless of the elements of the argument, and have either not bothered to learn the details or have dismissed such details because they contradict a cherished belief. Either way, they elevate their personal belief above all other factors and anyone who stands in the way of making that personal belief paramount must, a priori, be wrong. And if they are wrong and still arguing their point, they must be arrogant. Hmm. Got a mirror?
Ultimately, the charge of arrogance is used by people who feel their own beliefs and opinions are not being given due respect. They are, possibly, being ignored. Or they feel they’ve been identified in a way they reject, even though their position may be as wrongheaded as a Flat Earther.
But, tempting as it is to then label such people themselves as arrogant, it serves no purpose to make the same countercharge. Often, if arrogance is involved, it’s “borrowed” arrogance. It’s not a personal arrogance, but an aspect of the opinion or belief they hold, and as such personal arrogance gets displaced onto the source. Otherwise modest, humble people can come across as arrogant because they are not, by their lights, speaking for themselves, but for this set of ideas.
Which brings us right back to the pointlessness of the charge. Recall the definition:
full of or due to unwarranted pride; haughty
The operative word is “unwarranted” and that leads us right back into the dialogue to determine what is unwarranted. To do that, it’s necessary to concentrate on the topic, not take side trips into personality. We might all do well to bear that in mind. We might get farther and understand more. I believe most people are capable of understanding a lot more than they’re given credit for—even what they believe themselves capable.
Of course, that may be an unwarranted assumption. Is it arrogant of me then to think people can do better?