When Arrogance and Egoism Become Defined As Such

Among men (and women, perhaps to a lesser degree, but maybe not), there is a felt need for positioning in the hierarchy. You can see it in the jockeying for status in the pecking order, formal and informal. Hierarchies, when they are not pre-established, usually work themselves out in what appears to be a natural way, even if the antecedents and consequents are phases of social structuring. Most of the process is subconscious. However, using our sociological imagination, we can see it at work.

From Elizabeth Tibbetts et al, “The Establishment and Maintenance of Dominance Hierarchies,”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Some individuals feel the pressure of the game and resist it. Why? Different reasons. Some march to their own drummer. Some are stubborn individualists. (Perhaps those are the same thing. Remember being told that the opposite of courage is not cowardice but conformity?) Others are scared to belong. They may feel inadequate. They may be shy. Whatever the motivation, the resisters find themselves outside the structure to varying degrees and may—in commensurate degrees—experience hostility, even loathing towards them. And they may return the favor. These dynamics underpin bullying and other life difficulties. 

One mark of being outside the structure is whether one is allowed attitudes or to make observations that risk being characterized as arrogance or egoism. Those at the top of the structure are permitted self-assuredness and self-promotion even when these approach clinical narcissism. This is because such persons have been successful at hierarchy. Indeed, boasting and bragging are part of success in hierarchies, often with some disclaimer about false modesty. But not all of it. A lot of factors go into the ordering of dominance hierarchies, including probably body chemistry and animal instinct. Humans are after all mammals.

Those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy cower and demur in intensities reflecting their relative positions. Sometimes a subordinate might challenge someone over him, but those who keep their superior position do so by putting the subaltern in his place. Often jest and unctuousness are deployed to manage the tensions in all of this. There is a reward, of course: by being obsequious, one is never alone. The sycophant might even receive strokes of his own, if he is a good dog.

For those outside the structure, self-confidence and self-praise are treated as intolerable instantiations of conceit and hubris. Outsider status is conflated with a special designation of subordination, somebody who can be ignored and minimized—who can be talked over or asked to make an extra effort to be believed (and then disbelieved all the same). This is one of the aspects of human social organization that is so rough on people, as there is a basic human need to belong. I have always had a place in my life for people who are marginalized in this way. I call it the “Island of Misfit Toys.” Indeed, as a contrarian, I have often counted myself among those banished to this island. 

For the established hierarchies in which one must participate for survival, for example corporate bureaucracies, there are mechanisms for compelling those who occupy its positions to serve the interests of those above them. These are preferably endogenously-felt compulsions to achieve, often according to some arbitrary standard. For example the Protestant ethic (aka the Calvinist work ethic, aka the Puritan work ethic), a work ethic emphasizing efficiency, predictability (conformity and uniformity), and control all wrapped in self-discipline and determined by calculable metrics. Those over others want to have some rational account of their efforts in order to hold them to the arbitrary standard. Otherwise, it all looks subjective (which it is).

In the university, for example, the tenured professor, a professional position that ought to see the man who has achieved that title (often at the expense of his family and his personal health) determine his own work on his own time, is instead subject to the administrator’s desire to look good in order to aid the latter’s climb up the hierarchy. The administrator seeks credit for the grants brought in (emphasizing their dollar amounts), the number of articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals, and the rankings, and therefore the prestige, of those journals. The administrators are not concerned so much with the numbers of those who actually read those publications (they don’t read them themselves), but they are impressed by the number of times they are cited by those who often don’t read them. They tend not to be concerned with the quality of the scholarship unless (they are told that) the content deviates from doctrine or has offended some busybody somewhere. To be sure, gatekeepers are rather good at keeping out the work of heretics, but every once in a while something blunt gets through.

This is the way it works: the honorific titles that come with advancement in the formal hierarchy of the academy depend on spending more than a year getting papers past gatekeepers and juries, with all their biases at the ready, to be read by two or three other academics. If one is lucky. That the content doesn’t really matter is revealed by a cursory review of the quality of scholarship; much of it is crackpot challenges to the normal or pages full of empirical trivialities confirming the intuitive. Those who avoid all this, if they have tenure, are shamed as deadwood. If they don’t have tenure, their contracts aren’t renewed.

It hasn’t always been this way. An article in the Guardian a few years back noted that Peter Higgs would not find his boson in the “publish or perish” culture of today’s academy. Jim Al-Khalili writes that “in today’s climate of harsh realities and impact-obsessed purse-string holders, Higgs would have been unlikely to receive any funding to conduct his research—for he was something of a maverick who worked alone in an unfashionable area of speculative theoretical physics. While lip service is still paid to the importance of funding basic research that does not have any obvious or immediate application in industry or societal benefits, Higgs would struggle to hang on to his academic post today. You might think that someone like him really need publish only one or two papers of (eventually vindicated) Nobel-worthy research over his entire career, but in today’s ‘publish or perish’ climate, that would simply not cut it.” 

Higgs himself believes no university would employ him in today’s academy because he would not be considered “productive” enough. According to another Guardian article, “The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.”  He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.” He told the Guardian that he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980. Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises.” A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’”

By the time Higgs retired in 1996, the new academic culture troubled him. “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department,” he said. “I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more.” He then said this remarkable thing: “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.” He’s right about that. And the implications of this observation should trouble all of us.

I was chair of my department for six years. My big accomplishment in that role (one of them anyway) was rebuilding the department, which had just gone through a name chance and the construction of a new curriculum (with which I had a lot to do), after a series of departures. We’re a small department and lost nearly all of our tenured faculty members to retirement and other institutions. I am telling you this because, even though I am no longer chair, I still receive Human Resources training notes and workshop invitations.

A common HR communication to appears in my inbox concerns dealing with the non-performing employee, how to document his lack of performance and what to do about it. As I am close to retirement and thus have entered the winding-down phase of my career, I think about myself as that non-performing employee. Not that I don’t teach my classes, read and write science, or serve the university and the greater community. However, after several years of publishing in books, journals, and encyclopedia, I have not secured a peer-reviewed publication in many years. And I only attend academic conferences here and there.

Another common HR communication concerns passive-aggressive behavior. We hear this term thrown around a lot and people get it wrong a lot. It is usually thought of as a habit or pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing problems. Put another way, there is a disconnect between what the passive-aggressive person says and what he does. There’s something to that, but the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the DSM, now in its fifth iteration, defines “passive-aggressive personality disorder” as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to the demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

Among the usages of the word “soldiering” is the act of making a show of working in order to escape discipline or punishment. The worker only works at the expected levels when he is under the gaze of the manager or owner. Otherwise, he does enough to get by and earn his wage. Many workers justify soldiering by recognizing that expectations have in back of them the imperative to maximize the surplus value that will (hopefully) be translated to profit in the market. In other words, the worker does for others and not himself. Given this really, why should a worker work harder than he needs to? The answer: because he may lose his job if he doesn’t and he will certainly be scolded or shamed for being a “non-performing employee.” It is in this dynamic that the worker may develop and exhibit the demeanor that the APA will psychiatricize to avoid harsh-sounding terms like “deadwood” and “soldiering.”

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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