Egalitarianism & Arrogance


When men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have then given views to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.”                            – David Hume

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Person 1: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ ”

Person 2: “True, but there is an ‘M’ and an ‘E.’ ” 

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On occasion, I have been arrogant at times in my life. To be fair to myself, I believe such episodes have been rare, and most people who know me would probably describe me as introverted, possibly even timid. More than once, I have been told that I am “too nice” and overly conciliatory. During my pre-tenure review, one committee member told me that my autobiographical narrative was too modest, and that “in academia you need to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it for you.” That’s probably true in most fields, but it often makes me uneasy. And if you spent some time in the cacophony in my head, you’d see there is plenty of self-doubt and insecurity in here (you’re better off not doing that). Still, like everyone else, I am complex, and have had enough instances of arrogance that they irritate me and force me to consider from where they originate.

I bring this up now because I’ve been reading about hunter-gatherer societies, and was reminded of this famous passage from the anthropologist Richard Lee (1979) on egalitarianism in the !Kung of Namibia and Botswana.

Two remarkable cultural practices at the level of consciousness accompany this egalitarian political ideal. They occur among the !Kung and among many other hunter-gatherers. The most serious accusations one !Kung can level against another are the charge of stinginess and the charge of arrogance. To be stingy, or far-hearted, is to hoard one’s goods jealously and secretively, guarding them ‘like a hyena.’ The corrective for this, in the !Kung view, is to make the hoarder give ‘till it hurts,’ that is, to make him give generously and without stint until everyone can see that he is truly cleaned out. In order to ensure compliance with this cardinal rule, the !Kung browbeat each other constantly to be more generous and not to hoard…

But deplorable as they regard the fault of stinginess, the !Kung’s most scathing criticisms are reserved for an even more serious shortcoming: the crime of arrogance (≠twi). A stingy person is antisocial and irksome, but an arrogant person is actually dangerous because, according to the !Kung, “his pride will make him kill someone.” A boasting hunter who comes into camp announcing “I have killed a big animal in the bush” is being arrogant. A woman who gives a gift and announces to all her great generosity is being arrogant… The !Kung perceive this behavior as a danger sign, and they have evolved elaborate devices for puncturing the bubble of conceit and enforcing humility. These leveling devices are in constant daily use – minimizing the size of others’ kills, downplaying the value of others’ gifts, and treating one’s own efforts in a self-deprecating way. Please and thank you are hardly ever found in their vocabulary; in their stead is a vocabulary of rough humor, back-handed compliments, put-downs, and damning with faint praise. In fact, the one area in which the !Kung are openly competitive is in recounting suffering. They try to outdo each other in tales of misfortune: cold, pain, thirst, hunger, hunting failure, and other hardships represent conversational gold, the obverse of the coin of arrogance, which they so strongly discourage” (p. 458, emphasis added).

Donald Trump (definitely not a !Kung)

Most of us would probably be uncomfortable with this type of society, where hoarding is met with scorn and the response to even fairly mild self-promotion, by our standards, is pretty tough social sanctions. It’s entertaining to imagine (insert egomaniac here – I’ll pick Donald Trump) living in a !Kung-like society, and the humbling experience of having their ego checked by their fellow band members. I don’t know exactly why that scenario appeals to me, if it’s schadenfreude or an aversion to massive out-of-control egoism, but there is something intuitive about it.   


Given the collision of individual wills, it’s expected that there are constant tensions in any collective. Cancer cells are one example, out for themselves and sacrificing the overall health of the organism for their own replication. In some bee species, normally neuter female workers sometimes have their own offspring, going against the social order and the queen’s efforts to suppress reproduction by others. Vampire bats, who often share blood with others who were unsuccessful in finding a meal may sometimes be stingy and withhold. Even for the most intimate relationship there is, that between a mother and her fetus, there is a conflict of interest over resources (Haig, 1993). The fetus wants a provider and nutrients (and eventually love), while the mother wants an offspring and genetic continuity, but also her health, overall well-being, and the possibility of future offspring. Somewhere, interests overlap, but there is a continuum between cooperation and conflict, and what you want will not always be what I want.

Two hypothetical scenarios of overlapping/diverging interests.

For humans, the tug of war comes in the form of individuality versus conformity; seeking status and recognition versus humility and loyalty to the group. To the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we have developed six axes of morality, which are built around these themes. These include: (1) preventing harm, (2) fairness, (3) liberty, (4) loyalty to the in-group, (5) respect for authority/ hierarchy, (6) a sense of purity or sanctity. It is noteworthy that the first three are mostly concerned with the individual, while the latter three pertain to strengthening the group. Within us, there is the need to prioritize and balance these different axes. Individuals vary in which of these are most important to them, and Haidt has argued that this is reflected in which political ideologies are most appealing to us.  

Dare to be different

Arrogance touches on many of these axes: fairness, liberty, group loyalty, respect for authority, and – as the !Kung believe – the potential for harm at the hands of someone whose head has gotten too big. In foraging societies, group cohesion is essential, and one may face the accusation of arrogance if they overstep some culturally defined limit on self-promotion which could threaten the integrity of the group and chafe against egalitarian ideals. In many industrial societies, this form of individuality is less suppressed (though there are always social pressures to conform and not be too different, and to keep arrogance in check).  

As Krystal D’Costa has written at Scientific American, this is one reason we are conscious of what others think about us, forcing us to police our own behavior in order to maintain our reputations. In her words, “we’re all in the business of impression management.” That policing occurs at different levels of consciousness. Sometimes, genuine humility wins out. At others, it takes effort to suppress overconfidence. In the journal NatureDominic Johnson and James Fowler (2011) summarized the various hypotheses on the evolution of arrogance: 

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not just confidence but overconfidence—believing you are better than you are in reality—is advantageous because it serves to increase ambition, morale, resolve, persistence or the credibility of bluffing, generating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which exaggerated confidence actually increases the probability of success.”

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The drawback is that it is easy to overshoot ordinary confidence without some corrective measure, whether subconscious self-doubt or conscious introspection. Confidence is necessary; a life solely built on self-doubt would be miserable. Even Richard Lewis must have some confidence somewhere. Johnson and Fowler argue that while over-confidence / arrogance may have short-term payoffs, in the long-term it may lead to various modern world problems, including “hubris, market bubbles, financial collapses, policy failures, disasters and costly wars.”

Fairness for Me (and Perhaps for Thee)

Some research suggests that our aversion to the arrogance of others (though perhaps not our own) could originate from some built-in tendencies toward fairness and egalitarianism. Stephanie Sloane and colleagues (2012) found that infants as young as 19-21 months old expected rewards to be equally distributed between two individuals. They stated that this was “consistent with recent speculations that a few sociomoral norms—evolved to facilitate positive interactions and cooperation within social groups—are innate and universal, though elaborated in various ways by cultures.” In other words, some building blocks for fairness may have been installed by natural selection to help smooth over some of the tensions inherent in social living. We can also see hints of these building blocks in other primate species.

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Sarah Brosnan and Frans deWaal trained a group of capuchin monkeys to exchange a token for a reward, usually a slice of cucumber (Brosnan and deWaal, 2003). However, some monkeys were intentionally given a grape instead (a more desired food), and sometimes for no effort (without exchanging a token). Other monkeys who witnessed unfair rewards for their peers and were then offered the standard cucumber refused to further participate, wouldn’t eat the cucumbers, or threw them at the researchers.

The upshot is that capuchin monkeys seem to have a sense of fairness, but this is contingent upon what other monkeys got. After all, at one point a cucumber was a perfectly fine reward, but it is difficult to accept better rewards being given to one’s peers for the same level of effort. Context matters, even for capuchins. We think in similar terms. At one point, our salaries or wages may be acceptable, until we learn that so-and-so is making more for doing the same job. It may be somewhat easier to accept the notion of someone receiving better rewards if we think that they deserve it because they have some rare skill that is valuable to society, such as being able to help others who are ill or injured (or being able to hit a ball very far with a stick, or having wealthy parents). But there are limits to how much inequality is acceptable, and while it is axiomatic that life is unfair, it is harder to justify someone earning 231 times more than their peers, or even their subordinates. In some sense other primates share this aversion to blatant inequality with us.

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It is noteworthy that capuchin monkeys only protested against unfairness when they received the lesser reward, not when they were the one to benefit. However, in a follow-up study done with chimpanzees (who are more closely related to us), individuals did refuse unfair rewards that benefited themselves, indicating a more generalized sense of fairness that could be extended to others (Brosnan et al 2010). Eric M. Johnson summarized the study:

In 95 trials chimpanzees that received a grape were significantly more likely to refuse the high-value reward when their group mate only received a carrot (p = 0.008). Even those who benefitted from inequality recognized that the situation was unfair and they refused to enjoy their own reward if it meant someone else had to suffer.”

Of course, there are limits to fairness, for capuchins, chimpanzees, bees, and humans. Some will be more equal than others. By analyzing material, social, and embodied wealth, Eric Smith et al (2010) found that contemporary hunter-gatherer groups are much more egalitarian than the vast majority of modern industrialized nations. However, the authors claimed that inequality in hunter-gatherer societies is under- appreciated, with Gini coefficients about the same as Denmark, which is about as egalitarian as a modern nation-state gets. Still, in their terms, this is “far from a state of ‘primitive communism.’ ” I imagine that for those on top of any hunter-gatherer group, as in the !Kung, it is important to avoid being arrogant about it (or giving empty platitudes like “I want everybody to be rich.”)

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Into This World We’re Thrown

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In a widely circulated commencement speech given at Princeton, the author Michael Lewis highlighted the role that luck plays in our lives, and the importance of avoiding arrogance:

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Success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.… Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

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I am proud of some of the things I’ve been able to do in my life, such as this blog (parts of it, anyway), and my job, and these guys. While it has taken work, it would be arrogant to think I accomplished anything completely on my own and not to recognize all the contingencies and kindness from others that made any of this possible. As Kate Clancy wrote about allo-mothering, all parents receive help from others. That lesson extends beyond parenting to other spheres of life. I know that many people could do my job just as well, if not better, because there are plenty of very bright anthropologists out there, some of whom I’ve met at professional conferences or online. I’m not sure how I got my foot in the door in the fickle world of academia while many of them did not. Sometimes I feel like a capuchin who has gotten the grape. At other times, when I think of others who’ve accomplished more, or who have more prestigious positions, or who have higher salaries, it seems I’ve gotten the cucumber slice.

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If I hadn’t attended the elementary school that I did, I probably wouldn’t have developed an interest in human variation, which in turn pushed me into anthropology. Majoring in anthropology wouldn’t have been even an option as an undergraduate without my supportive parents (“We’re not sure what you are going to do with that, but we’ll see where this road takes you.”) I might not have made it through graduate school either without my wife. If my officemate, Stephanie Rutledge, had not pointed me to David Barker’s work on the ‘fetal origins hypothesis’ at a time when we were both feeling burnt out, I might still be floundering to find a dissertation project. The same could be said about the luck I had in finding Hmong, Lao, and Khmer friends in high school and college, since their histories prompted me to consider how war in Southeast Asia might have impacted later health. For that matter, if I had not been born where and when I was, higher education might not even be an option to me.  To top it off, I know the advantages I have being a white male in a part of the world run mostly by white males (if whiteness was an option, I would re-up every year). And so on, and so on. Introspection has a way of throwing cold water on arrogance.

It is tempting to tell ourselves a different narrative, that what we’ve earned is on our own merits. As Thomas Jefferson said “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” That’s probably true. But hard work is only one tributary in the river of success. We can steer ourselves down that river with endogenous effort, but it would be that much easier if one is born with a canoe or a yacht already available.

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David Brooks once wrote that “We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well under way. We’re born into cultures, nations and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control… Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them.” Not everyone likes David Brooks’ writings, but I think he was spot on here. We do arrive late to the party, and are then handed genes and cultures that have histories which preceded our existence.

On those rare occasions when I’ve worked my way past insecurity or even a healthy level of confidence, and arrogance wants to escape, I try to think of why it might be there in the first place. Perhaps it’s arrogant to have this blog, and to think that my thoughts are worth sharing (is that false modesty?). Perhaps it’s arrogant even to exist, knowing the odds against it. Or maybe, arrogance can sometimes be an act of defiance, in the belief that our wills and desires are worth something and that it is: 

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neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.” (RFK)

References

Brosnan SF, deWaal F (2003) Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature 425: 297-9. (Link)

Brosnan S, Talbot C, Ahlgren M, Lambeth S, Schapiro S. 2010. Mechanisms underlying responses to inequitable outcomes in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Animal Behaviour  Volume 79, Issue 6, : 1229–37. (Link)

Johnson  DDP, Fowler JH. 2011. The evolution of overconfidence. Nature 477: 317–320. (Link)

Lee, Richard B. 1979. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge Univ Press. (Link)

Haig, D. (1993). Genetic conflicts in human pregnancy. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 68(4), 495-532. (Link)

Sloane S, Baillargeon R, Premack D. 2012. Do infants have a sense of fairness? Psychol Sci. 2012 February 1; 23(2): 196–204. (Link)

Smith EA, Hill K, Marlowe F, Nolin D, Wiessner P, Gurven M, Bowles S, Borgerhoff Mulder M, Hertz T, Bell A. 2010. Wealth transmission and inequality among hunter-gatherers. Current Anthropology 51(1): 19-34. (Link)


8 thoughts on “Egalitarianism & Arrogance

  1. Patrick. It is useful to focus on a single item — in this case a perception of arrogance — in order better to understand the whole (holistic method). This you have done while remaining in an established context. Please excuse me for enlarging the context. Anthropologists are like that — we can’t help it.

    Let’s jump straight into Levi-Strauss. By looking at ‘arrogance’ one also examines its opposite, which in this case is the way you say others tend to portray you, ‘modesty’ and meekness. Of course Man uses binary opposites (at least the Levi-Strausian structuralists say he does) better to understand the norm. If you were mildly criticised (actually in a way that suggests ‘praise’) for ‘not blowing your own trumpet’, i.e. over-modesty, we could presume the culture within which that criticism was made (American academic) accepts as a norm a certain amount of own trumpet blowing. Anything over a certain line is seen as ‘arrogant’, anything under as ‘under-confidence’. In your situation it would perhaps not have been appropriate for you to have retorted, “Just how far would you suggest I blow my own trumpet?” You stayed what you had been labelled: humble. And you got your reward.

    I pick these particular words (arrogant/humble) out of your piece — I won’t go into monkeys but perhaps they have their varying perceptions of arrogant/humble (in fact I am sure they do). You refer to a tribe (!Kung) of which I have no knowledge, so we won’t get bogged down in detail of whether these emotive perceptions exist as the field-worker says, but stick at the level of superstructure/theory. What strikes me in this example is that ‘arrogance’ is in some way twinned with ‘stinginess’ . Both are subject to dislike by the study-group (as in just about all human society). The acceptable norm is that an individual should be neither arrogant nor stingy and he will get on okay in the social group. (Exceptions that prove the rule are situations like two heavy weight boxers meeting before the bout.)

    In itself this !Kung view of arrogance does not enlighten us much on the nature of Man — indeed it would be surprising if any group anywhere accepted arrogance and stinginess as admirable in all situations. One can imagine such a fictitious society: children would be taught to ‘blow their own trumpets’ on every occasion and to put down every effort of their fellows, and to amass and save rather than to share. (Actually, I do seem to remember one study on the Yamamamo that describes a father fighting his son for possession of a bunch of bananas — but I don’t remember the context, so let it pass.)

    What I don’t get out of the citation is the norm appropriate for !Kung society. This is undoubtedly because there is no analysis of arrogance/modesty in terms of binary opposites. So I don’t know how this particular group sees arrogance — because I don’t know how the group sees the opposite of arrogance. Therefore I don’t see the norm.

    Also I don’t know how far the !Kung’s disapproval of arrogance coincides with that in (for example) ‘academic USA’, where a certain amount of own trumpet blowing seems to be not only acceptable but almost obligatory — to express confidence, but presumably not ‘over-confidence’.

    Without personalising analysis (too much), I guess you were raised as many of us were, to believe that only the unworthy ‘sing their own praises’ — and that the really worthy have only to sit back and let others pay compliments. Of course the Queen and the palace servant are poles apart but both can agree exactly this norm, which comes down to knowing one’s place and not obviously seeking to rise above it other than by diligence and hard work. ‘Obviously’ is important because it places the norm within the public domain and visibility/audibility. The servant who by genuine diligence and skill rises in the Queen’s favour is to be respected, and his/her virtues acclaimed by others (but never by self). The Queen of course is never lacking in reception of the praise of others and has to do little to earn them other than to accept them with dignity and modesty. Such praise comes as birthright along with the job. Both Queen and servant can in public adopt reasonably modest positions and be rewarded by praise from others — not that ‘modest’ will mean the same in practice for the Queen and her servant.

    Arrogance/modesty are accepted binary opposites that point to the acceptable norm. As such neither is publicly on view — or should not be. The norm is therefore invisible. Norms are like that. You have to root them out by looking at binary opposites either side of the invisible norm. Knock out the ‘arrogant’ and the ‘humble’ and the norm becomes visible — magic!

    However — and there is also at least one however — the norm will not be the same between all ‘Americans’ and will not be the same between Americans and English. English have a stereotype of Americans as blowing their own trumpets (a la Trump…et), this is undesirable (English viewpoint) but American ‘over-confidence’ does not reach the point of ‘arrogance’ — that word would be reserved for Germans (or the English upper classes except for the Queen). When used by English re Germans it is in no way concerned with the relative diligence and skills that Germans might epitomize, it is only concerned with English perceptions of how Germans see themselves — the mythical ‘master race’. The current ‘Euro-crisis’ provides a good example of perceptions of Europeans by Europeans. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards are generally liked by the English and the current economic crisis gives occasion for use of the word ‘proud’ when English describe southern Europeans. (‘Pride’ is not a negative in English culture.) The same self-serving actions performed by Germany is ‘arrogant’.

    Thus, Patrick, you have tapped into a whole world of bigotry and prejudice by reflective-use of one word — arrogance. Well done. And what comes through is that you are unlikely ever to merit the adjective ‘arrogant’. Continue to steer the middle course — you know it makes sense.

    • Robert,
      I like the incorporation of Levi-Strauss here. I agree with you – binary opposites are helpful learning tools, and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle on a sliding scale – the middle path. (It’s a pattern that ‘dichotomy’ is commonly preceded by the word ‘false’).

      You pointed out that “If you were mildly criticised (actually in a way that suggests ‘praise’) for ‘not blowing your own trumpet’, i.e. over-modesty, we could presume the culture within which that criticism was made (American academic) accepts as a norm a certain amount of own trumpet blowing.”
      You’re right – the cultural context is essential, and there is probably no single standard for where the line of arrogance is drawn. There are probably individual dynamics here too. Some people, for whatever reason, may have a more intuitive inclination to be introverted/extroverted, which fit better or worse in a given culture.

      I cannot imagine a group that accepted arrogance and stinginess in all situations either, though I can imagine a stereotype of a few occupations (incidentally all of these occupations seem to be rather male-centric, and not only heavy weight boxers).

      It’s interesting that you raise the example of the Queen, with her recent 60th anniversary having just passed. It was noteworthy that a few comments on TV referred to her “years of service,” which struck me as Orwellian language, given the privileges that come with being Queen. Not that I’d want to be royalty myself (it seems an odd existence), but to turn privilege into service seems a rather insincere claim for humility. Perhaps most claims of humility are, since they are at least partially about impression management. The monk or nun who foregoes most worldly pleasures still gains respect, which is a form of social currency.

      Finally, I don’t know where the norm is for !Kung society either, but I did enjoy your point about knocking the extremes off to find it. That’s a valuable lesson which I didn’t have front and center in my consciousness. Thanks.

  2. Patrick.

    There is no hippopotamus in the room. Prove it.

    How you manage it I’m not sure, but you do an excellent job of making anthropology understandable and natural. You talk properly. And that makes you worth listening to.

    Understanding is too often left to the student. Teachers rarely see it as their responsibility. Anthropologists rarely accept the responsibility of communicating outside Athropolia. Levi-Strauss is great to think, if we have the time and patience and a dictionary of terms. But Levi-Strauss is also difficult to understand. That separates him from the ‘alienated masses’. The (French) middle class on the other hand just had to have Levi-Strauss on their desk and bookshelf. As an intellectual focusing on thought, Levi-Strauss naturally belonged within the milieu of the educated middle-class. Unfortunately, that alienated him further from the working class. If something is difficult to understand and no evident fun, ‘the people’ act rationally in rejecting the ‘great thinkers’ — investing time and effort into something unlikely to provide more than a headache would be illogical.

    The contribution by Gabriele of a well-known quote from Nietzsche is (I’m sorry to say) appropriate to the subject. But making such a quote is itself typical of an educated middle-class way of distancing itself from the everyday world of the ordinary hero. It is, forgive me Gabriele, EASY to insert a quote from an authority that cannot be questioned by normal people for one good reason: they can’t understand what on earth Nietzsche is talking about. Quoting Nietzsche is about as much use as quoting the gospels.

    Academic talk should not be this way and does not have to be this way. If deep thought is to become available to the masses, it must be understood to be a process and a goal that has meaning and reward. Understanding is not simply the end goal of anthropology, it is not a prize to be awarded or grasped by those few who can interpret the great thinkers, it is not the key to entry into an exclusive club. It could be an inclusive way to open up the world to everybody in it, a way to a far better and more enjoyable society. As it is today and as it has been since universities began, academic talk might as well be empty. It parallels the old story of everybody praising the king’s clothes except for the ‘ignorant’ little boy who doesn’t follow society’s norm and asks why the king is naked.

    I have spent a lifetime listening to quotes from 19th century German great-thinker-philosophers, almost all of whom grew out of a Judaic lineage which they rejected, and a French 18-20th century idolisation of the intellectual as hero, epitomised by JJ Rousseau who advocated a society of benevolent consensus where people learn as children to come together and discuss among themselves and rule themselves in perfect democracy, and through a mystical ‘social contract’ achieve harmony — JJ himself placed all of his 12 (?) children in public care, not one of them to be heard of again, but his ideas on how to raise children were great.

    To understand Adolf Hitler read Wittgenstein.

    Maybe I should say ‘try to read Wittgenstein’. All of the great thinkers had something to say, even Nietzsche, but they lacked the capacity to say it in any language in a way that made common sense to the common man. The ordinary hero rebelled against many things in the 20th century, and in the 21st, and one of the things was the exclusive language of the educated middle-class. The educated middle-class was in many cases rejecting the privilege into which they were born and rejecting the religious lineage of their fathers and mothers, but could only communicate in strange language codes barely understandable within their own exclusive company. Hardly surprising that simplicity in the form of Hitler, a simple Nazi salute, a Swastika, a hatred of Judaism, and the simplistic creed of ‘my country above all’ found fertile ground among the non-intellectual classes.

    Do I blame Wittgenstein for Hitler’s popular election?

    Yes, I do. What he had to say was worth saying: language has meaning only in its specific situation. But he didn’t put it like that — he put it in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. Had he presented his ‘Proposition’ that ‘There is not a hippopotamus in the room’ in a more understandable and fun way, Witt. would not have been accepted by academia. Witt’s whole life was one of despising the common man — beating children he ‘taught’ when they did not understand him, wondering to what percentage factory workers in Manchester (England) could be called human, hating even his fellows in the clique who ‘failed’ to understand the depth of his thinking. (Wittgenstein was at Cambridge, England but even so is the best example I can conjure up of arrogance personified.)

    Marx? He comes close behind Witt. Who can read/understand ‘Das Kapital’? Not many. In explaining the alienation of workers, Marx manages to alienate the workers from Marx. In total contrast is the everyday language of his “Communist Manifesto”, written in clear language that any worker could understand. Which of the two would the ordinary Joe feel inclined to keep in his pocket and read over lunch?

    There is a good reason the greatest thinkers we can name are not taught at primary school. They are left to those who make it to university — no normal children and few of their teachers could understand them.

    Do the great thinkers have anything to say of importance? Yes they do. Should their insights be available to every man? Yes, they should, unless we believe in restricting information and knowledge to a priestly class.

    Is it a problem of arrogance that goes with the job of great-thinker? Why can’t academics learn to talk properly?

    Now excuse me, there’s a horse in my bathroom.

  3. Robert, I let this linger for too long, but I appreciated the compliment. You make me think too, and frankly I’m not sure how you put together such lengthy, eloquent comments (sometimes longer than the original post!). I do not know enough about Wittgenstein, but appreciate the idea of making one’s thoughts accessible. It seems to me that a failure to communicate is a two-way street. Whether the message is poorly framed or the signal is just not received, the result is the same – the message dies in the ether (a radio signal tower without a radio). Perhaps it’s best to try multiple signals in the hopes that one of them gets through.

    The U.S. is currently infected with a similar strain of anti-intellectualism as seen in the past. Science is seen as a partisan ‘liberal’ activity. The earth is viewed as a few thousand years old and created for our exploitation. The U.S. is still portrayed as a divine nation, the modern version of manifest destiny. It is a simplistic and self-flattering ideology that is appealing to many. It is also hard to argue against because to do so is seen as insulting to many people’s core beliefs. And don’t dare use fancy words. That would be snobbery. Don’t argue that everyone should be given the chance for higher education if they desire it; that’s elitism (how elitist can it be if everyone has access to it?). Of course, these messages are peddled more by the right side of the political spectrum, with focus groups on how to best frame the language that appeals to (manipulates?) voters. Truth takes a back seat to power, and the powerful then sell their version of the truth.

  4. Thought this was appropriate here:

    “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.”

    ― Bertrand Russell

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