While most of us rightly want to be exceptional in some way or another, we often feel a lot of social and moral pressure not to think of ourselves as generally better than others. And, even more urgently, we feel pressure not to convey to others that we think ourselves superior and not to be primarily motivated by a desire to be generally better than others. Even as it’s understood that inevitably greatness requires beating out competitors in one arena or another, we certainly should not think of ourselves as better than people in general or be motivated by a general desire to outclass people in general. We should even be as gracious and modest as possible to those whom we best, lest we be sore winners.
I think these attitudes are mostly for the best, though I think I would seek to modify them in some ways. In this post, I want to focus in on how false modesty, an emotion I think people sometimes develop as a corrective against arrogance, can actually become a counter-productive kind of over-corrective.
With seemingly any power comes the power to hurt. We all know of many ways that powerful people can hurt others deliberately. But sometimes powerful people hurt others inadvertently because they underestimate their power and do careless things which cause harms they never expected, and sometimes never notice even after the fact. It is easiest for powerful people to unthinkingly hurt less powerful people because in those cases ramifications to the powerful are least likely to come or are least likely to be potent should they come at all.
One thing I have noticed is that an internalized sense of false modesty helps people underestimate their own power. Sometimes a relatively well-meaning person does not want to feel superior to other people or, especially, to feel like she is someone who has a lot emotionally invested in being superior to other people. This is likely due in some part to the various social and moral pressures against feeling better than others that I mentioned at the outset. So she might avoid indulging in feelings of great superiority because such feelings make her feel vainglorious or selfish or megalomaniacal or arrogant, etc. This can be a well-intentioned motivation. But when you do not viscerally feel the power differential between yourself and others, the drawback is that this might make you underestimate the truth of those power differentials and their possible perils. This makes it easier for you to fail to take proper care about the ways that those power differentials put extra burdens of responsibility on you to make sure you are benefitting, rather than harming, those who your power affects.
At one of the many schools where I have either taught or studied (I’m being as vague as possible to minimize people’s abilities to accurately guess who I am talking about—please don’t try, it’s not important), there is a powerful professor whose actions show he cares quite a bit about students. But at the same time his personality is extremely intimidating. It is very easy for him to come off as confrontational, dismissive, and flat out discouragingly critical. I once mentioned this to a tenured professor, a professor older and much more senior than I, and he laughed and said, “you know, I was just out talking with him and I felt like I was 12 years old again, trying to please my father.”
Now I have heard secondhand that this imposing professor has apparently been told a couple times that he intimidates people and his response apparently was amused bewilderment. He does not see himself as anyone to be especially afraid of. In his heart, I would guess that he looks at his accomplishments as good but modest and fairly obscure, in the grand scheme of things. In all his professional dealings which I have observed he seems to be a fair and generous person. He has never (that I have heard of) abused his power and behind the scenes I have even seen him use it to protect and encourage vulnerable students after a student came to him for help. But nonetheless he implicitly scares the crap out of many students with his demeanor and he does not compensate for that in the sorts of emotionally sensitive interpersonal gestures that students need in order to feel approval (or at least in order to feel safe taking intellectual risks in front of him).
The downside of his false modesty, in which he views himself as someone no one need be afraid of, is that it blinds him to the ways people are afraid of him and prevents him from proactively alleviating their anxieties and helping them grow. I know one student in particular who suffered a lot of intellectual paralysis, with real academic and personal costs, out of fear of his disapproval.
But when informed that he intimidates people, the professor in question apparently took it as an opportunity to reassert his modesty to whomever he was talking to and (I would imagine) to himself as well.
The right response for him, and indeed for all of us, is not to have false modesty but to pay special attention to the ways that we are indeed powerful and the ways that we can scare others. We need to remember that regardless of whether deep down inside we feel ourselves to be inadequate, harmless, or so upstanding as to only be capable of benefitting others, it is always possible that others are nonetheless quite vulnerable to us.
We have to accurately assess our power, not in order to puff ourselves up but in order to figure out how best we might use it to deliberately help others and how best to avoid risking hurting others. And we have to remember that since we can be intimidating to others, we need to be sensitive to how that happens and proactively counter it, rather than laugh off such a prospect as a flattering suggestion that it is best not to believe lest it go to our heads.
In short, we need to learn the virtue of graciousness. And sometimes a precondition of that virtue is a proper sensitivity to power-differentials and to how they affect the needs of others and our responsibilities to them.
As a follow up post to this: Meditations on How To Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved
Posts on related virtues: