Humility is not humiliation

Humility is not humiliation December 14, 2023

Jeff Sharlet and Kathryn Joyce team up for a long, insightful discussion here: “Losing the Plot: The ‘Leftists’ Who Turn Right.” It’s thoughtful and offers many, many contemporary examples.

It reminded me of Dorothy Thompson’s darkly comic 1941 Harper’s essay, “Who Goes Nazi?

Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. … But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis.

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.

Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t—whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.

If you follow that link to read the whole thing,* bear in mind it’s from August of 1941 — before the US entered World War II against the Nazis and before it was certain that we would ever do so.

(Do go read the whole thing. It’s structured like an old mystery, with Thompson sizing up the guests at a fancy Manhattan dinner party like she’s Nora Charles trying to figure out which of these suspects murdered their host.)

Myrna Loy in “The Thin Man,” and/or Dorothy Thompson writing “Who Goes Nazi?”

Both pieces mention “humiliation” as a factor for some intellectuals going fash. Sharlet and Joyce speak of the “career humiliation” that seems to have pushed both Matt Taibbi and Naomi Wolf into MAGA world. That word seems proportional for what happened with Wolf when “the premise of Wolf’s 2019 book Outrages collapsed on live air over a misunderstanding of an archaic legal term.”

But Taibbi didn’t face humiliation, only the need for humility. And just because he could not distinguish between the two doesn’t mean we should agree they’re equivalent.

Humility is related to what Thompson described as “secure.” Someone whose desired identity requires them to believe or to pretend to believe that “I am a always and unfailingly a Good Person who always behaves perfectly and is correct about all matters of knowledge and wisdom” is going to be insecure. They’re going to be angrily defensive when criticized, incapable of any of the behaviors that require one to admit error: confession, repentance, apology, learning anything new, listening to others, growing emotionally or intellectually, etc.

Faced with the choice between admitting error and going Nazi, such people would rather go Nazi.

Of course, no one is going around literally saying to themselves, “I am always and unfailingly a Good Person who always behaves perfectly and is correct about all matters of knowledge and wisdom.” If you put it that way it sounds laughably absurd. And that’s the point. None of us is always and unfailingly Good or always right. Humility is necessary because humility is appropriate and accurate. We are humble creatures whether or not we accept that reality with humility.

So the problem isn’t that people are telling themselves “I am always and unfailingly a Good Person who always behaves perfectly and is correct about all matters of knowledge and wisdom” but that people are failing to remind themselves that “I am not always and unfailingly a Good Person” and “I will not always behave perfectly” and “I would be a fool to think I was always correct about all matters of knowledge and wisdom.” There is a security that comes from such humility and that security will make it less likely that you will ever “go Nazi.”

That humility and security will also allow you to learn and to grow and to become, in various ways, a better person.

This recent post by Anton Howes demonstrates this connection between humility, security, and getting better:

There is no surer way to provoke a reaction, ranging from the painfully polite correction right down to hostile name-calling, than to make an actual mistake, even if it’s entirely innocent. There seems to be a fairly universal human urge to correct what is incorrect, each in our own way, and bring our own expertise to bear, whether we notice a thesis-shattering counterproof or even just a mere spelling mistake.

This is downright terrifying. … It’s embarrassing enough to tell a story that turns out to be wrong to a group of friends – we’ve all been there. But it’s excruciating when you’ve accidentally misinformed a group the size of a medium-sized town.

And yet, it’s also exciting. When you reach a large audience you inevitably also reach people who are better-informed or more specialized than you on a dizzying and even unpredictable range of topics – a large audience is also a wide audience. Even if I think I know a lot about early steam engines – and I think it’d be fair to say I know more than even the average historian of technology – with a wider audience it gets more and more likely that the things I write will come to the attention of people who know far more. It’s a simple, mathematical inevitability.

It’s not just inevitable. It’s to be actively sought, because it makes us better. One of my favorite things about what I do is that I have come to the attention of people who possess a vast and specialized expertise on a wide range of topics – and who will not hesitate to correct me when I’m wrong.

Not just inevitable, but to be actively sought.

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