And this is where arrogance comes in, because arrogance is forgetting when an opinion is an opinion. Dictionary.com says that arrogance is an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance,” and to me, that self-importance is aligning one’s subjective opinion with objective truth such that one is presenting one’s self as an unquestionable arbiter of whatever is going on. Now sure, some opinions are more well-founded, thought out, or researched than others. But the minute a person switches into “I’m right/you’re wrong” mode, it delegitimizes that person’s opinion by automatically showing an ethical blindspot.
Being confident is different than being arrogant. Confident people still solicit others’ opinions; they want to actively listen; they understand their subjectivity may have flaws. That doesn’t mean they aren’t firm in their stance, it means they have the self-knowledge to know that their knowledge isn’t boundless, and listening to other people helps them strengthen and clarify their own viewpoints on reality.
Having authority is different than being arrogant. Authority can be arrogant, but authority must, inherently, command decisions. To the extent that that authority or authorities listens to others’ perspectives and weighs the needs of the many in his or her or their decision making is the mark of authority.
“Just so you know: Iiiiii’m a very humble person.” True humility is a virtue because it recognizes one’s own limitations; it recognizes that one has limitations, even limitations he or she might not be aware of, and is open to hearing and understanding viewpoints that might not yet have been taken into consideration. Humility is confident because it knows it can act justly and accordingly given as much information as possible, and humility can still hold authority by being open to other viewpoints but being clearheaded enough to make decisions that benefit everyone involved, not just the authority-holder.
Arrogance isn’t easy to miss. Arrogance won’t ask you for your opinion, will readily talk over you, will challenge whatever you say (even if you’re right, or even if a point is inconsequential), will overlook credentials or research, will disregard any blatant counterarguments, will rationalize to you why you hold a wrong opinion. In short, true arrogance lives in a solipsistic bubble; it sealed airtight from other opinions and perspectives, often in a narrowly self-serving way. It doesn’t want dialogue. It just wants to impose its viewpoint. It ignorantly aligns its perspective with truth instead of seeing itself as one in a sea of perspectives. Arrogance marginalizes. It cares about your opinion only insofar as it can tell you what is wrong with your opinion.
Arrogance can get a hold of anyone, though some are probably more predisposed. We all need to be en guard, to be more empathetic to other perspectives, to know that all the information we have is not all the information and that whatever we do affects many lives outside our own, often in ways that are secret and obscure to us.
One easy way to spot arrogance (a.k.a. I-know-better-than-youness) is through how often a person wants to declare a truth like "She's not that good looking" or "This country is a disaster" or "That house across the street needs to get some different colored curtains to match those shutters because what they have right now is just not working" without beginning the declaration with an appropriate modifier such as "I think" or "I believe" or "I'm like 99.99999 and 7/8ths percent sure." This is the way by which people conflate opinion with truth, and consequently, how truth gets created, shaped, and potentially mangled beyond recognition. Not that I think it is absolutely necessary to add "I think" to every statement; clearly I haven't used it in this essay prior to this sentence. (Let this parenthetical serve as a blanket "I think" for this whole piece. Cool?) More that we should just be aware that these phrase or its equivalent is operating even when unsaid. If someone says, "This country is a disaster," do we immediately accept that statement on face value? No. Usually we filter the statement through our trustworthiness of that person, what we know of their character and history, and agree or disagree accordingly. The short- and long-term narratives entrenched in our minds both shape and are shaped by these declarations. And in this way, the proliferation of human knowledge crushes onward.
Another obvious signal of arrogance (which I make no bones about using in spades here either) is state-being-verbs, such as "is." The word can be used to express truth OR opinion, but the linguistic construction both looks and sounds the same. When someone says making your bed is a waste of time or that politician is a liar or that it is important that we get tickets to that musical that you've already seen twice, they are expressing a subjective perspective on reality despite those statements seeming similar to a foot is twelve inches or the sky is full of clouds or that musical is selling out on a regular basis. Again, people don't need to change the way they talk; most listeners can tell statement from opinion on a multiple choice test. I don't think it's as easy when you're hearing what you want to hear. Subjectivity and objectivity are often confused (especially because the overwhelming desire for human connection is about the things our individual subjectivities share). And "is" isn't the only linking verb. Many arrogant statements use words like "seems" or "does" among many others to put forth their opinion as fact.
To untangle the word "is" I know you may want me to post a Bill Clinton video, but that's too easy. Instead, in this gem, Robert Anton Wilson discusses why we should do away with the word "is" altogether.
Don't worry, I'll work on this too. I've not often been accused of being arrogant but I have an illogical fear of it. It’s a fine line we walk: trying to speak the truth, and speak our truth, without confusing it with the truth. While also being economical with language. I'm just guessing you don't want to read "I think" in every sentence. That's fine. As long as we're doing regular maintenance on our bullshit detectors.
For some strategies on avoiding arrogance and promoting dialogue, check out Daniel Dennett's rules for constructive criticism over at BrainPickings.org, and let me know if you have others.