The maxim “pride goes before the fall” (which is actually from the Bible, but says “pride goes before destruction”) illustrates that the idea that the arrogance of pride is easily seen as self-destructive. Yet nowadays this maxim doesn’t seem to be very much taken to heart. We talk of pride in one’s country, in one’s family, in one’s accomplishments, as being a healthy, laudable sort of expression.
And yet, it should be obvious, to anyone who has the least experience in the ways people trick each other, that the best known way for criminals and charlatans to escape punishment is to incite their followers to always be positive and never look at the negative, to always speak of nice things and never criticize. In that way, they indoctrinate people into accepting the value of non-confront.
This applies all the more to politics. We are constantly told “my country right or wrong,” that we cannot question war, that we cannot question the institutions we live under, that we depend on them for our national strength, that to dare to question our way of life is tantamount to wishing our own society’s destruction. All of these points are constantly hammered into us by the rhetoric of politicians, their media lackeys, and their combined marginalization of alternative viewpoints.
This swelling of willful ignorance, which is expressed as mindless pride, has two main consequences, the first being to provide codewords that divert attention from the injustice and exploitation which permeates the system being praised, and the second being to nullify any possible counter-power already existing in the targeted group or society.
The concept of counter-power is one that I’ve never heard discussed before, but it’s an interesting one. That is to say, if there is power, then there must also be counter-power. If hierarchical societies which survive have processes which concentrate power, then egalitarian societies which survive must have processes which go counter to the accumulation of power. If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious.
I think the main reason why we are not aware of this concept is because, in our modern capital-democratic societies, there is no counter-power. There is basically nothing that keeps hierarchies in check in our culture or religion or mores. In the United States, there persists a vaguely individualistic belief in natural rights, but this belief is not grounded in anything concrete except the nationalistic constructs, and therefore it is very easily wiped out by pride, which relies precisely on its manipulation of nationalistic constructs.
Post-WW2, one important counter-power was the desire to prevent future nazi-like uses of political power. But this proved to be relatively ineffective, since it is easily evaded by not using what people recognize as nazi trappings (like emotional speeches, grandiose parades or sterile, cold architecture). As long as you can escape being labeled a nazi by people’s stereotypical ideas of what the word means, you are free to use political power in a nazi-like way.
Pride makes us lose the desire to confront, and this willful ignorance makes us retreat into self-congratulation. Making ourselves believe that we, or our group, are great prevents us from confronting anything bad about ourselves, or our group.
This impulse towards self-congratulation extends itself all the way through our worldview, into some of our most profound beliefs about reality. For instance, look at the popular view of evolution. We believe that man is the pinnacle, the end point of evolution, the superior being that transcends animal nature, and that “the animals” represent some kind of linear progression towards man, that they are all flawed versions of the ideal that is man. Man, in this view, dominates “the animals” by virtue of his superior faculties, intellect, strength, and so on. The truth (that man’s cruelty is not limited by his instincts, and thus let to run wild) is too inconvenient to examine.
Our view of social organization is no less arrogant. We believe that our Western brand of capital-democracy, with its strict hierarchies and built-in inequality, is the pinnacle of organization in the history of the world. All other forms of organization are grunting, primitive “tribalism” or sketchy versions of capital-democracy that need to be corrected and prodded along the linear progression from the base anarchy of the state of nature to the glorious order we enjoy in the West. All must be “liberated” so they can enjoy the benefits of our glorious order.
Ironically, the modern nation-state is no less “tribalist” than the tribes of the “primitives” that we exterminate or disdain, merely on a larger scale. The belief in the superiority of “citizens,” and the belief in “immigration policy,” is predicated mainly on the basis of a national reproductive group, which is tribalist. The foreign policy belief that other “races” are inferior and therefore can be murdered with impunity is a tribalist belief.
We are kept in ignorance of the world and its history by our stultifying schooling system and corporate mass media. One therefore is necessarily content with what one has to live with, and accepts the empty rhetoric of politicians. There’s no framework for people to evaluate how the rhetoric measures up to the existing knowledge about what has existed and what is possible in this world.
Placing claims about what is possible and what is desirable within a larger context should, in a rational society, be the role of anthropologists, but anthropologists are too concerned with keeping their little fiefdom protected from attacks by the dominant hierarchies to speak up against the lies. This role is therefore reserved to intellectual rebels like David Graeber, who run extra risks because of it (Graeber was fired from his associate professor post in a controversy in 2007).
Kept in an intellectual vacuum, it should therefore be no surprise that people have no perspective on any issue. There is no past or future, only the perpetual present.