What is Arrogance
Recently, while reviewing some code, I found myself using the phrase, "breathtaking arrogance" and later wondering exactly what I meant. Well, I knew what I meant, but I did wonder what I might be implying.
I feel reasonably confident that arrogance involves an offensive level of self-assuredness and claims of superiority. I am less sure
- about whether privately held (but possibly inferable) belief in one's own superiority counts as arrogance,
- of the degree to which arrogance can be collective, or achieved by association with those one believes to be superior,
- of the relevance of measurable or generally accepted expertise in the area where superiority is claimed, and
- of the importance of the general prevalence of such expertise.
That I did not bother to look up "arrogant" in a dictionary indicates a certain level of confidence on my part. If my definition turns out to be correct, or to reasonably approximate what seems to be the consensus view in this matter, would that make me less arrogant? Is there such a thing as legitimate arrogance, or does arrogance reflect only misplaced confidence?
If, on the other hand, I had begun this article with the phrase, "According to Webster's Dictionary," would that be a kind of ostentatious affiliation with the Genteel Society of Learned Persons? From there, I could apologize for opening with such a tired construction, refer archly to the legal insignificance of the name Webster and daintily confess a weakness for Victorian Capitalization. All this in a slight Southern accent to set you at ease.
What if I did look it up and lied about it? What if everyone knows what arrogance is anyway?
Notes on arrogance
Arrogance in software
- Unnecessary abstraction. Calling it a monad when you don't have to, especially if it is not a monad but even if it is.
- Categorizing other people's abstractions as unnecessary.
- Unnecessary nomenclature, especially design patterns, most especially the visitor pattern, which it really isn't.
- Comments advising the reader to go off and study.
- Comments advising the reader to study specific documents that are likely to be intimidating.
- Comments advising the reader to read an unpublished monograph by Simon Peyton Jones that presupposes knowledge of Haskell.
- Comments advising the reader to learn something that the comment writer doesn't know, usually the CAP theorem.
- Comments advising the reader to learn something that is not necessary to learn right now, usually the CAP theorem.
- Referring to the "so-called" CAP theorem, or never calling it anything but Brewer's theorem.
- Any comment with a wikipedia URL in it.
- Comments pointing out that there is probably a bug here but not elaborating.
- Comments that are initialed by their author, to distinguish them from lesser comments.
- Comments containing the word "dubious."
- Unexplained, possibly clever one-liners.
- One-liners that are explained but as a consequence are no longer one-liners.
- Noting that there is no such thing as a stupid question and illustrating this with a cartoon drawing of a stupid looking person with question marks buzzing about his head.
- Noting that there is indeed such a thing as a stupid question but that the stupidity can be mitigated by bothering someone other than the author.
Arrogance in general competitive endeavor
- Perhaps arrogance is necessary to achieve success, subsequent arrogance concerning which is another matter entirely.
- I invent a new programming language, or something I call a framework. Or something. In many ways, it sucks, but in the fullness of time it may attain some kind of critical mass, the dangling bugs will get fixed, an ecosystem will emerge, and the world will be its oyster.
- Much of the criticism of my language (or the the thing that I call a framework) is justified; moreover, the critics can point to concrete flaws, while I can only put forward abstract arguments and hypotheticals. On the other hand, I don't have to play fair. I can lie. I can magnify my qualifications. I can deride my critics as incompetents. I can bandy about computer science terminology that makes others feel inadequate. I can assert that certain bugs are already fixed in the release candidate.
- Years go by. I am considered ornery and arrogant, but this thing I made is now popular and established, while competing technologies have faded away. My arrogance allowed me to retain confidence in the face of difficulty and skepticism, and the proof of the pudding is in my enormous user base.
- More years go by. I command minions. My minions have a reputation for arrogance, but it serves them well. We collectively ignore criticisms while honing our revenue model. Bad things seem to happen to people who criticize us, so very few do.
- More years, more minions. At this point, we've ignored so many criticisms that entire industries have arisen to address them. Increasingly, malcontents criticize with impunity. It has been pointed out that we don't know what functors are. The wall has writing on it.
- Assume that the language (or framework) was a good thing, and that arrogance was instrumental in its coming about. Does this justify arrogance?
- Does the employment of arrogance in establishing a construct imply that arrogance will play a role in its demise, or is that just a coincidence?
Perceptions and expressions of arrogance
The pretense of humility can be effective as arrogance, but not if it is too convincing or too unconvincing.
Ironic self-deprecation may be taken as a literal admission of weakness, genuine self doubt as a layering strategy for larger arrogance.
More people are impressed by arrogance - in any form - than you might think.
Arrogance by proxy, with the expectation that it will redound to the speaker. E.g. on behalf of one's offspring or colleagues.
Deprecation of others' competence can be equivalent to inflation of one's own. This is obvious.
Flattering others' competence in an area that is then derided as unimportant. Almost as obvious.
Deriding as unimportant abilities possessed but not valued by oneself, knowing that others are proud to have them.
Pretending to have only feeble abilities in an area for which one is renowned. "I'm a simple person, and I like simple code."
Praising another person for their perceptive praise of you. E.g. Joan Didion eulogizing her husband for his love of her writing.
Shock and awe derision of a figure nobody else would dare criticize, e.g. Sontag asserting that Mozart is camp.
Glib reference to primary sources, and not inferior translations.
Feigned ignorance of popular culture or practical skills.
Apologizing for brazen misconduct is a form of arrogance.
Treatment of hard-wired skills as a matter of trying harder.
Circumstance of arrogance
Which is worse, arrogance justified by actual superiority, or arrogance as part of feigning superiority?
Temporary humility to facilitate attaining skills that will later be used to justify arrogance.
Arrogance about one's humility, vs arrogance expressed through feigned humility that is not expected to be believed.
Talismanic self-criticism that goes not before a fall but is otherwise unfelt.
Juvenile arrogance due to limited exposure to actual greatness and bad statistical intuition.
Smug confidence that the young will someday settle for mediocrity, or at least are statistically likely to do so.
Arrogance after achieving measurable success. Conflating ordering and causation.
Arrogant dismissal of measurable success on the grounds that an unknown part of it was luck.
Plain old arrogance
- Overblown self-promotion. There is a man who calls himself "America's Life Transformation Dentist."