Pride Goeth Before a Fall

Human pride is a flawed concept. There's a better way.

Pride is something we have all experienced ourselves and observed in others. Pride is as old as humanity. It is perfectly natural. But it is also irrational, unhelpful, and in some cases even harmful. As with so many human universals, pride is not something most people can simply banish. But it can be minimized with a little effort and mindfulness. I hope to persuade you that this effort is worth making.

Defining Pride

For our purposes here, pride takes three general forms.

  1. An emotion. A feeling of pleasure, egotism, or superiority arising from one’s achievements or qualities, or those of someone close to them. 

  2. A general personality attribute. A proud or prideful person, someone who is conceited, quick to pick up on slights (real or perceived), quick to anger in response, quick to defend their “honor.” 

  3. Group pride. Being proud of a group or category one belongs to, sometimes for political reasons. 

Pride is Irrational

“I could never understand ethnic or national pride because, to me, pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill. It’s a fucking genetic accident. You wouldn’t say, ‘I’m proud to be 5’11.’ ‘I’m proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer.’ So, why the fuck would you be proud to be Irish or proud to be Italian or American or anything?” — George Carlin

Pride, from a rationality standpoint, doesn’t make much sense. The above quote voices the most common objection in this vein — that pride over something you did not achieve on your own, such as your ancestry, is irrational. Group pride, on this score, is illogical even within the framework that accepts the conceptual validity of pride. When we follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion, however, we see what Carlin and many others miss. There is no such thing as achieving something on one’s “own.” Not in the sense of true authorship people tend to imagine — the only sense that could logically support the concept of pride. You are no more responsible for your talents, intelligence, interests, or even discipline than you are for your height, birthplace, or ethnicity. Everything that’s gone right for you in life, and everything that hasn’t gone wrong, is traceable to factors outside of your conscious control. This realization renders being proud of one’s achievements every bit as silly as being proud of one’s genetic predisposition for colon cancer, because everything behind those achievements — every single thing — is not something you “did.”

Pride is Counterproductive

While satisfying in the moment, pride easily ties in with egotism and tribalism. There is a straight line from pride of oneself or one’s group to superiority over other people or groups. It is possible to toe the line of being proud without thinking oneself better than others — possible, but extremely difficult. Pride also has a sort of yin-yang symbiosis with shame. To accept the concept of pride is to tacitly accept shame as well. The flawed logic of pride must extend to its opposite. If we puff out our chests when things go well, we must therefore slump in dejection when things go poorly. This manic-depressive nature of pride/shame wreaks havoc on mental health, and alters how we behave, often not for the better.

Operating from a foundation of untruth generally leads to poorer outcomes. Because pride and shame are grounded in assuming full authorship for things no person could ever be truly responsible for, it leads people to tailor their behavior in ways that are psychologically and socially unproductive. It fuels hyper-competitiveness, bitter rivalry, hate, tribalism, sabotage, vindictiveness, arrogance, self-loathing, and a host of other negative states. What’s more, this is all done for reasons untethered to reality, disconnected from any coherent understanding of cause and effect, beyond chemical junkyism — chasing the highs of pride, and avoiding the lows of shame. And this dynamic is only put on steroids when the pride jumps from the individual to group level.

What About Minority Group Pride?

The dangers of group pride need little enunciation. A tour through history shows us the rivers of blood that have been spilled because of it. But what about minority groups? Sure, when the dominant group, or multiple groups of significant size, become too proud, too tribal, things often take a dark and bloody turn, but what about minority groups? For a relatively small, beleaguered, or oppressed subset of society, group pride is a tool to facilitate group solidarity in order to maximize political, economic, and cultural power, the better to weather the storm of hostile forces around them. This tactic is undeniably useful. It is certainly understandable, too. The problem even with this, however, is twofold.

First, the group pride used to withstand true mistreatment at the hands of society is rarely given up once the minority group in question either attains rights and acceptance, or ceases to be a minority group. For example, if you’ve ever found it peculiar that Americans of Italian or Irish ancestry are much more likely to display overt pride of their heritage than those of Swedish, French, or German roots, this is why. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish and Italian-Americans were considered distinct minority groups, and were marginalized by society. Now, generations later, neither group can claim oppression of any kind, and yet this group pride persists.

Second, the pretext which grants moral permission to embrace group pride has become increasingly inapplicable in the developed West. While far from perfect, the West has become a vastly more tolerant place, where virtually everyone has full human rights, political rights, protection under the law, and social acceptance. There are many groups who are demographic minorities, and bigotry still exists — but there are very few oppressed minority groups in anything like the sense “oppressed” would have been understood to mean even ten years ago. In cases of true oppression, I consider minority groups engaging in group pride exempted from this critique. You cannot blame anyone for just trying to survive. And there are certainly many such peoples around the world. The story in the West is different. Group pride is not as acceptable here as it once was, but that doesn’t stop the pleasure people derive from it. Those who can make a credible enough case to be granted special privileges to indulge in it, even if it requires stretching the truth, tend to be quite willing. Everything that is problematic with pride on the individual level applies to pride at the group level, but with greater potential. The more of it society is seeded with, the more potential for harm there is. The question is, if we are to eschew pride, what should take its place?

A Better Way To Be

“Hey, if you’re happy with it, that’s fine. Do that. Put that on your car. ‘Happy to be an American.’ Be happy. Don’t be proud. Too much pride as it is. ‘Pride goeth before a fall.’ Never forget Proverbs.” — George Carlin

Pride is endemic to the human condition, but there are things we can do to shrink it. Understanding that it is irrational and counterproductive is the first step. Then, with a small amount of conscious effort, we can begin to catch ourselves when we notice feelings of individual or group pride, and when we observe it in others. Most importantly, we should seek, to whatever degree we can, to replace pride with better alternatives. The things we like about our achievements, our attributes, the people close to us, or our group associations — we should be happy about them, but not proud. We should be appreciative of our good fortune, and of those who have helped us along the way, but not proud. We should savor the good times, and celebrate the wins, but we should not be proud. And we should be humble, and recognize how many others are not so lucky, that there but for the grace of fortune go I. We can and should embrace the joys of life, but we need not lean in to the comparative, zero-sum, tribal, competitive trap of pride. We should try to liberate our minds from fettering our self-worth and life satisfaction to how we size up to others. There is a better way to be — present, thankful, alive, and boundless. This is easier said than done, but the effort makes a difference.

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