August 29, 2004
Being an ass.
A very close friend of mine has a fellow graduate student who is, plainly, a bitch. She cuts people down whenever she gets the chance, usually in front of professors. She openly says, "Oh, I wish I were you," outloud to people. She calls people lazy and passes judgment on who goes to which meetings. She's just entirely unpleasant, disagreeable and bad-mannered. Two minutes spent with this young lady shows, as my friend correctly points out, that such nastiness comes from this person's insecurity. There is another person with whom I was in a graduate program once who was equally unpleasant. He was the kind of person who would say the most obvious things in a seminar with the air of making the most immediate connection between Heraclitus and Taoism out to be the most profound thing ever uttered in a class on ancient Greek epistemology. He would loudly retrieve stinking food from a greasy bag in a class that was not so long that one needed to take one's meals in the middle of a seminar. He could not have a regular conversation, even with the unfortunate suckers who were his friends. He was, in short, an ass, an arrogant ass. So, as the new graduate students arrive in my department,* I asked my office-mates what characteristic/world-view makes a person more of an ass: insecurity or arrogance. I think that insecurity does, because it introduces a level of pettiness/nastiness/meanness to the mix. Arrogant people might cut one down in class because they feel that such a person is ignorant and ought to study more. The insecure person, in my experience, is out for blood. The lurid desire to make another person "less" is, in my estimation, far worse than exposing another person as already being "less." An arrogant person might mutter to a person in front of a seminar, "Perhaps, my friend, you fail to understand the importance of Scheler's notion on suffering because you need to go back and re-read his Formalism." It seems so much more cruel to say, "See, you don't know your Scheler, either." I can't quite say why I feel that insecurity is more likely to make one behave as an ass. Sure, I can be arrogant sometimes, and perhaps I thereby sympathize with arrogant asses. (I would never cut down a colleague in private, let alone in a room full of people, however.) Maybe it is a case of, "Oh, well, he's an ass, all right. But at least he knows what he's talking about." Who knows? Asking which is worse is not asking a very pragmatik question, is it? *[Most of whom are perfectly nice folks, really. I haven't actually met a new ass yet this year:)]