Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why We can But You or I cannot be Great

Tibor R. Machan

The evidence for this is overwhelming and out there for most to observe. Take the Academy Awards, where those receiving Oscars routinely disclaim personal credit but claim it aplenty for the team, the association, the group. Or take most team sports where any mention of one's own superb contribution is suppressed in favor of how great the team has been.

America or Germany or any other country is often praised for superior achievements while individual Americans or Germans need to show humility lest they be deemed braggarts. Even in sports such as tennis, where there's a dominance of individual performance, taking credit for doing well is rare. Either bona fide or feigned humility appear to be what's acceptable and practiced, albeit sometimes with a wink.

But why? What's wrong with laying claim to one's achievements provided one is honest about them? Yes, one can get ridiculously arrogant, such as the late great chess master Bobby Fisher was. And here and there, close up to a good shot, most tennis players exhibit pride on the court, at least with body language. Still, the idea that "we are great" is far more easily put out there than "I am great," even though it is rare that we can be great without those who make up us also being great.

My suggestion is that most folks are too intimidate by all the preachings that surround us concerning how we must be unselfish, how taking credit is vanity or conceit, while praising our fellows is nearly always deemed to be appropriate, commendable. Some of this goes hand in hand with the practice of judging people as ethical or moral only if they benefit their fellows, not when they do well for themselves. The Princeton University philosopher and famous animal liberation champion makes a great deal of how we must all be altruistic--recently he chimed in on the current economic downturn with an essay on how despite suffering setbacks, we all have the obligation to send resources to people in poor countries. That is what will make us decent people, not being prudent and attentive to our own needs and wants and those of our intimates. Which of course raises the issue of why other people are so deserving of support while those urged to provide the support are not. (Which once again brings to mind W. H. Auden's quip that "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.")

What seems to underlie much of this is that for centuries the major religions tended to denigrate people as sinners, mostly, who need to redeem themselves by serving other people (who then needed to do the same, on and on, ad infinitum.) And this probably came from comparing people to angels and God, mystical entities who certainly had it all over us "mere" humans. Even in the increasingly secular modern era, the view of the human self didn't see all that much improvement. I have in mind, for example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' very influential idea that people are mostly power hungry and if not restrained by a supreme authority would just as soon destroy one another than live together creatively and productively. Original sin got transformed into basic (vicious) instinct! And with that many human tendencies and activities also got besmirched. Sex, which is human as well as animal about us all, is a good case in point. Rarely has it gotten a sensible, levelheaded treatment in the major religions or philosophies. (So much if it got driven underground and lingers in back alleys or on the bizarrely labeled adult cable TV programs.)

But when you consider it without prejudice, are human beings really so bad? Sure, they can be and often are but on balance they would seem to be rather decent, hard working, conscientious, and kind, at least most of them most of the time. And they are also quite self-regarding--most of us get up in the morning thinking first of ourselves and our loved ones, not of our neighbors. So basic decency and self-regard can easily go hand in hand--indeed, it is difficult for me to imagine people loving their neighbors who lack love for themselves.

But then why make all those gestures of humility, of self-abnegation? Maybe because, in addition to some very bad teachings from various sources, there is the desire to be liked by others who might not appreciate demonstrated self-regard, pride, and self-esteem. Whatever the best explanation, though, one thing is clear enough. It is not a good thing to have a general, overall demeaning opinion of oneself. It tends to undercut what one does in one's life on many, many fronts, as a professional, friend, spouse, parent, and the rest. A little--maybe a lot--more frank admission of one's worthiness, if justified, would seem to be warranted.

And while most people are reluctant to give themselves even deserved credit, they show that some such acknowledgement is necessary for them as they do not hesitate giving credit to the group of which they are a member!

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