Monday, September 1, 2014

Too Much Pride?

As I read yet another article about pride, this one where an openly gay gubernatorial candidate plans to march in a pride parade in Maine, I wonder whether all this emphasis on pride makes any sense in this context.  What is pride?  When is it appropriate, and when is it constructive?

For years our religious leaders and philosophers have told us that pride is not a good thing.   It’s one, some say the worst, of the seven deadly sins.  “It is identified as believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of the personal self.”  Plenty of examples flow from the Bible and other sources warning of the dangers of pride, that it “goeth before destruction, and a high mind before the fall."

Positive examples that come to mind concern pride for accomplishments or positive behavior.  We tell our children to be proud of themselves for athletic or academic accomplishments.  Even if they are not successful, the act of making an honest effort merits whatever good feelings we can pass along.  This positive feedback is meant not to make them feel superior or to encourage them to look down on others, but to motivate them to continue to work and excel.  In this sense, it’s hardly a sin.

We don’t expect our children to be proud of poor behavior, nor do we encourage them to be proud of a trait or characteristic they have no control over.  There is no pride in failure.  Likewise, should they be proud of being blond or of being right-handed?  This makes no sense.  There is no motivational value.  Working to become more right-handed is wasted effort.

In this regard, doesn’t it also seem strange to be proud to be of a particular heritage – Irish, Italian, African or even American?  This circumstance was beyond your control.  It’s not like being a good student, a good parent or a good citizen.  You can feel confident that people of your heritage had strong values and positive traits some of which you may (or may not) have inherited.  But without showing evidence of those positive traits, there is no reason to feel personal pride.  You can be proud of your country for its positive history or strong values, proud or your actions in defending the country or working to make it better, but to be proud merely of the fact that you were born there rather than somewhere else is a vacant concept.  You had no control over your mother’s itinerary.  This type of pride is merely a way of giving yourself permission to feel superior on the basis of nothing you did:  no skill or knowledge, no effort or accomplishment – feeling superior for the sake of feeling superior, lording it over others based on your place of birth.  There is nothing less “American” than that notion,  and it is the exact kind of thinking that leads to all sorts of discrimination.

To me then all these pride-about-characteristics movements with their goal of “fighting to eliminate discrimination and promote equality” seem like an effort to fight this vacant pride that breeds discrimination with a loud, countervailing dose of equally vacant pride – to stand up to the discriminators by exercising the same arrogance, the same unfounded feelings of superiority, hoping somehow that it all equals out in the end.

Instead it makes much more sense to be proud of not discriminating, of trying to treat everyone else with respect - proud of a behavior.  That’s an accomplishment.  It's something you can control and that’s something to be proud of.

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