On Arrogance

Occupying close quarters with 20 fellow human beings, four rats, a bunny and a couple of cockroaches has put into stark reality for me the eternal problem of living together, coexisting in the world with others. And, considering the individualism that pervades nearly all aspects of the lives of those of us who have grown up in and internalized the Western Enlightenment model of ourselves as autonomous, self-determining subjects, this necessary project of living together proves to be a profoundly difficult one. How to develop meaningful relationships with others and ensure their well-being if we are taught that we should orient our life goals toward “perfecting” our own individual knowledge stores, bodies, and careers?

This individualistic model strikes me as profoundly arrogant. And, to me, arrogance lies at the heart of an often violent inability to live among others who occupy modes of being not immediately familiar to us. Colonialism, for example, is based upon a European arrogance that understands Europeans as agents of modernity, civilization, and moral superiority, all of which we — the white saviors — need to bestow upon the “primitive, simple, or traditional” (Mbembe 313) societies of Black and brown people around the world (including in the United States). Certainly not a thing of the past, this colonial arrogance sticks around whenever I, for example, think of myself as morally superior to my housemates for keeping the kitchen spotlessly clean, failing to realize that such a neat kitchen is simply not an aspect of how they enact their modes of being in the world. My propensity to judge those who move through the world differently than I do as lesser, as inferior, forecloses upon the possibility of building meaningful relationships with them. Quite the contrary—it increases the chances that I will enact violence in any form against them.

Instead of understanding others as legitimate enactments of being-in-the-world who exist in interconnected relation with our own, we — in all of our arrogant glory — tend to judge others against ourselves, to regard them as the “non-Me.” As postcolonial scholar Achille Mbembe asserts, under our arrogant ideologies, “to differ from something or somebody is not simply not to be like (in the sense of being non-identical or being-other); it is also not to be at all (nonbeing). More, it is being nothing (nothingness)” (185). By regarding others as nothing, we understand them as threats to our own being—if they exert power over us, they will turn us into nothing, as well.

So, in order to protect ourselves from becoming the nothingness of others, we cling to the identities most familiar and accessible to us. And we cling hard. At any given moment I, for example, can cling to my internalized whiteness, veganism, queerness, thinness, consumerism, perfectionism, eating habits, nationalism, and the like—all of which can function to remind myself that I am not, I am better than, those who do not identify with any of those things.

Feminist political scientist Leela Fernandes offers a process by which to challenge the arrogance embedded in much of our identity formation—a process she refers to as “disidentification” (about which I’ve written previously). Through disidentification, we simultaneously confront the “very real hierarchies and exclusions of identity” while letting go of attachments to external identities that depend upon ego-based interests in power, privilege and control (27). A never-finished process, disidentification helps to foster a mode of radical humility that allows us to understand the world and all who inhabit it as interconnected, interrelated, and constitutive of our own life-worlds. Far from being autonomous, self-determining subjects, at our very core we exist in deep relation with others. Realizing this relation-based mode of being can aid in dispelling our individualistic, colonial arrogance such that we can more easily work toward coexisting in the world with others in such a way that everyone’s needs are met.

As someone who practices vegan consumption habits, I often encounter accusations of people like myself as arrogant and judgmental. And unfortunately, in my experiences, these accusations prove largely accurate. Though our arrogance does not necessarily originate with veganism — it does, more prominently, from our socialization under ideologies of European Enlightenment — vegan arrogance does take on specific forms that I feel obligated to point out here.

Vegans espouse arrogance when we claim that we are more “cruelty-free” and “compassionate” than people who eat animals, or that we have been “enlightened” while people who eat animals remain in the dark. And yet, many of the (mostly white) vegans I’ve met or otherwise encountered act in profoundly racist, sexist, and ableist ways. Case in point: Gary Yourofsky, Thug Kitchen, and vegans who assert that any marginalized person deserves their oppression because they eat animals.

Vegans espouse arrogance when we internalize the oppression of other animals while leading lives of relative privilege ourselves, clinging to the most oppressed aspects of our ego-based identities and thus preventing ourselves from listening when others point out how we too act in immensely oppressive ways.

Vegans espouse arrogance when we assert that we can fix all of the world’s problems — climate change, food insecurity, disease, war — by transitioning to vegan consumption habits. This belief ignores the multiplicity of complex factors contributing to each of the aforementioned issues, including the fact that if we merely shift the market from an animal-based one to a plant-based one, we’ll still operate under an inherently exploitative economic system of neoliberal capitalism.

I could go on. But I’ll stop here to reiterate calls from A. Breeze Harper, pattrice jones and others to decolonize our veganism of its rampant arrogance. This will, of course, be an ongoing and ever-incomplete process as long as we continue to internalize since a young age individualistic, Eurocentric Enlightenment ideals, but our realization of the nature of such a project should only contribute to our cultivation of humility: just as we are not perfect snowflakes, neither is our activism. But we can struggle in this imperfection together, building a community based in radical humility along the way.

In solidarity, Ali.


References

Fernandes, Leela. Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2003. Print.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Print.

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001. Kindle file.

Minh-ha, Trinh T. Woman Native Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989. Print.

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9 thoughts on “On Arrogance

  1. Mountain Hughes says:

    Are you arguing there is something essentially individualistic about European culture? Or is that individualism just the result of advanced capitalism?

  2. Ali Seiter says:

    I think it would be reductive to say that individualism is only a result of capitalism, and essentialistic to say that all European cultures are inherently individualistic. What I’m saying is that virtually all dominant narratives — which tend to stem from the European Enlightenment — advocate for an understanding of the autonomous self/individual as the most important figure in society.

  3. Mountain Hughes says:

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is…if all these dominant narratives come from the European Enlightenment, as you say, why do you think that is?

    To me, speciesism and racism exist because they benefit the elite. And it was just kind of geographical happenstance that at that time in history the elites were in Europe. So if, you know, Asia was on top during the enlightenment era, we’d still have speciesism and racism. They would just be coming out of Asia, not Europe.

    It seems kind of like you’re saying there is something unique about Europe. I don’t know. Maybe I’m reading you wrong.

  4. Ali Seiter says:

    Mmm, not necessarily racism, speciesism, or any other “-ism,” but more the ideologies, mindsets, and discourses behind them. I see various forms of oppression — the “-isms,” if you will — as outgrowths of certain attitudes towards and modes of being in the world. For example, I’m saying here that arrogance is a dominant narrative that shapes colonialism. By understanding colonialism and other forms of oppressive violence as formed by mindsets rather than by geography, time period, or individuals, we can realize that such forms of violence are not things of the past, of other places, or of “evil” people, which gives us a better chance of challenging them.

  5. Ali Seiter says:

    I think by your last comment, I would say that the Enlightenment happened in Europe and not Asia because their ways of understanding the world were quite different, thanks to the different things that each group of peoples had experienced in their pasts and presents.

    I’m sorry I’m not explaining my thoughts in a way that’s clear to you!!! Thank you for making me think, though.

  6. Mountain Hughes says:

    I think “Guns, Germs, and Steel” might have something to say about the why Europe, not Asia, (or anywhere else for that matter) question. I know there’s some Marxist criticism of Jared Diamond but I haven’t really read enough of it to get where they are coming from. So far that book is the only one I’ve read which asks the question “why Europe” and doesn’t come up with some kind of essentialist answer (ie. Europeans are superior, or Europeans are evil). Maybe you know of others?

    Anyway, I’m off to enjoy the holiday. Peace!

  7. C says:

    Not to long ago on WPR, they had someone on who espoused just that, we are heading towards plant based food diets. Wheat is a perfect example of the human race making a huge jump in being able to feed the masses. Supposedly meat itself and cooking it had an effect on the development of the human species. All the meat we eat comes from plants, but the scale of production is not sustainable, water is getting short, not quick but at a quickening pace, so we learn to produce meat cheaper, i.e. feeding dead cattle to the cattle. When you look at the midwest avian flue, it cuts deep, will we even have chickens at the county fairs this year? I’m taking a free class through berkley right now called the science of happiness, and the European thing is definitely hedonistic arrogance, goes back to Rome, and few of my Christian friends even realize Jesus was crucified because he wanted peace, old habits die hard, and many of them are my most arrogant friends. Now, my Indian Buddhist friends, all I can say is wow, you even get close to one of them and you can feel the stillness inside of them. Until they’ve lived in the the states a few years.. The interesting thing I’ve done as of late is 23 and me to see how much European I really have in me. Still, we are not as individualistic as we think, we just pay for our teamwork, and live alone with our cats, dogs, and TV’s because unconditional love seems non-existent in a capitalistic/republic/consumeristic driven society where it’s every man or woman for themselves. Power mongrels galore. Nice writeup Ali.

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