Joe Collier: In defence of arrogance

Professor Joe CollierIf I am to believe my critics, I am arrogant. By definition, arrogance is usually used pejoratively (as are such terms as unpatriotic, subversive, anti-establishment, irreverent, all of which I have been accused over the years), and describes people who have an exaggerated (inflated) view of their abilities (especially when compared to other’s); tend to dismiss the views of others in preference to their own; are interested in themselves rather than in others; and are self satisfied or overbearing in their comportment. While this set of definitions paints a picture of people who are unsavoury, is there another side to the story? Can aspects of arrogant behaviour be normal, defendable, and in some circumstances a necessary (probably an essential) part of conduct? Does this sort of label matter and anyway, who decides? Is it time for a rethink? 

In the post second world war, middle class, environment of my childhood (late 40s, early 50s), everybody knew that well behaved people (and certainly children) did not ‘blow their own trumpets’, did not show off, did not indicate pleasure in achievement, did not brag, and would never put themselves above others. Ideally, we were supposed to be a modest, demure, and self deprecating. How this contrasted with the behaviour in my own family where my mother, who was a successful and charismatic actress, was brash, outspoken, pushy, proud, critical, and certainly did not hold back from promoting herself above others.

It was not until my adolescence that I resolved this culture clash. Ultimately, I decided that honesty was the pivotal issue. How could a classmate who had come top of the form not say that he was pleased, or someone who had trained hard towards some sporting event and then won say ‘it was nothing’, and even go on to deny they had trained at all. I decided that if I was good at something I should be prepared to say so; if I was happy in achievement, I would declare my pride; if I did not like someone or something, I had every right to speak up; if I felt I had a better solution to a problem than others, I should champion it. Certainly, the alternative approach, in which I saw the drive for modesty as getting in the way of clear thinking, as a form of self deception, as a distorted approach to self evaluation and self awareness, as the creation of a set of unreal values; was (and remains) not for me.  

Whatever else, arrogance is a matter of interpretation. What some might describe as frank, confident, assertive, challenging, questioning, persistent or demanding, others could interpret as arrogance.

Arrogance is also often used to describe a full character trait (‘he or she is arrogant’), when that person’s pride might relate to only a small part of their lives. Most people can rightly be arrogant in matters relating to a domain in which they have true expertise/prowess (the most perfect roses at the flower show). Here, a public display of pride and pleasure seems thoroughly justifiable, while in most other spheres of their lives they remain unassuming.

Conversely, there is one form of arrogance that is global but seems almost universal, accepted, and disregarded. In it, one person tells the other person what he or she can do and even curtails their freedom, often gives no explanation, and if there is debate says ‘its because I say so’. I am talking of parenthood. What on earth do children think we adults are? 

Finally there are circumstances where arrogant behaviour, as for example where decision-making blatantly overrides the views of others, is valued and even essential. Here, based on their experience, the person in question has to stand apart from others and believe in their own judgment above others, in circumstances where explanations or arguments will never be universally acceptable. I do not think one could be an effective judge, senior academic, doctor, or even an editor, without at times having to behave with arrogance. Having said that, in coming to such decisions, judgments should made within an agreed structure, should be consistent with societal norms, should not be designed or undertaken to hurt others, nor delivered with any sense of gratuitous pleasure. 

I know that on many occasions I will have behaved in a way consistent with the word ‘arrogant’ when for instance – curtailing discussion (as the chair of a meeting), failing a student (as a PhD examiner), rejecting or rewriting a manuscript (as an editor), making a difficult treatment decisions (as a clinician), and, of course, writing a blog (or any other commentary/opinion piece).  After all, how could I have written this (or any other) blog if I were not arrogant – only an arrogant person would think their views interesting enough to be read by others.

In my view arrogance has a bad name and its use needs a re-think. Arrogance is certainly not necessarily all bad and in some circumstances is essential. As long as I know what I am doing, am ‘arrogant’ in good faith, and my arrogance is not set to hurt unreasonably, then I am happy to live with the way I operate. But, of course, if I were arrogant, that is what I would say anyway.

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London