Monday, June 13, 2011

The Arrogance of Gaivoh

Our use of language can get us into all sorts of sticky situations, and perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than with the idea of gaivoh--arrogance.

Arrogance has both negative denotation and negative connotation. It's dictionary definition is: offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride; having or showing an exaggerated opinion of one's own importance, merit, ability, etc; conceited. It has been negative from its inception--c.1300, from O.Fr. arrogance (12c.), from L. arrogantia, from arrogantem (nom. arrogans ) "assuming, overbearing, insolent," prp. of arrogare "to claim for oneself, assume." It keeps company with a number of synonyms whose meanings are also negative, words such as haughtiness, insolence, and disdain.

In short, arrogance is not a personal virtue; one who displays arrogance lacks humility and modesty. It is bad enough when arrogance remains fairly individual-centered; that is, when the arrogance takes the form of personal boasting about accomplishments or possessions. Where the arrogance becomes intolerable is when it moves from personal boasting into the realm of putting down others.

Let's make a distinction now between statements of fact and arrogance. If, in the course of a discussion taking place among a group of students who have just received back test results, one student asks all the others "What mark did you get on the test?" and they all respond with their marks, none of those students can be said to be exhibiting arrogance when they report the numbers. This would be information gathering and fairly neutral. Now let's say that two students in that group both received a mark of "100" on the test and they both say so. Are they being arrogant in reporting a perfect score? Again, no--it's a factual matter. However...let's say student #1 simply answers "I got 100" and leaves it at that, but student #2 says "I aced the test as usual. Doesn't take much to get a perfect score on Mrs. G's tests" or perhaps "I got 100 of course." Now we've moved into the area of arrogance.

And what if no one actually asked the others what their scores were? What if student #2, unbidden, announces with glee to the others "What an easy test that was--I aced it of course!"? Now we're dealing with self-aggrandizement, and that is arrogance.

But let's move away from children--let's move on to adults. Not only are arrogant statements used to boast about personal qualities, characteristics and attainments, but they are used to put down others. Were I to boast that I am the best at something then that would mean that others around me can only be second best, if that.

This is not to say that in some some specific areas there is not a hierarchy of achievement in which some are rated as being on a higher level than others are. But that ranking is done based on specific requirements for attaining high ranking, requirements that everyone knows about and agrees to. What is more, those who are placed in the top ranks are PLACED there by others--their ranking is not based on what THEY say they know/have/do but on some sort of an objective scale of measurement. Thomas Edison is considered one of the most prolific and greatest inventors of all time but he didn't say so--others did and do.

Now to a look at Klal and how arrogance plays a huge part in its workings.

I mentioned in an earlier posting that talking about Klal as a unified whole is an error--it isn't, nor has it ever been. Go back in history not all that far to pre-War Europe and you will find that Klal was a highly splintered entity. One divide was the east-west divide. Western European Jews looked down on Eastern European Jews and Eastern European Jews looked down on Western European Jews. Each group believed themselves to be the best and had no problem with over-the-top aggrandizement of their own "superior" characteristics and achievements and no problem with putting down all the others.

Nor was the splintering strictly along the lines of West vs. East. Within each geographic area the arrogance flowed unbounded as people from country A looked down their noses at people from country B, where, even within the same country, people from city A looked down their noses at people from city B. And yes, even within the smaller confines of a single city people from area A of that city looked down their noses at people from area B. And yes, the divide also was global, as Europeans looked down their noses at non-Europeans. And then we had the ashkenazic/sephardic divide.

Well, here we are, living in the good old US of A, and you wouldn't know it in a lot of places as that European arrogance is alive and well and living in Klal. Despite the fact that most Jews living here were born here, there are some members of Klal who don't use American as their identification when talking to other members of Klal--they reach a long ways back and self-identify as German or Polish or Italian or Hungarian or what have you. Do they do so when speaking to others as a means of determining if that stranger they've just met might have come from the same area and maybe they are related way back on the tree? Nope, they don't. So what practical purpose can such self-identification serve today?

One purpose is as a social divider--you can't be part of my social group because we long ago did not come from the same place and where you came from is so not a place that was admired by my ancestors. It's purpose is exclusionary rather than inclusive.

Another purpose is to build a hierarchy within Klal--a totally artificial one. Depending on who is doing the ordering, some groups will be placed much higher than others, based on factors that are totally and completely idiosyncratic, without any real or factual basis, and not agreed upon by other members of Klal, whose ordering of the hierarchy will be radically different.

Still another purpose is for carrying forward the myths and half-truths that fed animosity in Europe and other parts of the globe, bringing history (or a highly perverted form of it) forward into the present. "Everyone" knows that people from place X were highly intelligent, well educated, wealthy and talented. "Everyone" knows that people from Place Y were peasants, uneducated, poor and backwards. Right---wrong! Making all statements about any group will lead to the inevitable conclusion that the statement is wrong in virtually every case. The "rule" as to what a "German" is or a "Pole" is or a "Hungarian" is or an "Italian" is or a "Russian" is has way more exceptions than it does examples that support the rule.

Okay, the purpose of this posting? We in Klal have a long history of pointing fingers elsewhere and blaming "them" when things go wrong--it can't possibly be our fault so it must be theirs. Look at the various communities living here in the NY area alone and you'll see that the geographic animosity is alive, well and mutated to include American places in addition to global ancestry. And then we've taken that geographic animosity and extended it to include highly artificial religious practices divisions. Look at those shidduch questionnaires and you will find anywhere from 10 to the sky is the limit listings of "what type" of Jew are you. "Frum" doesn't cover it any more--what type of frum are you? And the purpose for this type of nit picking categorization? Division.

Kol Yisroel Areivim? Not as long as a map of ancestral descendance plays a crucial role. Not so long as arrogance is the filter through which we deal with others.


Anonymous said...

Agree that a lot of the gaivoh today is based on stupid things like how much money you have or what clothes you wear but we got that idea of dividing ourselves straight from God. The shvatim were not looked at as all being perfectly equal. We had the division into kohanim and levi'im and yisroelim, and the first two were on top. We had kings and princes and we were supposed to honor them as being a step or two above us.

Seems to be hardwired into us that some people are better in some way than others are.

Are you really arguing that western Europe wasn't more advanced in secular matters then eastern Europe was? That's fact. Also fact that eastern Europe was where the great yeshivas were of Europe. What people did with that information is a different story.

Louis said...

eastern Europe was where the great yeshivas were of Europe

There were great yeshivas in western Europe before they began in Eastern Europe Anon. The Pressburg Yeshiva in Austro-Hungary began before those Polish yeshivas did. And why were there so many of those yeshivas in eastern Europe when they did start up? Because a whole lot of people were in disagreement about approach and what should be taught so they left one yeshiva and started another one. Not everyone was in agreement with the start of the Mussar movement. Chassidim had a different idea of what a yeshiva should be than non Chassidim did. And yeah, straight competition like the posting mentions. If town A or Rabbi A can have a yeshiva we're going to have one too because we're just as good as them and probably better.

No one is arguing that western Europe wasn't where the majority of great universities were or where the most inventions seemed to come from or where the biggest names that everyone agreed on in science and mathematics were. But the eastern european Jews took pride that they weren't involved in secular life, that they weren't educated in secular matters and pointed fingers at the western european Jews as not being Jewish enough because they were involved in both learning secular things and Jewish things.

Anonymous said...

Why do so many comments on this blog, by ostensibly different commenters, have the exact same writing style?

Trudy said...

Not going to give a lecture anon but welcome to the difference between the older readers and the younger readers on the blog. I know that at least 4 of us who read and comment here regularly are old friends of prof K. We went to the same college and 3 of us majored in the same thing. We read the same types of books and pretty much enjoyed the same authors. Four of us are in education.

Go out in the non blog world and a whole bunch of people my age sound just like me and my other friends. The prof always jokes that she can't seem to write short. Pretty much the rest of us can't do it either because it's not how we were taught to write. 20 page papers using real vocabulary were the norm for any class. We didn't know and had never heard of the 4-6 paragraph essay that passes for serious writing today in most college classes.

I'm guessing that those comments that are puzzling you are probably written by someone closer in age to me then to you.

Anonymous said...

It's not an age gap or a generation gap; it's the lack of commas that seems common to many comments.

Anonymous 2 said...

English not my best subject so what is the comma problem? Comments seem to make sense to me. What am I not seeing?

Anonymous said...

Trudy: Long essays are not necessarily a hallmark of erudition, analytical skills or writing ability. Being succinct and to the point often takes more skill . . . and effort. Who was it (I think thomas Jefferson) who ended a letter apologizing for its length and explaining he did not have the time to write shorter letter.

ProfK said...

Taking a quick few minutes to see what's doing on the blog--sorry, but this week I'll be happy just to breathe, never mind blog.

Anonymous (who posted about the commas)--I don't read comments on here with an eye toward correction, certainly not for grammatical correction. If you do, so be it. I could probably come up with a number of reasons as to why some commenters may "sound" similar in their writing: Trudy came up with a few reasons and there are others. You might take into consideration that people today, when using electronic media, seem to favor a truncated form of English--see texting and IMing for prime examples. I suppose we could say that those commenting on blogs may be foreshortening their use of punctuation.

It might be the early morning hour, but just why does the punctuation matter?

Re the length of a piece of writing, no, long is not automatically better than short, but then neither is short automatically better than long. And the quote you refer to is originally from Blaise Pascal, although both Jefferson and Twain used it later on in their writing.

Oh yes, please Anonymous, find yourself a user name for commenting; it's impossible to keep straight who said what when there are multiple people commenting using Anonymous as their tag.

Mr. Cohen said...

Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah, page 5A:

Any person who has an arrogant spirit in him will be eventually lowered in stature.


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