Arrogance and Arrogance

In the United States of today, I’ve observed two types of arrogance manifested by those who have ability and power, usually but not exclusively by males. The first type of arrogance is that typical of most elites in most societies – that they’re special and everyone should know it, even if they gained their position, power, and wealth largely aided by factors they had little to do with, such as family economic and social position.

The second kind of arrogance is the assumption that, if they can do it, anyone can, if others only work hard enough. I’ve seen this kind of arrogance manifested far more than a few times, usually by white males. I’m not saying that most of them didn’t work hard to get where they got, because many of those I know did in fact work hard, but all too often hard and even hard smart work isn’t enough.

What few of them fail to realize, or at least to acknowledge publicly, is that many of the aspects of their lives that they take for granted as “normal” are anything but normal for tens of millions of Americans, things like a stable home life growing up, having enough to eat as a child, a decent grade school and secondary education, living in a low-crime area, not having an ethnic/cultural background that makes strangers suspicious, having good role models.

Another factor that too many “self-made” individuals ignore or minimize is the role of luck and timing. I owe a great deal of my success to what I’ve learned from my wife, yet how we met was statistically effectively impossible.

A publisher once told me that the great success of a particular book/series was made possible by a set of circumstances that existed for only one five-year period ever in the publishing industry. Now, the writer in question had been published previously and could have likely continued as a successful midlist author…and perhaps eventually done better than that, but those circumstances and the fact that the publisher recognized them gave the author far greater success than others who had equal ability, but wrote earlier or later in time.

I’m not writing about myself, but in my case, I got my first and long-standing editor as a result of the intersection of three facts – the fact that I’d published a handful of stories in ANALOG, that he read short stories because he compiled anthologies, and that he recognized my last name because he’d known my cousin [with the same uncommon last name] in college. Those were just enough to get him to read my first novel… and to publish it and eventually many others. And it was pure luck, from my point of view, that he then became an editor for a publishing start-up then known as TOR.

Yes, I sold my first stories over the transom to people I’d never met, and I worked hard, damned hard, and I sent that first novel to every F&SF editor whose name and address I could find, but I’ve known lots of other authors who have worked hard and weren’t in the right place at the right time with the right book. And even after that, it took me another ten years to be able to become a full-time writer.

It’s been said by others that great success comes when hard work meets great opportunity, but hard work doesn’t always meet such opportunity. For those reasons, and quite a few others, I find that it’s arrogant when someone says, “If I can do it, anyone who works can do it.” It’s just not that simple… and it never has been.

3 thoughts on “Arrogance and Arrogance”

  1. Postagoras says:

    I very much agree. The preferential treatment I’ve benefited from is, for all intents and purposes, a social policy in the United States. This traditional “policy” and some good fortune both multiplied the effect of my hard work.

    Many white males who’ve benefited from this privilege feel attacked when it’s discussed. They feel that they’re being accused of cheating.

    I view it the other way around. We see that success is magnified by this policy. So let’s increase everyone’s chances of success by sharing the application of this policy. Let’s make it NOT a privilege.

  2. Bill says:

    Instead of a long-winded response, I want to say that today that I appreciate my privilege, luck, and hard work that allowed me to get my copy of Isolate in hard cover delivered to my door.

  3. Joe says:

    Surely the title should have been “Arrogance and ignorance”?

    It seems to me that the difficulty comes from oversimplifying the problem:

    * ability
    * culture
    * means
    * luck

    Only considering the first 3:

    If one is poor, and not particularly bright, but one’s family has a culture of considering education as important, children can succeed. (Stereotypical example: asians)

    If one is poor, frighteningly bright, but one’s family doesn’t consider education important, one can succeed. (I know many people like this. Gauss was a historical example).

    If one is wealthy, even if kind of dumb, and even if one’s family doesn’t consider education all that important, one can still succeed. (Legacy students are something like half of all the white Harvard intake.)

    And so on.

    Claiming one’s success is simply due to one’s individual qualities is obviously wrong. But so is claiming that it is simply due to “privilege”. In both cases it’s taking a multi-dimensional problem and claiming it can be explained by a single dimension.

    It’s when one uses this misunderstanding as a cudgel that it becomes arrogant. Otherwise, it can simply be ignorance.

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