Why We Need a Revival of Humility

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius called it “the solid foundation of all virtues.” Nineteenth-century South African theologian Andrew Murray said the loss of it represented “the root of every sin and evil.” One of Murray’s contemporaries—the renowned British art critic John Ruskin—described it as “the first test of a great man.”

They were talking about humility, the supply of which never seems to match society’s demand.

Thus far, the twenty-first century has been a humbling period for Americans of all backgrounds, and especially for the country’s elites. From our failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks; to our myriad intelligence and planning failures in Iraq; to our disastrous creation of a failed state in Libya; to the housing bubble, financial crisis, and Great Recession; to the decline of labor-force participation among prime-working-age men; to the recent spike in violent crime in some of our largest cities; to the spread of a deadly opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities from Maine to Hawaii—a great many things have gone wrong since the millennium.

And yet, our elites don’t seem all that humbled. If anything, their collective arrogance, condescension, and decadence have gotten worse. How to explain that? Part of it may be the increasing economic, cultural, and ideological segregation of American society. On a deeper level, many members of the new upper class appear to view themselves as the justly entitled champions of a robust meritocracy. This sense of entitlement has blinded them to their own shortcomings, including their own unseemliness.

That’s the word— “unseemliness”—that American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray used in a 2016 interview. He elaborated:

“By the unseemliness I mean the willingness of people with a lot of money in this country, now, to strut their stuff, to flamboyantly spend their money, to flamboyantly proclaim to the rest of the world “I’m richer and by implication I’m better than you are.” That’s fairly new in American history. . . .

What we see now is large enclaves of really affluent people forming these large communities in which they live conspicuously different lifestyles than everybody else—that’s new in the United States. The extent to which the upper class rather openly disdains ordinary Americans, that’s also really, really new.”

The upper class includes men and women of genuine achievement. But it also includes more than a few mediocrities whose snobbery is, to put it charitably, unearned.

Peggy Noonan made note of this following the WikiLeaks email dump back in October. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, she observed that the Democratic political operatives who had sent the emails were “the worst kind of snobs, snobs with nothing to recommend them. In their expression and thoughts they are common, banal, dumb, uninformed, parochial.”

Just to be clear, this is not a partisan argument. After all, 2016 was also the year when large numbers of haughty Republican power-brokers discovered how little they actually knew about their own voters. Indeed, the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign proved utterly humiliating to GOP strategists and consultants who had built their reputation on “expertise” that, in the end, they did not truly possess. As for Trump himself, his own lack of humility could undermine many of his plans for the presidency. We’ll have to wait and see.

I have worked and/or lived in the Washington area for nearly fifteen years now. Without fail, the most impressive people I’ve met have also been the humblest. One of those people is former U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, for whom I worked from 2009 until his retirement at the start of 2013. Shortly before leaving the Senate, Kyl spoke to Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and described a childhood trip to his local county fair in Iowa. Upon arriving at the fair, Kyl said, his father made sure that he saw the man who managed parking for the attendees. “He does that better than anyone else,” his father told him. “Everybody can do something better than you can.”

Everybody can do something better than you can. Imagine how much different our society would be if each of us embraced those words as a daily mantra.

For that matter, imagine how much humbler the Washington–Wall Street crowd would be if they asked themselves a few basic questions, such as: Are political strategists and consultants really more impressive than welders and carpenters? Do pundits and lobbyists really serve a more important societal function than plumbers and electricians? Is the work done by financial engineers really more economically productive than the work done by civil engineers?

The point here is not to denigrate anyone’s livelihood. The point, rather, is that people with elite jobs could do a lot to improve social cohesion simply by showing greater self-awareness and greater respect for those Americans who actually build and repair things.

This is particularly important in light of the Trump phenomenon, which has inspired a wave of self-pity among some of our country’s most privileged individuals. As Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle noted after Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump rant at the Golden Globes, “There is in this whole world no sight less rhetorically compelling than that of successful people with fun and rewarding jobs, and a decent income, complaining that they’re victims of the unglamorous folks who labor at all the strenuously boring work required to make their lives nice.”

Writer Nicholas Pell puts it less diplomatically: “The worst thing about this present moment in time is the smugness with which zillionaires and their sycophants on the coasts piss all over anyone who does actual work for a living.”

Their smugness has contributed to an unhealthy cultural divide—one that recalls a key theme of British sociologist Michael Young’s dystopian satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy. (Young coined the term “meritocracy” and used it as a pejorative.) Published in 1958, Young’s book imagined the Britain of 2034 as a highly stratified society in which “some members of the meritocracy . . . have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.” What the self-satisfied meritocrats needed, Young wrote, was “a more proper sense of humility.”

A more proper sense of humility among America’s current elites would go a long way toward restoring some of the cohesion and solidarity that our country has lost. The alternative—continued polarization, growing tribalism, and the hardening of mutual contempt—would be a grim future indeed.

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  • “Humility”?
    Many people seem to act as if that word was no longer in the English dictionary.

  • tim hansen

    Great article! Humility ameliorates political differences and maybe that is why politics has gotten so acidic. As a Christian, when I pray, I ask God to help me to be humble. Many progressives I know are pompous, self-righteous and have an ego that is not in proportion to their abilities, accomplishments or actions.

  • Michael Cejnar

    Yes, ‘Everybody does something better than you” – I like it, will use it on my privileged kids.

    I think the rich have substituted virtue for humility.

  • Callahan’s Principle of Leadership: a man’s got to know his limitations.

  • FreakFlagFly

    A little more publican, a little less pharisee.

  • FrancisChalk

    From the article: “Megan McArdle noted after Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump rant at the Golden Globes, ‘There is in this whole world no sight less rhetorically compelling than that of successful people with fun and rewarding jobs, and a decent income, complaining that they’re victims of the unglamorous folks who labor at all the strenuously boring work required to make their lives nice.’”

    Megan McArdle is the last pundit/journalist you should quote when decrying the elites as she is totally of that mold. She is one of the handful of “journalists” invited to cover the most recent Bilderberger conference. Yet, in strict compliance with the desires of the worlds most elite snobs, she never wrote a single thing about what transpired at the annual meeting where the super rich and powerful come together to plot their strategy for staying that way.

    In fact, McArdles’s omertà regarding Bilderberger is why she can not, by any meaningful definition of the word, be considered a journalist, or honest for that matter.

    • RaymondJelli

      Great comment. She’s employed by Mike Bloomberg and remembers it every moment. It drips from every word. What is she an expert in anyway?

      • Yep, she is a house Libertarian in the mold of George Will as a house conservative. In either case the house always wins.

        • tbart

          Unless the house is a Trump casino. Then it goes bankrupt. Talk about business skills…..going bankrupt in a business where you have locksolid profit margin – whats THAT about?

          • realDEEBEE

            About the fact that you do not know anything about casinos, real estate and bankruptcies. Yet feel compelled to PONTIFICATE. What’s THAT about?

    • William Bell

      Maybe promising nondisclosure is a prerequisite for attendance. In which case she doesn’t deserve the bashing. Promise-keeping is a virtue that’s essential for social cohesion.

      • FrancisChalk

        She’s a professional journalist. When world leaders from a variety of fields meet to discus crafting solutions to world problems, “non disclosure” by journalists, honest journalists, should’t be an option. But it obviously was for her. Thus my criticism.

        • William Bell

          Yes, it should be, if promising to keep a lid on was a prerequisite for admission and you promised to do so. There are three options:
          1. Promise nondisclosure to gain admittance and keep the promise.
          2. Promise nondisclosure to gain admittance and break the promise.
          3. Stay out.
          No. 2 is clearly unethical, so I assume your choice would be 3. But why is that better than 1? In either case, there’s no disclosure, but with 1 at least you know what went down whereas with 3 you’re in the dark. I don’t see why ignorance is the better option from an ethical standpoint or any other standpoint.

  • LizardLizard

    Good story about the parking attendant. Wise Dad. A slightly different lesson, but I remember when i was a kid, my sister and I were in the car with my Mom when we were waiting for a fill-up at a gas station. A 7-Up (a kind of soda pop) truck drove up and a man in a green uniform came out and started putting bottles of pop in the vending machine. I burst out laughing “That’s so-and-so’s Dad! Ha, ha, hah! His job is filling up 7-Up machines, what a stupid job, ha, ha, ha!” My mother turned on me as quick as a flash and said, “Mr. So and So gets up every morning and supports his family. I don’t ever want to hear you looking down on anyone’s honest work, whatever it is. On the contrary, you should RESPECT him for getting up every morning day after day and doing what he needs to do to support his family.” Put little-snot me right in my place, thank you Mom. I never forgot that day and that lesson and always think of Mr. So-and-So when I see someone doing a “humble” job cheerfully and well, who gets up day after day and does the honest work s/he needs to do to support his (or her) family.

  • nofreelunch

    Nothing teaches humility like failure. Failure teaches you that there is an objective reality that exist. What you thought was true, and what is true, may be two different things.

    It’s easy to be smug when you never test your ideas in the market place, or you hit a home run your first at bat like Mark Zukerberg or Bill Gates

    • Mark

      You are correct. However I would refine the point just a little. Nothing teaches humility as dealing with the consequences of failure. For too many in the political world and academia failure has nearly the same consequence as success.

  • Pingback: Everybody can do something better than you can – The Home for Wayward Statisticians()

  • James

    Our ruling class ought to be more humble because they have so much to be humble about.

  • Stephen Waters

    While you are at it, include Descartes, whose “I think, therefore I am.” really means, “I doubt, therefore I am.”

  • It once was that nearly every young man boxed. Humility is the great fringe benefit.