Day 31: Why Modesty is Bad for the Society

I am NOT a particularly modest person.

In fact, for those who know me, they’d probably also know that I am not modest at all.

I like to feel good about my accomplishment (if there’s any), and I would like to be rewarded for what I have done well (although, usually, I do things well because I don’t expect any reward). That is, I appreciate my ability to appreciate my achievements, whether that be helping myself, or helping others with or without their recognition. As long as I recognize them, I would feel good about myself, and if I have a chance to say it I would do so.

To me, modesty is something external to my being — I think being modest is being dishonest.

According to the dictionary, modesty is “the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities.” Hence, to be modest, first and foremost, is to know that you have some abilities, and hence deliberately downplay the expression of such abilities in order to be “moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities.” It is undoubted that we are living in the world in which more and more people tend to believe that being flamboyant about how good they think they are (which, by the way, is different from how good they actually are) — in other words, overestimating their ability to do things — often benefit them more than being self-conscious about their limited ability. We can see this kind of flamboyant expression almost everywhere, such as in the media, television, classroom, workplace, and so on.

So, here we can see that there are usually two origins of our collective appraisal for modesty. We are somewhat living in the world that is “harder and harder” to tell who is good or who is bad simply because modern life gives us “lesser and lesser” time and opportunity to think carefully other people’s claim about their abilities vis-a-vis themselves. Many times, we simply take the leap of faith to believe that something is good or bad. Hence, we “more and more” appreciate those people who give us some space to think carefully about them. Precisely, what makes us appreciate  them is our own curiosity toward those people’s unique claim to be not as good as we might think they are. That, I believe is the first origin of modesty.

Second, because of this particular “make-others-know-what-you-can-do-will-give-you-what-you-need” societal trend, emerging also as an accompanying trend is the belief that those who are modest about what can do must be rare. And, because of that, rarity becomes quality. That, I believe to be the second origin. There might be more but these are the two that I believe to be what makes people today feel that they should try to be modest even if they are naturally flamboyant. So, my argument here will be quite radical. Unlike Confucius who believes that modesty is the cradle of the society that will prevent it from internal destruction, what I want to argue in this post is that modesty is actually “bad” for the society.

So, let start with Karl Popper, who writes:

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them — Karl Popper.

In the passage above, by simply replacing “tolerance”with “modesty,” and “intolerant” with “flamboyant,” we can arrive at the theory I am hoping to propose here. Modesty is similar to tolerance. Modesty is the willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions that one does not necessarily agree with, which, in this case, is one’s own ability. It’s known to many that a functioning society is a society full of tolerant people. In other words, being a tolerant person is better than being an intolerant person. Being able to cultivate one’s ability to agree to disagree is the golden virtue. I don’t disagree with such a remarkably true statement at all. That said, as Popper argues in the passage above, if everyone believes that we must be tolerant, than it only takes one mindless intolerant person to undermine the entire social structure. The intolerant people will win, because they will completely enforce their intolerant-driven ill-spirited conduct on the tolerant people, who will tolerate everything because they are, by definition, tolerant. This may sound rather extreme, but as the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci has pointed out, there are societies that their citizenry don’t even know that they are being suppressed — simply because the ideological state apparatus surrounding them since birth are doing so well in informing them that the true quality of a human being cannot be anything else but tolerance. A collective fight against this notion of, what Gramsci calls, “hegemony” may have been the root cause of the rise of the flamboyant, or the idea that if you are absolutely confidence about what you are doing, then you must be exuberant about it to save the society as a whole.

There you have it. I have laid out the structure of my argument. Being “intentionally modest” is dishonesty. I will later show how it could backfire.

My feeling is that, as, and let me modestly take the opportunity return to the passage written by, the philosopher Karl Popper has to say about the notion of tolerance above, if we allow these people who think they are good (when they might, or might not be as good as they think they are) be the only group of people who attract attention because of their exuberant confidence without the actual content, then we will live in the overly fabricated world focusing on the beautiful form, rather than the moral content, that they create.

That is to say, if we’re all being modest, the immodest (of the flamboyant) will win; and therefore we will all be living in the flamboyant world full of artificial contents that they create primarily for themselves, which doesn’t sound like a good community to be a member of, no matter which angle you are looking at it from.

That said, of course, I like it when people are being modest, because I like it when people are leaving ample room for the possibility that they might not be absolutely right about something. We have a term for that — it’s fallibilism, which the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes it rather succinctly as “the recognition that we may be mistaken, even when we have looked carefully at the evidence and applied our highest mental capacities.” I, indeed, have my own definition: fallibilism is what open-mindedness and skepticism have in common. Being modest, in this sense, is to be intelligent. This, I think, goes better with what Confucius says about being able to learn something from anyone at all that life makes you encounter — or, in Confucius’ beautiful words, “when walking in the company of three, there must be one from whom I can learn (san ren xing bi you wo shi).” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I even go as far as to say that we must take all of these three people as our teachers, because even those who don’t have anything to teach us can teach us “how not to be teachers.” So, we can learn from anyone and everyone. Life should not be about having a life and arriving at death, but about the constant process of learning. In this sense, being modest is being honest about the fact that there could be so many things that we could learn about, and from so many people from whom we could acquire the new knowledge. I’d like to call this kind of modesty “unintentional modesty.”

In this case, being aware of the fact that you may be wrong is virtue, which could save yourself from embarrassment, and could have potential to save lives. One can call it modesty or fallibilism. Names don’t really matter. For example, I have a colleague who is absolutely flamboyant about what he thinks he knows. To be fair to him, from his direct experience, he may be capable of knowing a few descriptions of a few things. Unfortunately, because he was born with a natural ethnic attribute that works to his advantage in the country that such attribute is seen as unique and powerful (i.e., being a white male in China), he has been asked to comment, present, and provide ideas on things, problems, issues, beyond the immediate realm of descriptions of those few things that he may have the capacity to know. Most people won’t have the courage to comment, let alone present and provide ideas on things and problems outside their immediate realm of knowledge, not because one is being modest, but because one doesn’t really know. But he does not. It may be the fact that he is not a modest person that makes him feel as if he could conveniently extent his capacity to prognosticate results, or it may simply be that he, simply, simplemindedly takes those invitations to do things beyond his immediate capacity (to do justice to them) at face value, hence making himself believe that he himself must have been “good enough.” What happens next is that, on the one hand, in the eyes to the unintelligent, he is the knowledgeable because he has the courage to say things he does not know for sure. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t have the capacity to learn. It seems to be that there is something that is preventing him from accepting the possibility that maybe — just maybe — what he knows isn’t the absolute truth of the world. Sound familiar? Yes, he can’t make sense of fallibilism. On the other hand, in the eyes to the intelligent, he is just a fool. What is worse, between him being worshiped by a bunch of fool simply because he has the courage to say things he doesn’t know, or he being a fool in the eyes of smart people? I think they’re both bad, but I would rather want the damage caused by him to be limited to him being perceived as a fool in the society of intelligent people. Can you imagine this kind of person becoming a teacher? This guy, through his immodest immodesty, would spread his stupidity among his students, and his students, who, by definition, are those “who study” (therefore may largely not be as critical or intolerable to the nonsensical arguments) would probably believe him). What would this society be like?

So, if we happen to know that someone doesn’t know what he is talking about, speak up! Every time you remain silent, this guy — an “intentionally modest” person — wins. Please, folks, don’t let them win. Be bold when we have to. This is the only way to safeguard our society.

I always tell people this — that I am not a modest person, and that sometimes I even think being modest is a crime (maybe from now I should tell them instead that I am an “unintentionally modest” person). Yet, it seems to be the case that many still see me as “being intentionally modest,” especially when I say to them “I am not that good” (if in Chinese it’s usually in the form of nali nali, or, literally, “where where”), or “I was just lucky,” and so on. Am I just being modest in those situations?

The answer is a qualified no. Honesty, not modesty, is my operating system — as well as golden rule since I also want people to be honest with me — therefore I don’t say things just because I know others want to hear, or just to please people’s ears. Under honesty, my sub-operating system is fallibilism, so I always try to leave as much room as possible for the possibility that I might be wrong, that I might be seeing the situation from only one angle, and that I might be able to benefit from doubting what I know rather than believing in what I know.

As my Justin Amoafo has beautifully pointed out,

As my student Justin Amoafo has beautifully pointed out, “Confidence is consciousness personified. However a lot of people mistake ignorance for a bad thing, so they’re always eager to seem like they know more than they do.” This conversation above (not with Justin, of course) is an excellent example of how a good and intentional modesty could easily turn into a blatant (and annoying) immodesty in seconds, simply because one isn’t honest about his or her modesty, and only want to be modest just to receive praises from the people around him. In this example, the person whose speech balloon is on the left insincerely played the modesty card. The person whose speech balloon is on the right did not know that; so, since he believes he should do what a good friend should do to one another, which is to save one another from embarrassment by telling the person on the left what he could improve. The person on the right then tries his best to be neutral and objective, so that he won’t hurt the feeling of the person on the left, by telling the person on the left that maybe, just maybe, the person on the left could make his talk more interesting by talking less about the descriptive facts which often makes his speech boring and uninteresting, and spending more time developing the key argument on something else that would show the person on the left’s passion on the subject. Turns out, since the person on the left is dishonest about his display of modesty from the start, he unfortunately take it the wrong way.

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One thought on “Day 31: Why Modesty is Bad for the Society

  1. Pingback: Day 55: On Writing Well | 100 days of writing

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