Hubris. noun. Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance (American Heritage Dictionary).
A few months ago, when the same-sex marriage issue was making the front-page news every day, I drove past a restaurant sign near my home in Durham, North Carolina. I was immediately struck by it, drove home to grab my camera, and headed back for this picture.
My thoughts as I raced to document the sign were that this restauranteur must be a conservative making a statement about the unacceptability of homosexuality. But I had that restauranteur in my sights! After all, the same Old Testament chapter condemning gay sex also condemns the eating of shellfish! This was going to be great, I thought: hypocrite central!. Man, what a great way this would be to make a point.
After I drove back home with the picture, reality intruded thanks to an e-mail from a friend. The classic verse I had been thinking of that condemns homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22-23; its companion condemning the eating of shellfish is Leviticus 11:12. I knew this already: I've written about that very verse. But my muckraking eyes, glancing over an opportunity, didn't see that it was Deuteronomy, not Leviticus, that was featured on the Dillard's sign. Deuteronomy 8:3, it turns out, is about something entirely different:
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
So in actuality, the proprietor of Dillard's was welcoming people to the restaurant to eat, but reminding them to be religious, too. I'm not religious in any aspect myself and so I wouldn't follow his or her advice. However, what the proprietor was doing was noteworthy in a way: diminishing his or her own mission of giving food and asking visitors to think of something else as more important.
I'd become very quickly convinced that the people at Dillard's were showcasing their incredible and offensive hubris. But then it became clear that the Dillard's message was actually self-effacing, while I was showcasing my own hubris. To arrogantly presume the intentions of others without careful consideration, and to take pride in my false discovery, is the height of hubris. I was guilty of the very thing I was looking for in others. I'm glad this one got caught in time, but it almost wasn't.
The moral of this story is clearly not what I thought it was going to be. Instead of charging forward with righteous indignation to highlight the failings of others, I found a failing in myself -- the very tendency that has led crusaders like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the gang to charge into disastrous quagmires. This experience not only affirms for me the wrongness of the Bush approach to assume rectitude and charge blindly forward. It also has been an important reminder that I am just as capable of getting it, wildly, horridly, arrogantly wrong.
Don't get me wrong: I still believe speaking truth to power is important. It's just that speaking bullshit to power is counterproductive and highly embarrassing to boot. How can I avoid wielding this sort of hubristic sword in the future? The best way I can think of is to do what the Bush Administration won't: to relentlessly examine myself, my assumptions, and my motives before getting out there in public and pushing my cookie. A more practical form of atonement sufficed in this case: I visited the restaurant and bought a meal myself. If you're in Durham sometime, give Dillard's a try. The hush puppies are especially delicious.
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