On Pride

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

I am writing this post on Australia Day. On January 26, 1788, the First Fleet landed on the coast of New South Wales, and raised a British flag on the banks of what is now Sydney harbour. This date has been chosen to mark the birth of Australia as a nation. While crowds are blocking off Swanston Street for a commemorative march, others are protesting what they call ‘Invasion day’.

There is a close connection between pride and nationalism. Pride is an inflated sense of self, a deluded belief in our own importance – and typically takes the form of a carefully curated public image. Enter nationalism, and its two-step process of delusional storytelling. First, select a few figures among the large crowds of our collective past, and establish them as exclusive ancestors. Then, loudly celebrate their glorious achievements, keeping any contribution from others hidden in the shadows of history, while any crime is carefully brushed under the carpet of oblivion.

As a gay man, I am staunchly aware of collective pride and its appeal. Every year, we celebrate the resistance of gay patrons to police intrusions at the Stonewall bar in New York, 49 years ago. Collective gaymory made those people our ancestors. ‘Pride March’ commemorates their courage, from which our current freedom was born. In my time, I proudly marched along the streets of Paris, dancing to techno music with a joyful crowd, celebrating identity. There is, however, danger in this sense of pride – forgetting the plight of those still suffer from oppression today – other genders, other cultures, other ages even – and are easily swept under the carpet of gaystory.

Television – the news particularly – gives our nationalist pride its daily feed through selective reporting. Last week-end, I was in Hobart. At breakfast, large screens were playing the morning show, reporting on the tennis in Melbourne, fires in New South Wales, and an accident in Queensland. Nothing of local interest, nothing about the broader world, but Australia, beautiful Australia, featured exclusively.

Walking to the harbour, I passed a number of monuments erected in St David’s park, bearing the names of early settlers, explorers, governors. Those stone carvings are intended to shape collective memory, and proudly defy death. Soon, however, the vaults of the MONA museum demonstrated their laughable vanity. Mummies, human bodies preserved in white bandages for eternity, now an object of distant curiosity. A gruesome arrangement of twenty-seven taxidermied kittens playing croquet and drinking tea, in derisive imitation of advanced civilization. A room covered in blank books, mocking our attempts at survival through words. A machine reproducing the digestive system: plastic vats filled with bacteria, producing shit on schedule, reminder that our existence depends on those very basic lifeforms, that make up most of our body-weight.

If pride is excessive self-importance, then professional life is a dangerous field. Exposed are entrepreneurs: the fight for attention from clients and funding bodies demand that they put their best profile forward, always, in pitching situations. Yet the most vulnerable may be ‘wannapreneurs’, as I once heard them labelled, who proudly discuss their ideas for a new venture among their supporters, but never learn humility from the resistance of the real that comes with any genuine attempt at making ideas concrete. More broadly, job seekers are dangerously exposed, at least in Australia: when I first arrived, I thought I would never work here, since every job required ‘outstanding communication skills’. I later understood that this actually meant ‘can write an email’. Pride, or at least its verbal demonstration, seems to be the condition for entrance into the contemporary world of work.

Professional pride can take many forms. One is neglecting details, because ‘I’m a big picture person’, and my time is better spent on lofty visions. One is the pride of the magician, that if we say the right words in the right tone at the right time, the laws of nature will bend to our will. One is manic activity, because the world would stop turning without me. One, more insidious, is a stern attachment to personal reputation, whereby we throw colleagues and partners under the bus at the first occasion to preserve our integrity, no matter what the consequences may be for the collective.

Pride is based on a lie, that I am indeed part of a team, a network, a collective, an ecosystem – but there is something unique to me which makes my absolute value relatively superior to that of others. Pride, therefore, dangerously erodes confidence. The proud person cannot be trusted. Their flawed perception requires effort in all interactions: not only must the situation be managed, but also their inflated ego. Pride unravels the complex web of collective life, until nothing but loose threads of humanity are left adrift on an ocean of sterile chaos.

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