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On hubris and not tolerating abuse

The following is extracted from a recent exchange I had. The identity of my correspondent remains private.


[Prot edit: I am rewording it to be generic] They verbally attacked me. I felt pressured and uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything. I let it pass. They are a nice person. These things happen.

I see. Allow me to expound on the general topic here. I will be addressing you, but please do not take it personally. I only am aware of the fragmentary information you have provided and thus cannot opine on the specifics. Whether what I am about to write applies to your case is for you to decide—I don’t need to know the details.

We tend to have a sense of duty towards people who are close to us: friends, family, a significant other. We feel obliged to stick by their side and are prepared to sacrifice at least part of our comfort to accommodate them. Normally, this is a noble disposition: it is what allows us to overcome our egocentrism and connect with others at a deeper level. However, life teaches us that there is no such thing as a pure good or pure evil in vivo. When something virtuous is done in excess it reaches a point where it becomes vicious. A couple of analogies:

  • We need water to sustain ourselves. Water is life. Water is good. If you drink oodles of it, such as, say, 20 litres per day, it drains you of nutrients: it no longer is beneficial to you.

  • The difference between poison and remedy is one of degree. A pill can address an ache and cure a disease. A bottle of pills will kill you.

The ancients thus advised a life of moderation. Avoid the extremes. Don’t do things in exaggeration. Have a sense of what the balance is. In ancient Greece, these teachings were embedded in artistic representations where the gods would set the limits and humans who would transgress them would be met with odious consequences. The “gods” here are not beings who micromanage our life and are in the lookout ready to punish us for every misdeed. No! They are the artist’s—the culture’s more broadly—way of saying in simple and memorable terms that, as a matter of fact, we operate within context-dependent boundaries and that if we fail to recognise them we will be in trouble.

The Greek word for this kind of reckless behaviour where we go past the limits is “hubris”. We do not need to have a theistic conception of it. We just have to focus on the substantive point, which we observe everywhere in life.

Duty towards others is or can be a virtue. This is a matter of degree: a function of the specifics. Whenever we {over,under}estimate our capacities and/or fail to discern the prevailing conditions that inform our environment, we run the risk of committing hubris. Which means that we will eventually have to face the consequences of our actions, negligence, cockiness, and the like.

In concrete terms, you describe what seems like an isolated event and you dismiss it as a trivial incident. Are you being honest with yourself? Is this really a one-off act that came out of nowhere? It has no precedent and there is no chance it will happen again? What about related acts? Are there other abusive tendencies in effect; tendencies that you prefer to ignore by also rationalising them as trivial?

I don’t expect answers and am not interrogating you. Those are for you to consider in your inner dialogue.

Our duty towards others often manifests as overconfidence in our ability to endure misconduct. We think that we are tough and we can take it. Why do we believe so? Because we want to tell ourselves how resilient we are in order to remain faithful towards those people. Put differently, our sense of responsibility clouds our judgement.

What does “clouds our judgement” entail? That we do not remain open to the truth. Even if there are warning signs we assume them as irrelevant. Be it consciously or not, we do not understand the constitution of the case—the applicable factors in their interplay—and thus have a false representation of what the situation is. Put metaphorically, we will not admit that we are on a collision course with the iceberg in the horizon. Ever heard of the Titanic? Is that not hubris writ large?

Notice how I am writing about themes of overconfidence, of downplaying the significance of certain patterns, and of not admitting (or not willing to admit) the truth. I am hinting at the potential of hubris; a potential we all have.

To press on with the notion of overestimating our endurance. You mentioned how the abusive incident is nothing to worry about. (So why are you even thinking about it and sharing it with me? Are you honest with yourself?) Basically, you expressed the feeling that you are tough enough and will not succumb to such otherwise minor wounds. Let me then remind you of the notion of “death by a thousand cuts”. I do not mean this literally, but employ it as a schematic way of arguing that your methodology is wrong. You are treating the event in isolation and if there is a second occurrence of it, you will still interpret it in its own right, and so on. What your method obscures, what you are not seeing, is the possible pattern of abuse. If you focus too much on the moment, you only ever notice the single cut. Take the time to reflect on the concatenation of phenomena and you may discover that the one cut is part of the thousand.

This brings me to the point of ranking abusive behaviours. Sure, not all of them are equally egregious. Damage can come in many forms and vary in degrees. There are abusive actions that injure you in major and obvious ways and others that are more subtle: the kind of poison that is administered with a gentle touch. These differences matter for the analyst (e.g. a judge or you acting in hindsight), though they mean little for the patient of the actions. When you are on the receiving end of abuse, even a small dose is more than you would like. To that end, we should not fall into the trap of ranking mischief and accepting minor offences against our person.

By rationalising abuse as inconsequential, by beautifying the injurious, we inwardly corrupt our sense of duty towards others and turn it into a form of bondage. No shelter is impervious, no carapace is hard enough. Stop misrepresenting an attack as innocuous.

No person is perfect. We have emotions and may have trouble controlling them. Everyone is allowed a chance to redeem themselves and try once again to do the right thing. Yet nothing is unconditional. We must remain honest with ourselves and recognise the constitution of the case. When certain patterns of behaviour are not reversed, we must forgo our duty to the other person and accept that we also have a responsibility of catering to our own wellness.

There is a reason why we have a sense of selfhood in addition to a sense of togetherness: “the gods”, to use the artist’s medium, decided that we must find a balance between those magnitudes. When we work towards either extreme, we commit hubris.

In conclusion, I used to think like you: that I am strong and that the transgressions of others were trivial. I learnt about my mistake the hard way, i.e. by suffering the consequences. I now know when enough is enough and when “fuck off” is the right reply. True strength lies in the knowledge that your resources are finite—do not waste them. Think about hubris very seriously: do not dismiss it as some ancient superstition.