Sunday, May 1, 2011

Braggin' and Boastin', Boastin' and Braggin': the ethics of tooting your own horn

If you know Black Socrates personally, you know that I'm playfully arrogant. If you ask me what I've been working on lately (in philosophy), I'll likely respond, "Something great" or "A paper that will change the way everyone thinks about [whatever topic I'm on that week]."

At the more grimy Pittsburgh dives, I've been known to declare "Clearly, we can never come here again" and "We can't live our lives like this, "and "These are not our people."

Sometimes I just let boastful statements slip out. (I won't give examples, you'd think less of me). But, generally, I'm okay with the way I am. I brag a lot, but in a self-conscious and playful way (well, most of the time).

I appreciate others who do the same (and, who can back it up, of course). I love Kanye's attitude, at times. His verse on the "Ego" remix is great. Check it:

But, as you may suspect, my way of being is often met with resistance.

My friends held a mini intervention for me on the beach in Miami (spring break, '99):

"Brandon, we know you best. You're very, very arrogant." I resisted, but was convinced after they offered multiple pieces of evidence to back up their claim.

The clearest statement of resistance has come from two of my classmates at Pitt. Here's a paraphrase of their position:

"People who are really good don't brag. The truly talented (or cool) don't need to talk themselves up, they just let their actions (or style, or work) do all of the talking. People will notice your talent if you just keep doing what you're doing. No need to brag."

The first claim is just false. There are plenty examples of talented people who brag: Muhammad Ali, Kanye, Kobe.

The second, questionable. Sometimes people take notice of talent. Sometimes not. There are plenty of talented artists, athletes and academics who are slept on. It seems that one needs to do more than just produce good work (or perform well) to garner recognition. Clearly, I think it's perfectly acceptable to talk oneself up to avoid being slept on.

My question is this: If you've got the skills, what's wrong with being arrogant (playfully or not)?

Sure, people are often put off by arrogance (by boastin'and braggin') but we can't conclude that there's something wrong with being arrogant from the fact that people are often put off by arrogance.

Am I missing something?


  1. Personally, I brag quite often, though in a rather subtle manner. As if to suggest "this is what I'm doing, this is why it's dope, take it for what you will." There is nothing wrong with this that I see. Everyone needs to have a level of confidence to be proud of what they do.

    The only issue that I see in comes when the person allows the arrogance to consume them. I've known people who would shun the idea of someone having talent at (x) if they also had talent in (x) or couldn't accept when they were wrong. When boasting leads to blind self-praise for everything that you do, it becomes problematic.

    Now, I can see where people may disagree with boasting based on fundamental religious beliefs, such as Daoism, Buddhism, etc. which stress humility. Probably best noted by the infamous verse eight in the Tao Te Ching which cautions followers to be like water..and be humble; this humility doesn't allow for one to be boastful. However, contrary to my Daoist leanings, I disagree and say that a clear way to peace is through knowledge of self-worth and comfort in ones position. Having the ability to boast while also having the ability to respect others. For me, boasting is largely a give and take type of thing...

  2. I love this blog. I also love the name. Good job sir! I don't think I'm arrogant, but when people start talking **** about philosophy as if they understand it or are quick to dismiss it, i always say:"When you can get an article published in a leading academic journal in philosophy, I will listen to your view." Of course, being published clearly delineates, in my mind, those who are talking **** on our discipline and those who take it seriously. I suppose also who's signing your check. To sum up, who's a philosopher and who's not just gets my goat. Sorry to rant.

  3. Brother,
    Excellent blog! I don't brag. I am one that subscribes to the belief that if you stay the course, you get recognized. However, since it hasn't happened yet...maybe I should reconsider my approach.

  4. Makes sense... Except that what you may be missing is that boasting and bragging can also overshadow talent. People then talk about attitude & arrogance as opposed to skills & whatnot. People might also wonder whether the boasting & bragging come from insecurity. The playfulness, though, is one way to keep it real.

  5. There are certainly situations in which someone needs to stand their ground and affirm their own abilities in the face of a challenge to their character, but I don't think we ordinarily call this boasting or bragging. We would call it standing up for yourself, a form of courage. It's also usually true that in these situations, just talking about what you can do is not enough; you need to really demonstrate it, so focusing on talking about yourself is a distraction. Boasting or bragging is something spontaneous, then, and not a response to a real challenge in the environment. It is always unnecessary when there is no actual challenge to a person's goodness. The fact that the individual is thus providing an answer to a challenge when there is no real one implies that the person is worried about the possibility of being challenged generally and thus insecure. Cases of boasting that aren't actually cases of standing up for yourself are thus signs of a weak, fearful character.

    There are generally two forms that singing one's own praises spontaneously can take: either the boast explicitly places a person over others, or it merely sings the praises of one's own abilities. I think that both of these activities always have a detrimental, weakening character for the boaster. If someone spontaneously revels in the fact that they are better than other people, they have placed what is valuable about themselves as something relative to other people and not something valuable about their own actions, projects, talents, etc. If someone spontaneously revels in the fact that their own talents are tremendous and valuable, they run the risk of being overly satisfied with themselves. This can even be dangerous if the boaster overestimates their abilities and puts themself into a dangerous situation without properly assessing it, a case of hubris. In short, the boaster is left looking like either an asshole or overly masturbatory and self-satisfied. Neither of these conditions are good ones.

    With respect to rap examples, I think it's possible that there is a serious misunderstanding about rap music leading to unfair charges against the genre qua genre that results from not paying attention to this distinction between boasting and standing up for yourself. One of the core activities of rappers in the early days (I'm not super knowledgeable about this but I always had this impression) was challenging other rappers and their abilities. Through the mutual challenge of competition, both rappers improved their lyrical abilities. So, the activities that appear like boasting aren't really boasting, they are standing up for one's own abilities in the face of a real challenge by another person. However, insofar as creating these responses has been severed from actual challenges in the rap genre, rappers have become mere self-satisfied hollow boasters, an impression that many people are left with with respect to many (if not all) contemporary popular rap artists. They're tooting their own horns when nobody gave enough of a shit to challenge them in the first place.

    And of course, all of this only applies to real cases of seriously standing up for yourself or seriously boasting respectively. Playful boasting is something else entirely, something that maybe helps people bond and share in a celebratory way the things they find good about themselves, or that can lead to real challenges and mutually beneficial competitions between people. It's a way of socially reflecting good self-esteem. Once it's taken seriously outside of real contexts of potential challenges to engage with, you've left the realm of strong character.

  6. General I hold with national stereotypes but I'm British and I don't brag, its seen as very bad think this side of the pond.

  7. Adam, I love your comment.
    Sister, I think you should at least brag to yourself.
    Jason, I're still hashing this thing out. Thanks for the good conversation.

  8. What Jason said. Word. for. word.

    I mean, think of it this way: in what sense would arrogance ever show up as an intellectual virtue (let alone bragging)? Courage does, as Jason says. Desire for the true does. But how and where would arrogance fit into the picture, exactly? As Black Socrates, I'm sure it's old news to you that what's true doesn't owe its truth-value to you. :-)

    This said, I think it's fine to fuss to your friends abt how people can think stuff that's so plainly dumb. Also fine to celebrate your achievements with your friends.

  9. A question:

    What's the difference between being arrogant, overly-confident and rightly confident, yet a jerk?

    Perhaps I run these concepts together, but I want to be an advocate for the last on the list.