This column was updated on Dec. 11, 2014, at 4:39 p.m.
That’s what the Bible says. But until payback comes in the after life, that’s not how it works in the here and now. Because of qualities that often breed arrogance — such as superior intelligence and exceptional talent — the arrogant are often in charge of the rest of us.
But every once in awhile, circumstances force them to acknowledge their insufferable demeanor — and that can be delicious.
Take the recent case of Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor, who attributed the passage of the Affordable Care Act to “the stupidity of the American voter.” His remarks, caught on video, caused a political firestorm as they fed into the narrative of Obamacare opponents that Americans were duped into health care legislation. Called to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week, Gruber ate about as much humble pie as he is capable of consuming, telling lawmakers: “I behaved badly and will have to live with that, but my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act.”
That was followed by the saga of Benjamin Edelman, the Harvard Business School professor, who made a federal case out of a bill from a Chinese restaurant and the $4 discrepancy between what he paid for his food and the prices listed on the website. His underlying argument about the bill has merit. A website should tell a consumer the correct price for a service or product it is advertising. But how he expressed his displeasure — a series of insipid emails that pretentiously cited consumer law and demanded a $12 refund, or triple damages, from the owner of a family-run business — made him look, well, arrogant.
Edelman quickly apologized, saying, “It’s clear that I was out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation.” Perhaps he has truly learned something from the experience.
Nonetheless, humility is the thin line between confidence and arrogance, according to a much-cited quote attributed to an unknown wise person. Self-deprecating humor is one way around the arrogance rap, as demonstrated by President Obama during a recent TV gig, in which he took over for host Stephen Colbert. During the segment, the president joked of himself, “The guy is so arrogant, I’ll bet he talks about himself in the third person.”
Minus the humor, crossing the line between confidence and arrogance is a dangerous place to be in the Internet age. When your contempt for others is so obvious, and it is captured in an email chain or YouTube video, there’s an opportunity for those on the other side of your disdain to strike back.
In Gruber’s case, he had to endure the likes of Republican Congressman Darrell Issa asking him, “Are you stupid?” In Edelman’s case, the media has had a field day circulating the embarrassing email. There was a special karma in Edelman’s discomfort since his research specialty is “fixing the Internet.”
Edelman’s Harvard affiliation added to the delight of bashers, but the Ivy League doesn’t have a lock on arrogance. In a recent interview, Texas Gov. Rick Perry blamed his infamous “oops” moment during the 2012 Republican primary on the arrogance that came with believing he could jump into a presidential campaign without proper preparation. Although in Perry’s case, that acknowledgement may add up to more of a humble brag.
Yet if there’s a line between confidence and arrogance, there’s also a line between chuckling over the squirming of a Gruber or Edelman and reveling in it just a little too much.
A healthy ego goes along with great accomplishment. As the famous philosopher John Lennon once said, “If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do, and in my art and music, then in that respect you can call me that. I believe in what I do, and I’ll say it.”
If people like Gruber and Edelman think they are smarter than everyone else, it’s because they are. Acting that way, however, has its consequences.
• Meet the Harvard professor behind the Chinese-food dispute
• Joan Vennochi: ‘Stupidity’ comments create new problems for ACA
• What happens if you sue a restaurant over $4?
• Harvard professor apologizes over Chinese-food fight
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.