Hubris is an interesting concept. From the Greeks to the present day, stories abound which focus on characters whose downfalls are associated with large doses of hubris. Consider the common definitions of hubris (overweening pride, arrogance, an excess of ambition) and its most common synonyms (arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, high-handedness, lordliness, self-importance, vanity) and you quickly get the idea that hubris is an extreme character flaw.
The Philosophy Dictionary provides a bit more insight: “The general connotation of the pride that goes before a fall is a later and partially Christian reinterpretation of the classical concept. In Aristotle (Rhetoric 1378b 23-30) hubris is gratuitous insolence: the deliberate infliction of shame and dishonor on someone else, not by way of revenge, but in the mistaken belief that one thereby shows oneself superior. Tragedy is not therefore the punishment of hubris, since tragedy concerns unjust suffering, whereas hubris deprives the agent of sympathy from the outset.”
What set me off on this tack was an editorial and a news story published recently in the Tufts Daily. While neither uses the term, in reading both, that’s what immediately popped into my head. The headline of the editorial, “Guarding a reputation, but sacrificing principles,” led me there first.
I encourage you to read both pieces in their entirety but let me draw your attention to a couple of highlights to show you how I came to hubris.
“The university wrongly manipulated the U.S. legal system for its own personal benefit. Our laws should not be used as a means of blackmail; their purpose is to keep law and order. Suing Zimmerman was a way for the university to strong-arm him into giving up his identity and submitting himself to university punishment — a wrongful and overly suppressive step in and of itself.”
“Not only did Butler overstep in restraining the free speech of one of its students; it abused the judicial system and tarnished its own reputation in the process.”
Reading these two pieces made me think back to the language the university attorney, supposedly writing on behalf of the university president, used all summer long. He repeatedly mentioned Butler “having to teach me a lesson.” Although the public discourse, once the Butler community and the world beyond the Butler bubble found the institution’s actions to be reprehensible, quickly shifted to rhetoric designed to lure people into believing that Butler’s actions were crafted to protect the physical safety and welfare of the community from someone so deranged that he would criticize administrative actions, that’s not where this all started.
No, the last sentence from the Philosophy Dictionary’s definition of hubris, “the deliberate infliction of shame and dishonor on someone else, not by way of revenge, but in the mistaken belief that one thereby shows oneself superior,” brings all of this together for me. Certainly the institution was attempting to cast “shame and dishonor” on me by claiming I used racial and sexual epithets when I didn’t, or by preposterously implying that my criticisms should be viewed as physical threats. And many others have pointed out that the Butler administration is populated with incredibly insecure administrators who believe that tearing others down “shows oneself superior.”
In reading about the topic, I’ve come to realize that unbridled hubris so clouds vision that what others can plainly see is masked in a mist of self righteousness. This insight has been of great value to me because it helps me understand why the Butler administration’s actions have been so consistently in opposition to those expressed by so many people, newspapers and organizations around the world. Please understand that I’m not saying that I’m right and Butler is wrong. Rather, because my position has been supported so widely, across the full political spectrum, it previously made no sense to me that Butler felt compelled to act in a way that was viewed as so extreme by so many. I now understand where hubris can take someone.
Beyond the damage this has done to me, what’s most sad about unbridled hubris in leaders is that the institutions they’re responsible for also suffer. As the Tufts editorial, like a raft of others before it, demonstrates, in their attempt to demonstrate their superiority, Butler administrators have sacrificed the reputation of the very institution they had a responsibility to protect.
And, saddest of all, to this very moment, there’s no evidence that they’ve even noticed.