June 6, 2011 | 36
The Oxford English Dictionary (hereon "OED", for simplicity’s sake) offers several alternative definitions for the term pride. Almost none of them are positive. For present purposes, let’s skip the more obscure leonine variant—and in fact, a "pride of lions" may actually have its etymological roots in the symbolic representation of this animal during the Middle Ages for the biblical sin—and instead turn our attention to the rather slippery semantic aspects, since there’s a lot encapsulated by this peculiarly bipolar word. I’m inspired to engage in this linguistic activity because the annual "Pride Week" for us gays and lesbians is soon at hand, and I’m particularly interested in knowing what it is, exactly, that I’m supposed to be proud of.
In the following two OED definitions, for example, pride is portrayed as being inherently antisocial, a very, very bad thing:
pride n. A high, esp. an excessively high, opinion of one’s own worth or importance which gives rise to a feeling or attitude of superiority over others; inordinate self-esteem.
pride , n. Arrogant, haughty, or overbearing behaviour, demeanour, or treatment of others, esp. as exhibiting an inordinately high opinion of oneself.
These definitions clearly sit astride religious notions of pride being one of the Seven Deadly Sins . To many Christians, pride is the worst sin of all because placing oneself above others conflicts with spiritual egalitarianism. From a scientific perspective, at least, we can safely dismiss the God-hewn conjectures of pride being essentially evil, since there is no evil in essence, and there almost certainly is no God . Now, if embracing "gay pride" were done simply for the slap-in-the-face-to-religion effect, I’d be all for it. Yet unfortunately—and to my continued bewilderment—there are many gay people who are religious, so this account doesn’t seem to hold much water. And of course, atheists, too, tend to dislike those with "an inordinately high opinion" of themselves.
In fact, a team of University of British Columbia psychologists led by Jessica Tracy would note that the foregoing definitions of pride are actually referring to a particularly ancient, evolutionarily derived subtype, which they refer to as hubristic pride. Tracy and her colleagues have argued that hubristic pride evolved to promote and sustain dominance, with the emotional engines of conceit and arrogance motivating individuals to scale the social hierarchy, which translates to genetic fitness. Laboratory participants induced to feel hubristic pride display increased aggression, hostility, and manipulation—all tactics of a tooth-and-nail pathway to social dominance that is based primarily on fear rather than respect. It’s not terribly surprising, in this light, that individuals who are more prone to exhibiting hubristic pride tend also to be more disagreeable, neurotic, narcissistic, are less conscientious and have a history of poor relationships and mental health problems.
So when it comes to the expression "gay pride," hubristic pride doesn’t seem to be implied. I’ve no doubt that some gays and lesbians probably do believe, for some odd postmodernist reason or another, that they are inherently superior to straights. But gay or straight, anyone who actually believes that social status can be calculated on the basis of what their genitals unconsciously respond to should be dismissed just as swiftly as those who believe that God has a sore spot for pride. In any event, for the most part, hubristic pride appears to be the emotional antithesis of the feelings meant to inspire gay individuals during Pride Week. After all, these are people that have been "culturally victimized" by an overwhelmingly oppressive heterosexist society, one that has systematically devalued and derided them as deviants for as long as they can remember. Developing in such a society is emotionally crippling and poisonous to one’s self-esteem; it’s not exactly a recipe for creating hubris and an inflated ego.
I wonder, then, if perhaps there’s another OED definition that better reflects the true spirit of "gay pride." Perhaps one of these, for example:
pride , n. The feeling of satisfaction, pleasure, or elation derived from some action, ability, possession, etc., which one believes does one credit. Chiefly in to take (a) pride in.
pride , n. A person of whom, or thing of which, any person or group of people is proud; that which causes a feeling of pride in its possessor; (hence) the foremost, best, or most distinguished of a class, country, etc. In pride and joy: a cherished person or thing.
Interestingly, these alternative definitions map onto another evolutionarily derived subtype of pride as identified by Tracy, one that she refers to as authentic pride. Unlike hubristic pride, which is associated with conceit and arrogance, authentic pride is fueled by feelings of confidence, accomplishment and success. It’s basically the "good type" of pride and is correlated positively with socially desirable personality dimensions, such as extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and high self-esteem. While hubristic pride motivates biologically adaptive, but often socially discouraged, tactics of aggressive self-promoting in achieving dominance, and this may work particularly well for those who would otherwise be seen as replaceable, authentic pride offers a gentler, friendlier route to this very same social success. In an article last year in Evolution and Human Behavior, psychologist Joey Cheng, along with Tracy and Joseph Henrich, speculated about the adaptive function of authentic pride. As opposed to the dominance-scaling purpose of hubristic pride:
…the subjective feelings of confidence and accomplishment that occur in authentic pride experiences may provide the mental preparedness for attaining prestige; these feelings may also serve as a psychological reinforcement for socially valued achievements, given that authentic pride arises from accomplishments attributed to unstable, controllable behaviors, such as effort and hard work. [Italics added.]
I’ve called out the final section of this description in italics because—at least according to these authors—such prestige-based, authentic pride emotions are the product of doing rather than simply being . In other words, a useful way to understand the difference between these two subtypes of pride, as reflected in both the dictionary definitions and the evolutionary psychologists’ classifications, is that the first type is undeserving (that someone feels better than others "just because," a belief in essential entitlement) and the second type is deserving (that someone feels valued by others because they have done something that merits the positive attention of society).
Now, as far as I know, I haven’t done anything—at least deliberately so—to render my brain attracted to penises instead of vaginas. So "gay pride" under the guise of authentic pride seems just as problematic to me as it does for hubristic pride. We can’t have it both ways. Either we elect to see ourselves as being "born this way" and not of our own making, which would limit our sense of pride to the hubristic subtype ("I’m better than you because I’m gay"), or we must submit to the intellectually impaired among us and contend that we’ve chosen this “lifestyle” for some commendable reason. Otherwise, pride for either being (hubristic pride) or doing (authentic pride) runs into major conceptual problems when it comes to our sexual orientations. I’m no more proud of being gay than I am of being Caucasian, of having type I diabetes, of being 5’7"—okay, in heels—or of having abnormally stocky hands for a man my size. Like being gay, these are simply the unassailable, biologically-based facts about me, and what is, is. I had nothing to do with these things, and I’m not proud of any of them. But, and here’s the real kicker, so listen up, the absence of pride is not shame.
There is, alas, at least one OED definition that perhaps reflects the intended usage of the expression "gay pride" and that seems to resonate with its connotations. It’s this:
pride , n A consciousness of what befits, is due to, or is worthy of oneself or one’s position; self-respect; self-esteem, esp. of a legitimate or healthy kind or degree.
This type of pride is implied when, say, a sick old man refuses to use the bedpan because he’s "too proud," or when we’re forced to "swallow our pride" by apologizing to someone who doesn’t deserve it. In other words, without involving any self-aggrandizing or demanding any particular accomplishment, this feeling occurs when we have an accurate sense of our value in society and our self-esteem matches that estimation.
I can almost get on board with this variation of the term when it’s applied to "gay pride"—I know my gay history, Pride Week’s connections to the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969, I know my value as a human being, and I’ve also had a generous slice of antigay bigotry directed at me—right at my forehead, in fact. Not long ago, for example, some teenagers in a Belfast park threw hotdogs at my partner and me while screaming about "faggots!" and "bathhouses!" I couldn’t quite make it all out through the thick Northern Irish brogue, and my comprehension was probably disrupted by my fear arousal response, but it didn’t sound friendly. (I must say, though, the hotdogs added a rather romantic symbolism to the trauma.) I suppose the only problem that I have with this form of "gay pride"—and it’s substantially less of a concern than the other two forms, I should add—is it rests on the assumption of a largely mythical, collective gay identity. In my everyday life, and unless you bring it up, being gay is about as salient to my self-concept as is my having brown hair or driving a Honda; I don’t feel—wait for the gasps—a particular affinity with other gay people just because they’re gay. I might want to have sex with other gay men, sure. We’ve got that much in common. But anything else, well, there just simply aren’t any shared psychological traits that bring us together in some intrinsic brotherhood.
On the one hand, I understand the need for forging supportive alliances with other gays and lesbians, for exerting change through collaborative, organized effort and by sheer strength in numbers. Such efforts have, in fact, resulted in significant, positive change, and that’s really the only way to get things done in a sociopolitical sense. On the other hand, however, it is so patently obvious that LGBT—for God’s sake, I really do hope that someday that acronym will go away, it conjures up a BLT sandwich in my head every time I use it—anyway, it’s so patently obvious that prejudice on the basis of people’s uncontrollable patterns of genital arousal, just like any other uncontrollable biological verity, such as the color of one’s skin, is a human rights issue. Our very need to even have "gay pride," to celebrate "Pride Week" through main street parades festooned with drag queens, leather daddies, and dykes on bikes, is such a pathetic reflection of what we think we should and shouldn’t be proud of as human beings that I’m afraid I just can’t muster up the requisite "gay pride" to feel this way.
Still, I’ll be on the sidelines watching the floats and all the pretty boys go by, marveling and salivating at the lurid excesses that invigorate the very same stereotypes that we spend the rest of the year fighting against.
Image: David Goehring on Flickr.
About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).