Theory: Self-Limitation Via Fear of Appearing Pretentious

In today's culture, many things that we do not know how to appreciate, but deem unworthy of our preciously busy time is pretentious. We proclaim pretentious that which makes us doubt our intelligence. And yet what is humanity if not the epitome of pretentiousness? If you let this question simmer a little you may come to the realization that to be deemed pretentious is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very good sort of critique. Now, try eavesdropping on conversations or pay more attention to your own. You will immediately notice how much we tend to inflate the "I." If I should ask, how are you today? You may tell me that you woke up and went for a good run, then had an amazing breakfast. Now if I should respond that your answer is pretentious, you might find my comment surprisingly unfair. But is not the belief that "we do things," pretentious? How can you say "you woke up" as if you had the means to do so? As if you could have decided to die rather than wake from unconsciousness, and you are alive chiefly by your own will. Of course, that is probably not what you meant, but it is implied all the same. You imply being in possession of agency you lack. Hence to appear pretentious is not always intentional.

That one has the ability to achieve things, and has healthy expectations of themselves owes much to our pretentious nature. Of late, though, the word is not only overused, but usually misinterpreted. It does not often translate as a grandiose presentation of something that is less so. For instance, should the flesh between the toes consider itself more useful than the ears, it would be putting on airs. But should it present itself in such a way that remind us that we give it very little attention, despite it being of significance, we may be encouraged to part our toes and study with more interest the flesh between. And this is not at all pretentious on the part of the flesh between toes. We tend to shut up quickly when we are accused of putting on airs. We are, after all, social animals, and we love to be liked, especially by those we like. We really just need so badly to fit in. Fit into what, you ask? Good question. I too am trying to figure out exactly what it is we so badly need to fit into. And why we feel we do not even fit in, and must alter ourselves by pruning and cutting off limbs into becoming something quite ugly just so we would not appear odd. You do not see the flesh between the toes trying to look like the back of the ears so it would fit in, do you? And you may wonder what the point of having a brain is if one cannot use it, and must only try very hard to be a very good sort of parrot; even though one is obviously not a bird. What I am saying is that mediocrity does not suit anyone. And anyone who seems to need you to retrograde in order to find you fitting company is the sort of person you actually must treat with a healthy dose of pretentiousness until they start to pretend their eyes lack the ability to decipher your form. This will give you more room to explore your foolish attraction to seemingly complex thoughts and unconventional theories and draw you to "pretentious" others who you can learn something from and who would not find your theories intimidating, but quite ordinary in a remarkable sort of way.

Wouldn't you say one of the most significant aspect of communication is to learn? And that this learning opportunity made available to us through translating our thoughts and feelings is beneficial to all? Many times the speaker learns more of their own mind in efforts to express themselves to
others. And many times the listener learns, not only of the speaker, but of themselves because they perceive the speaker through their own unique understanding of their environment. Everyone we engage with is like a mirror through which we look into for our reflection. Thus communication is a way of trying to get a better sense of who we are through the state of other minds. However we often judge a good mirror to be that which flatters, that is, a good conversation is that which shows us our own brilliance, while a bad one make us feel foolish. And it is easier to demean anything or anyone that makes us feel inadequate rather than ask why. What is the point of always looking in a mirror that without fail gives you the exact reflection you already know so well? Wouldn't it be more adventurous and beneficial to seek out other mirrors which give you different perceptions? Albeit frightening, surely  you are rewarded with a better sense of yourself than would have been achieved through a singular view? Here is another example, you listen to someone who uses too many words that are unfamiliar to you, but instead of asking them what their words mean, or noting down the words to learn their meaning in your own time, you decide that this person is very pompous. You stop listening to them or you pretend to understand what you cannot comprehend and therefore learn nothing. But perhaps it is the people whom we find different but interesting and inspiring that we should try drawing our chairs closer to. They know things we do not know and can thus teach us other ways of examining our reflections, and that of others in ourselves. Even if one is right that another is pompous, an individual is not just a single identity. Some pretend arrogance to hide extreme low self-esteem.

There was this acquaintance I made not so long ago whose company I enjoyed very much. He had a way of almost beginning every interesting opinion, or referring to an inspiring habit with the phrase "Not to be pretentious but..." One day he was telling me about something he had read from Foucault, who happens to be one of the reasons I kick myself for still not knowing how to read French. And in my excitement I exclaimed that it was so cool that he had read him. But I think he doubted the genuineness of my sentiment. Perhaps he had thought me sarcastic, because he immediately apologized. He said he was not trying to be pretentious but he had been made to read the philosopher at school. I was taken aback. I tried to explain to him that to have learned something, and to be able to share this knowledge is not pretentious. It is humility, a necessary ingredient in  humanity. To bring to a conversation interesting content that stimulates is not something one ought to be ashamed of, or feel they have to take back after having let out of bag. It is ridiculous that one is not accused of being pretentious when one pretends to lack the ability to think for themselves in order to be liked. Why would anyone want to gain friendship by feigning a degradation of self? Why are we now in the habit of thinking that it is of any merit to ridicule everything that make us feel foolish? When to feel foolish often only means that we are in the presence of novelty––something unfamiliar, unexperienced.  Based on what this acquaintance said, it seems that in this day and age to be called pretentious is to have bothered to read other minds and reference them in your methods of communication. To be pretentious then does not necessarily mean shallowness, for narcism is now exhibited as humility and pretentiousness is not. I mean do think of the word pretentious and do tell me that artists and intellectuals do not often come to mind. Oh let's not forget those poor hipsters in their rodent infested little apartments, who refuse to travel "traditional paths," and live "real" lives: lazy pretentious bastards.

Here is something you might want to try: next time someone defines your words or actions as grandiose do not stop talking, or jump into defense mode. Please take it as a learning opportunity and kindly ask this critic, as sweetly as you can without giving diabetes, what they mean by their comment. Show a genuine interest in their point of view so they do not feel like they are being mocked or attacked. This should keep the conversation going. You may learn more on what they think of your perspective and may even find out that they do not actually mean to say you are just mere flesh between toes putting on the airs of flesh behind ears. And if their proclamation is based on a false foundation, perhaps they may find themselves out, and next time they think to use the word they may actually use it correctly. As Ethen Hawke says in a video for LIFE (see below), "you're only pretentious if you can't laugh."

---
Jane


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