Thursday, December 22, 2011

Modesty and ambition

Hugo Schwyzer, a writer and teacher from California, recently resigned from the web site "Good Men Project". He gave as his reason a conflict between his support of  liberal feminism and what he perceived as a growing hostility to feminist ideas in the project. In particular, he cited the refusal of the site to publish a comment he had written on a specific dispute between the site founder and a number of women.

While I believe Hugo has told the truth about the specific reason he left the "Good Men Project", I perceive an underlying problem in his relationship with the project. Hugo has never hesitated to reveal himself on the Internet: I find his courage admirable even when the extent of his extroversion leaves me uncomfortable. He has frequently written of his belief in twelve step culture, with its emphasis on taking things one day at a time, sometimes on simply doing one right thing at a time. I respect Hugo's embrace of ethical modesty, particularly when it restrains the grand gestures that his writing suggests come naturally to him.

Since I can think of few ambitions more sweeping than an attempt to define the "good" for the three and a half billion men and boys on this planet, it seems to me, in hindsight, that Hugo's attraction to this project would  clash with a more modest ambition. In the event, Hugo made the right choice in leaving the Good Men Project to protect his integrity.

I believe that we underestimate the value of modesty. Looking at the collective achievements of our civilization, we forget too easily what small steps led us to our current position, how far we have to go. We find it too easy to avoid considering the tenuous nature of our position, or even the possibility we seriously overrate what we have accomplished. When choosing between integrity and ambition, even the ambition to achieve on behalf of other people, it makes sense to choose integrity.

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