In the face of difficult questions, the most talented egos use impeccable sleights of language to rebrand their behaviours to seem heroic. This series is dedicated to those rhetorician-magicians.
V: HUMILTY IS AS HUMILTY DOES (you are here)
During the 2014 Winter Olympics, I noticed a tendency of Canadian commentators to describe Canadian athletes of a humble disposition as “typically Canadian.” This annoys me for two reasons:
(1) It seems to me that we Canadians have helped ourselves to this favourable designation by virtue of how American media (movies, TVs, journalists) tend to refer to us. The official cartoon analysis of Canadians by Americans is that we are humble, polite, and reserved (which delights me as a Canadian because I value those traits); however, while I’m pleased for our country to be complimented by our neighbours in this fashion, I think it’s strange for us to assume its accuracy, given that it’s just one country’s subjective and generalized assessment of traits they have witnessed through binoculars.
Similarly, while I have no trouble with Americans teasing Canadians for our allegedly frequent use of the term “eh,” I am distraught when Canadians join in with “Oh Canada, eh?” t-shirts meant to entertain Americans by climbing aboard this joke as though we, too, have noticed our “eh”ing predilection. In fact, I don’t think it’s something we often do or notice about ourselves, so why do we act as though this American observation of some of us is our defining idiosyncrasy? To my ear, when we try to impress Americans by making the same joke about ourselves that they would provide, we look as though we have no understanding of ourselves beyond the limited perceptions of our big sibling.
(2) More importantly, I loathe the Canadian pundits’ description of Canadian athletes who are polite and humble as “typically Canadian” because it is conceited for us to describe ourselves by such terms. In fact, I notice that the Canadian pundit description of Canadian athletes as examples of typical Canadian humility has become a stepping stone for the same athletes to identify themselves by these complimentary terms, which, in turn, undermines the accuracy of the humble designation. A truly humble person, after all, would not boast that they are humble (as I’ve recently learned from Uriah Heep in my reading of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield).
Similarly, I was miffed one day as I listened to CBC’s Definitely Not The Opera host Sook-Yin Lee discuss a feminist argument that one reason women in general don’t make as much money as men is because they are too humble and don’t put themselves forward (for promotions and raises) as much as men do. The uber successful and assertive Lee instantly helped herself to the benefits of the generalization as though it were a universality that by definition included herself. While officially she teased herself (and other women) for the being too modest for their own good, she seemed in fact to be delighted to cast herself in the role of the humble person who would have achieved more if she hadn’t been so soft spoken about her own accomplishments all the time. She had landed in the best of all worlds: she was able to give herself credit for humility while simultaneously boasting about it; and she did so without a tinge of irony in her voice.
This bragging about humility worries me because as the self-celebration movement continues to dominate Canadian schools (where students are assured of their awesomeness regardless of achievement), I fear that Canadians’ reputed modesty will increasingly become a designation in name only.
After Canada’s impressive 2014 Winter Olympic medal collection, Sportsnet offered up a video essay by one of their pundits, Arash Madani, who indicated that the equally prolific Canadian work done at the 2010 Vancouver games had “changed us” (apparently, by his reverent voice when noting it, for the better). While serenaded by uplifting music, he proclaimed that we now felt okay about going beyond our “typical Canadian” humility and “beating our chests a little” when our athletes climbed a podium. I think that Madani might be confusing the cheering for athletes with boasting about them (which isn’t necessarily the same thing); however, the fact that he, and other pundits, are complimenting Canadian fans for being more cocky worries me. While Canadian pundits seem to take pride in Canadian humility, they also apparently take pride in Canadians taking pride (in our athletes). We can’t lose. We either get to celebrate ourselves for being modest, or celebrate ourselves for learning to appreciate ourselves more.
In short, I wonder how long the perception of Canadian humility (that we seem to enjoy) will continue if we do not nurture it with behaviours to match.
EPILOGUE: If you’re skeptical of my complaint that there is a trend within Canadian media to boast about Canadian humility and manners while simultaneously celebrating Canadians for building their self-esteem, keep an eye out for a Canadian coffee commercial with the following script:
FEMALE VOICE A: Welcome to Canada.
MALE VOICE A: Canadians are so nice.
FEMALE VOICE B: So polite.
CANADIAN GEESE: Sorry… sorry… sorry… sorry… sorry… sorry… sor–
FEMALE VOICE C (above an image of Canadian citizenship ceremony): So welcoming.
MALE VOICE B: We’re definitely not confrontational.
MALE VOICE C: But we don’t let anyone push us around.
MALE VOICE D: [If] You throw the first punch…
MALE VOICE E: We will drop the gloves. Oh yeah.
FEMALE VOICE D: I’d say we’re brave.
KIDS VOICE A: We’re confident with who we are.
MALE VOICE F: We’re unapologetic.
FEMALE VOICE E: Unless we’ve done something wrong, then we will apologize.
KID VOICE B: Canada rules!
MALE VOICE G: We grind it out.
MALE VOICE H: We go for it!
WOMAN IN CAR (driving under overpass with “Go Canada banner”): Awesome!
MALE VOICE I: We totally rock this nation.
FEMALE VOICE F: In Canada, we love what we love.
MALE VOICE J: And we don’t care who agrees, or disagrees.
MALE VOICE K: Especially when it comes to coffee.
MALE VOICE L: We like ours…
CUSTOMER A: Good…
CUSTOMER B: Honest…
CUSTOMER C: And simple.
CUSTOMER D: Thank you very much.
FEMALE VOICE G: This is our Canada.
MALE VOICE M: And this… this is our coffee.
TITLE CARD: Our Canada. Tim Hortons Logo. Our coffee.
In sixty seconds, Mr. Hortons manages to mix equal parts boasting about our gentle nature with bragging about our other (alleged) good qualities. I couldn’t have satirized the state of media affairs better, myself. I realize that Canadians shouldn’t necessarily be responsible for how an advertiser depicts our collective state of mind, but generally, I think, advertisers are attempting to tell us what they’re confident we want to hear about ourselves. I hope they’re wrong: I hope we’re no so easily manipulated by our egos.
V: HUMILTY IS AS HUMILTY DOES (you were just here)
BONUS FUTURE EPILOGUE: Looking through the SethBlogs time portal, I see that my teasing of the Canadian media (and perhaps individual Canadians) for boasting about our humility will one day in 2020 yield an interview (humbly) promoting my book on narcissism.