When to Be Meek
By Bryan Caplan
If you’re not getting what you want out of life, people usually advise you to speak up and demand what’s coming to you. You’ll never get anywhere just saying “please” and “thank you.” You’ve got to stand up and assert yourself.
Strangely, though, most of the people who offer this advise aren’t getting what they want out of life, either. If they’ve really got a foolproof strategy to get ahead, why don’t they practice what they preach?
The answer, naturally, is that “demanding what’s coming to you” sounds a lot better in theory than it actually works. Standing up for yourself is a high-risk strategy. Yes, it occasionally pays off, but it’s far from a sure thing. Sometimes you get nothing but aggravation. And sometimes the whole approach backfires. How? Being demanding causes other people to dislike you. And when people dislike you, they treat you worse.
This doesn’t mean that the meek will inherit the earth. But it does mean that meekness is underrated. Although you won’t rise to the top of the heap by being meek, you probably won’t get hurled to the bottom, either.
“Stand up for yourself” isn’t just overrated; it’s also misdirected. We’re quickest to dispense this advice to the people least likely to benefit from it. Consider: If you have wealth and power, standing up for yourself tends to work well. But we usually advise the wealthy and powerful to be gentle and generous. Perhaps we’re just advising them to use their status ethically. But we often couch such advice in prudential terms: “A smart CEO knows that a happy worker is a productive worker.” If, on the other hand, you’re poor and powerless, standing up for yourself is normally disastrous. If you have little to offer, you have to rely on the goodwill of others. And one of the surest ways to make a bonfire of your accumulated goodwill is to embrace a bad attitude.
Charles Murray’s Coming Apart doesn’t directly discuss the value of meekness. But my analysis is very consistent with Murray’s. My speculation:
A major difference between the professional and working classes is that professionals appreciate the wages of meekness. They realize that if you want to move from high school to college, from college to an entry-level job, from an entry-level job to a promotion, you must get in the habit of saying, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” Even if you’re elite in absolute terms, you ascend the hierarchy by showing deference to people who are even more elite than you are. The working class, in contrast, is dysfunctionally assertive. Maybe they put pride and machismo above success; maybe they falsely believe that pride and machismo are a shortcut to success. In either case, as Murray emphasizes, one of the best ways for elites to help is to preach the meekness they’ve so often and so fruitfully practiced.
Consider this one such sermon.