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How do you say “pretentious” in Nawatl?

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

By Tlakatekatl

For many years now, I’ve grown weary of people who display what can only be called “false humility.” You know what it is even if you’ve never heard of the term. It is when someone expresses themselves in a self deprecating way in order to virtue signal to their peer group how humble they are despite their personal accomplishments. All of us in the indigenous community know or have met these people, and we may even have been charmed by their seeming authenticity. In many cases, these people are so used to their behavior that they’ve come to believe it themselves. The problem here is not so much with the self delusion or deliberate deception; it’s with the self-righteous behavior that these “humble” people express towards those they disagree with. We’ll get to that shortly. First, it’s useful to elaborate a bit further on the term to grasp the concept fully.

“Pretentinous” in action

A cursory online search yields many references to the term’s association with biblical references – the concept’s likely root, but it has other applications. The phrase doesn’t appear to have an official definition, but its synonym, “false modesty,” is defined as: “A vain or hypocritical pretense of holding a low or humble opinion of oneself, one’s abilities, or one’s circumstance so as to encourage others to say the opposite.”[1] Although close, this definition doesn’t quite convey the sentiment that is usually employed by the humble actor.

A little more digging leads one to a commentary piece in the New York Times on comedian Harris Wittels’ book Humblebrag (2012).[2] The author notes that the term “humblebrag” was coined by Wittels to describe our current social media climate, adding that “a humblebrag is an opportunity for the attention-starved to stake a claim on our sympathy.”[3] Unfortunately, this clever term also doesn’t fit the bill for our humble servants.

The “fake humility” keepers among us in Native America are smooth operators who patiently wait to spring into action against offense, real or imagined. From their high perch, these cultural brokers cast judgment on those with a different opinion, particularly if that point of view questions any long held belief or tradition. The perceived offense is further magnified when the alleged perpetrator applies “Western” methodologies to defend themselves or to simply engage in a meaningful discussion. These failed attempts at dialog often lead to ad-hominem attacks by the humblebraggart and the accused is cast in a negative light.

Whereas the humble knight is authentic, their nemesis is not. To prove this, the humble knight will engage in self deprecating language evoking the status of being mere ‘lowly servants of the people’ who are ignorant of fancy academic jargon and theories. If you’re lucky, you might even be treated to their ceremonial pedigree detailing their deep connections to indigeneity. And just like that, your indigeneity is called into question because you have been brainwashed by Western thought and do not belong to the ‘club of humblebrag.’

It’s a sick game that these sanctimonious self-important blowhards play, and it’s high time they get called on it. However, instead of “humblebrag,” I propose a more appropriate term for these people: “pretentinous” – a pretentious indigenous person who engages in false modesty and humblebrag in order to virtue signal their authenticity. This is just a base sketch of the term’s meaning, but it nicely encapsulates the phenomenon. My hope is that recognition of the problem will help in minimizing this obvious logical fallacy.

*Editors Note: We were just informed by a Nawatl linguist that “pretentious” is “Sintle” in Hueyapan Nawatl!

** This post has been updated to correct minor errors.

[1] “False Modesty,” TheFreeDictionary.Com, accessed September 1, 2017, http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/false+modesty.

[2] Harris Wittels, Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty (New York: Grand Central Pub., 2012).

[3] Henry Alford, “Bah, Humblebrag: The (Unfortunate) Rise of False Humility,” The New York Times, November 30, 2012, sec. Fashion & Style, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/fashion/bah-humblebrag-the-unfortunate-rise-of-false-humility.html.

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