“Hopefully [Anne Frank] would have been a belieber.”

(Cross-posted at the Intellectual Humility blog)

In April 2013, pop star Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  Frank is widely known as the author of a chilling diary composed during the Nazi occupation of WW2.

Her touching faith in humanity is made all the more poignant by the dual facts that her family was protected by non-Jews and that they were eventually betrayed to the Gestapo.

I’m not a believer in the “sacredness” of spaces, but social etiquette applies everywhere. Bieber had the option not to leave a note in the guest book, or to write something anodyne.  His note started off in this direction: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here.”  Fair enough.  He could have left it at that, or stopped after adding a bland statement in praise of Frank: “Anne was a great girl.”  Great?  Not exactly.  Tragic, perhaps.  Hopeful, certainly.  Resilient.  Thoughtful.  But the sentiment is inoffensive.

Bieber, though, couldn’t leave well enough alone.  He followed up the vapid with the vicious: “Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”  A what?  A belieber, of course, a fanatical devotee of the music and personality of Justin Bieber.  

It’s easy to see that one of the more galling things about that last sentence is its abject lack of humility.  In the presence of genocide, his third thought (at least it wasn’t his first!) is about himself.  The point I want to make, though, is a bit more subtle.  I think that this example of misbehavior also provides some evidence for the attentional interpretation of humility, the thesis that being humble is less about the content of one’s thoughts than it is about the direction of one’s attention.  Plausibly, if the main problem with Bieber’s note had been that he was self-aggrandizing, then reversing the content would fix things.  Imagine that Bieber had instead written, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here.  Anne was a great girl.  Hopefully she would not have been a belieber.”  Does that make it any better?  The new version is a little stranger, but I don’t think it evinces any more humility.  His third thought is once again all about himself.  This fits with the attentional interpretation: regardless of Bieber’s verdict on whether Anne Frank would or would not have been a belieber, the fact that that’s what concerned him after an hour in the museum is the real problem.

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