Friday, July 15, 2016

In Love with Mediocrity

Theodore Dalrymple has some thoughts on America’s rising tide of mediocrity. (Via Maggie’s Farm)

You might not have noticed it, or you might have, but we no longer seem to care about excellence. We care about diversity. We want to know whether the director was cisgendered or transgendered, was male or female or both. The movie’s value seems to be less important than how diverse the cast an crew is.

We care more about how diverse a college is, how diverse a company is, how diverse a government agency is… than about whether these people are good or bad at whatever they are doing. Your surgeon might not be very good, but he or she is the first whatever to rise to the rank of department chief. In today's world mediocrity often rises to the top... and guards its position and privileges jealously.

If we cared about excellence we would cease and desist from all this bean-counting. We would not be reading triumphal stories about how many of this or that type of person is in the combat infantry or the NFL.

Companies exist to make a profit, not to “look like America.” Armies are organized to win wars, not to show diversity in the class picture.

We have our reasons for valuing mediocrity. Someone else’s excellence is bad for our self-esteem. We are more likely, in a grievance culture, to sympathize, empathize and show compassion for those who come in second or second-to-last.

We have been told ad nauseam that winners are cheats, oppressors and frauds. Ask yourself which country in the Middle East has done the best, has set a standard for excellence. And then ask yourself which country in the Middle East is most often excoriated for being an apartheid regime that has succeeded on the backs of… you know whom.

Dalrymple suggests that we all gain a certain comfort for being surrounded by mediocrity. Besides, in a decadent culture, one where hard work is disparaged in favor of more fun-filled activities, mediocrity is a boon.

Dalrymple writes:

Though derided and despised, there is much to be said in favor of mediocrity. It is comfortable and unthreatening, unlike excellence; it makes no demands on us. Who can stand the strain of having to be brilliant all the time, or of having to be careful never to say a banal or obvious thing? Who, when he is tired from a hard day’s work, or even from the mere passage of a large number of hours since he rose in the morning, wants to flog his brain into the maximum activity of which it is capable? One longs, then, for the anodyne, for the un-thought-provoking—in short, for the mediocre.

Surrounded by mediocrity you do not need to work very hard to compete. You do not need to exert yourself or even to put in the extra hours. You will feel good about yourself no matter what.

Thus, Dalrymple is correct to say that we find comfort and solace in mediocrity.

Of course, this has its limits. Dalrymple sees that certain self-important mediocrities are not content to slink into their corners. They believe in themselves. And they believe in their own importance. So they seek power. It beats having to face the fact that they are nothing more than mediocre.

In his words:

There is a certain kind of mediocrity that is very harmful, however. It has always existed, but it is (or so it seems to me) much more widespread than ever before, indeed one of the most important characteristics of the age: namely, ambitious mediocrity. How many of our political class are deeply mediocre in all respects except in their avidity for power? But this avidity for power is not confined to the upper reaches of the political class; far from it, it now pervades even small institutions such as schools and colleges. In hospitals there was a time when powerful personalities, usually accomplished in some way other than that of political scheming, ruled the roost, sometimes for ill but more often for good, or good overall. More recently, however, those doctors who rise to subaltern positions in hospital administration are almost always nonentities, both from the point of view of professional accomplishment and from that of character. But they are all too pleased to exchange their obscurity for a little power, or the simulacrum of power.

One suspects that Dalrymple was referring to the leadership of the Republican Party in Congress. Was the recent primary election campaign anything but a demonstration of the fact that its leaders are self-important mediocrities. And, while we are at it, how many of those who were running for the presidency could present a resume chock full of accomplishments in governance and politics? A party with that many vanity candidates does not look like it is taking the presidency seriously.

I have my doubts about Dalrymple’s next point, but, since we have happily followed him this far, we will allow him his say:

If it is true (as I think, though cannot actually prove, that it is) that mediocrities are no longer content to remain mediocrities but instead seek power as never before, the question arises as to why this should be so. My answer would be that the sheer pervasiveness or even intrusiveness of the media of mass communication in our lives has spelled the death of modesty and humility as social virtues.

For reasons that escape me, he does not utter the magic word here. We live in a culture of celebrity, a culture where people get obscenely rich by being mediocre and shameless. Does the name Kardashian ring a bell here? True artists, whether Benedict Cumberbatch or Meryl Streep or Yo Yo Ma, are not celebrities. They do not stake a claim to space in the tabloids. They allow their work to speak for them.

Celebrities are often mediocre artists who need the extra exposure lest they not have careers. As has often been noted, they prefer the exposure, even ignominy to anonymity:

Either one is famous or one is nothing; to be anonymous, to be but one of a crowd in no public way distinguished from the rest of that crowd, is to suffer an existential wound. This wound can be healed only by public notice (hence the appeal of Facebook and Twitter) or the exercise of power. All modesty is now considered of the false variety, a mask for ambition and self-advancement; while humility, if ever genuine, is a kind of treason to the self, a blameworthy failure to recognize how transcendentally important one truly is.


AesopFan said...

Isaac Asimov wrote several brilliant short stories on the theme of mediocrity, of the "If this goes on" sub-genre. The world eventually devolved into having the majority of the people (because, by definition, most of us ARE mediocre)completely supported by the productive (that is, not mediocre) minority.
They were good for a laugh and a shake of the head in the 1970s; today, we see them on the way to fulfillment.

AesopFan said...

The comments on Dalrymple's article were, well, pretty mediocre, but this one caught my eye:
Ultrawhite97 • 6 days ago
"This article reminds me of the "Peter Principle". It is actually very common...just look around at your place of employment, and you'll see all kinds of examples:

I'm sure it happens with politicians all the time. I used to feel bad for these people, but I don't anymore. I think that it is perfectly fine for one to be mediocre, as long as they are aware that they are;)."

That last sentence is, ultimately, the source of Dalrymple's complaint (and I agree with him on that). It's only in Lake Woebegon that all of the children are above average.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Stuart, I'm with you 100%: it's the culture of celebrity. All day. What I think we have to look at is celebrity's meteoric rise with the proliferation of the Glowing Box (television, computers, tablets, and especially smartphones). The Glowing Box is celebrity's delivery/distribution system. It's instant gratification. The jini cannot be put back in the bottle. So let's consider celebrity as a condition. Where do we go from there? I say we need to build a culture of responsibility. Contribution and meritocracy will build from there, and it's connected to your "Don't Just Feel: Do Something" post today... INITIATIVE! But Dalrymple is correct: we are in love with ourselves. The Glowing Box is the best distribution system for anomie ever devised. We will have to work with it in some way in order to produce a better future. Otherwise, we'll eventually all have holodecks at home and live the Star Trek lifestyle.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: For reasons that escape me, he does not utter the magic word here. We live in a culture of celebrity, a culture where people get obscenely rich by being mediocre and shameless.

I wonder if celebrity isn't the culprit, but a consequence. And what we have isn't a culture of celebrity but a culture of status, and yes money (the ultimate bean-counting) is the primary measure of status, along with public relations is the field of psychology that enables that status.

I remember in my 20s, pretending to be a philosopher I told myself "Out modern problem isn't that we make too many mistakes, but that we mass produce too many of those mistakes."

I wonder about words like mediocrity and I admit I don't clearly know what it means. Like if excellence is about spending 100 million years of stored sunlight from fossil fuels in 100 years is a sign of success, we might be lying to ourselves. But now the consequence of that mediocre thinking is coming due, whether by the consequences in climate change, or environmental destruction, or simple depletion of one time resources our descendants will have to do without.

So if modern success is based on a lie, then we can ask if the path back to excellence isn't by just doing more and more and more and more, but finding out how to do more with less, and need to do less, working with natural systems and cycles rather than in domination over it, just because we can for a while. At least that's the approach that conservatives like Wendell Berry propose.

Thomas Edison's diligence might not be the only path to avoid the lures of celebrity culture, but its a good reminder of what that delusional world is missing:
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

We're all seduced by the promises of our modern consumer culture, built on the lie that 7-9 billion people can someday live like Americans, forever, and have no negative consequences to the natural world around us upon which we and our hopeful descendants depend.

Anonymous said...

Let's make sure that the doctors(esp neuro-surgeons) working on Congressmen are very diverse.