What would a society mired in mediocrity look like?

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Mediocrity is a devilish thing – pervasive and insidious and yet so ill-defined. It is relatively easy to understand what excellence is, much harder though to define its nemesis. What I have tried to do in the article below is describe what a society firmly in mediocrity’s grip might look like. It is a helpful exercise, if only because it makes it easier to understand the important role excellence plays and its general effect.

What would a society mired in mediocrity look like?

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 April 2012

How best does one determine the extent to which mediocrity has infected a society? When it is well set, the following holds true:

Pragmatism holds sway; principle is alluded to but seldom upheld. Without principle, the ethical considerations that underpin moral judgement are diluted, their original meaning forgotten, replaced by self-interest and self-preservation. There is no bottom line. Everything is negotiable.

Process is celebrated and indulged at the expense of outcomes. And so bureaucracy burgeons as systems and structures proliferate, but their purpose becomes increasingly ill-defined.

Intellectual rigor is shirked and discussion defined by platitude and cliché. Language is simplified and words hollowed out of their meaning. Political correctness is intrinsic to public thought. People moralize.

Independence and difference are shunned, the effort required to understand or appreciate them, simply too much. People strain to keep excellence at bay, restricted, ostracized. There is a general satisfaction with the average. Certainly nothing better is expected from those that would represent the public interest.

Complexity and specificity is glossed over, replaced by vagueness and generality; and the resultant emotional inertia that superficiality engenders is pandered to and accommodated.

Innovation is frowned upon, interpreted as an unfair indictment of convention, something to be feared not encouraged.

Such a society specializes in excuse. It detests accountability. And it is shortsighted. History is not a lesson to be learnt but a story to be refashioned in today’s image, so that it might illustrate any moral one desires.

Reason is denigrated and placed at odds with blind optimism or outright pessimism, both of which unite to promote absolutism, outlawing rational consideration, ambiguity, subtlety and difference.

Effort is avoided, lethargy both common and common cause.

Compromise is inverted, so its great potential value – the possibility of progress – is replaced by its great potential weakness – appeasement. Indeed, appeasement is celebrated at the expense of principled action.

Leadership is confused with management, vision and purpose with the status quo.

Education is denuded of its potential effect, not only because its value is lost to society but, because the bar is constantly lowered, learning and experience – education’s very mechanics – are damaged, even denigrated. Thus, a mediocre society is dull and obtuse.

Low self esteem thrives and, with it, an environment in which nationalism eagerly sets down its roots. Likewise, victimhood is preeminent, agency rare and misunderstood. Aspiration is reduced down to nothing more than that which is just about good enough.

Time slows down and with it a sense of direction or progress is lost. And, ultimately, mediocrity is justified by reference to that which is itself mediocre.

This is a mediocracy: a society in love with mediocrity and firmly caught in its grip. It is a fairly harrowing prospect. True, when set out in composite fashion it appears extreme, but one need remember mediocrity’s great trick is the manner in which it subtly shifts expectation. None of its many characteristics materializes overnight. Each manifests over time. And, as it tightens its grip, just as one’s thinking is affected when the proper flow of blood to the brain is constricted, so mediocrity gradually attenuates expectation and steadily alters perspective. Like a fine veil slowly drawn over one’s eyes.

In this way mediocrity needn’t yet have settled into its final form in order to constitute a real threat. Indeed, it need merely be in the ascendency; for then it has already won the advantage, and its final form is inevitable.

That said, it is worth asking: what is mediocrity’s most dangerous trait? The answer is that it does not recognise itself for what it is. Little wonder constantly it seeks to pervade the world around it. Nothing burns more intensely for mediocrity than the unrelenting questions excellence poses, and the answers it demands. Rather than respond, however, mediocrity lowers the bar, so that no answer poses a serious threat to the comfort and safety its insular universe provides.

And that is the crucial point: Mediocrity will never admit it occupies a different world. Rather, it will invite you in and try to make you comfortable. It is an invitation easily accepted because it requires nothing more than to acquiesce, but rightfully declined because to accept it is to willingly suspend one’s own aspirations.

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