On specialness

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. I am currently overseas until the end of this week, so please forgive the limited posting. Here is this week’s column, on specialness and how the idea is often misused, certainly over-used – to the extent that everything (and hence nothing) is actually special at all.

On specialness

By: Gareth van Onselen

1 October 2012

The word special suggests some quality not easily quantified. Indeed, that those standards used to gauge what is excellent are somehow insufficient; that something more, something indescribable, separates that which is special from that which is merely exceptional.

This subjective edge is what gives the word special its power; for it tends to elevate the idea above any objective consideration, to a place where its singular nature enjoys neither company nor comparison, so rarified the air.

That power is, however, often misused. Rather than an allusion to the truly extraordinary, anything different is described as special, stripping the word of its wonder. For the simple reason that, if everything is special then nothing is actually special.

Systems and structures suffer the side effects of this kind of mediocrity. To accommodate a seemingly special case, the rules are suspended or amended so that it might co-exist with the common place and ordinary. Sometimes this is understandable, even necessary, but how often it happens tells you much about the decision, and the case in turn: the less common the accommodation, the more likely the case at hand really is special; the more frequent ‘special’ dispensation made, the less likely it is special at all.

When specialness becomes habitual you can be sure one of only two things is possible: either the benchmark by which it is measured is wrong (and thus the rules best reviewed) or it simply is not special in the first place.

Victimhood often masquerades as uniqueness and ‘being special’ is the mask it wears. If specialness writ large engenders mediocrity, specialness too easily believed encourages victimhood. And one can see the appeal – it is a natural countermeasure to low self esteem.

No longer has one failed, one is special; no longer are the rules limiting, a special exception can be made; and no longer need one face up to any shortcoming, for specialness excuses introspection, just as easily as it does accountability.

And therein lies its greatest threat – a title best bestowed not proclaimed.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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