Charlottesville and the desperation of mediocrity
Watching the angry mob of mostly white men descend on Charlottesville with tiki torches to protest what they believe is an affront to their identity has been, well, perplexing. Not because I lack awareness about Neo-Nazis still lurking in the midst of our society a la spy-sleeper-cell-organization kind of thing. Nor because I am unfamiliar with the racial issues that persist in our cultural landscape (personally been on the receiving end of that one on enough occasions to remove doubt). Then there’s this whole bit about historical figures with deep ties to racism, a President who has pandered to the radical right, and so forth. Unlike the matching outfits, color tones, and the campy outdoor pyrotechnics that roamed Charlottesville, there’s an apparent multitude of intersecting stories and problems that have led the men to do so. But, none more apparent, to me at least, than the cult of mediocrity.
Mediocre: the ordinary, of low value, quality, or performance. Shamed in every corner of society–in our work, the products we should consume, the lifestyles we aspire to because we are told to. Hell, we’ve started using another word as a pejorative–basic. Someone is basic when he or she likes mainstream products like Polo shirts or Pumpkin-Spice Lattes. We all pretend to despise that which is basic, what is mediocre, because we are all different, unique individuals that cut against the crowd. But the truth is, something can only be basic because a majority uses it. Something is only mediocre when it is compared against something of superior quality. Yet, we pretend as though neither of those apply to us in particular because we cut against the mainstream. We don’t tread in the swamp that the rest of the fools around us do.
The same swamps that our current President promised to drain and became President in part due to that promise. This, in turn, emboldened a certain small, but powerful group among us to proclaim that they were not mediocre, that they were something more than basic. Just because they were white or because they didn’t like people of color, these traits didn’t make them less valuable as people. And so they chanted, loud and proud, “We cannot be replaced!” all Nazi-like with their Made-in-China torches in a little college town in Virginia. By white Jesus, they were going to take their country back the ole fashioned way, mob-style with flaming sticks.
In the days that have followed, much analysis and thought has been given to why such groups still survive and what fuels them. While I can’t pretend to be a psychologist or a social scientist, I would invite you for a moment to consider the idea that these (once again, mostly) white men are desperately clinging to the dying religion of mediocrity. At the heart of their cries for importance is really the fear that they are not, in fact, important. That they can be replaced. They yearn for a day, which is slowly fading, when the fact that being white, particularly white and male, was sufficient. They yearn for the mediocre.
You see, diversity often brings change. Not just in the obvious way of different dialects or skin color, but real change. Changes to fundamental culture, changes to approaches, thought patterns. But maybe most of all, diversity brings competition. Diversity confronts each of us with uncertainty and therefore shifts the power dynamic, whether small or great, within our immediate universe. The outsider, knowing that she is an outsider, will inevitably work harder and longer to vie for position, thus raising questions about the output of others. Diversity breeds challenge. And this challenge is an affront to mediocrity.
Let’s step outside of this particular tiki incident and look at something else–scholarships. There have been decades worth of complaints that things like affirmative action have led to minority students being selected over white students, merely because of race. However, the data bears out a completely different story. In a 2011 paper (which I grant is somewhat dated), white students made up over 60 percent of scholarship recipients, over twice the amount of minority groups combined. Even if that number has fallen in the last six years, it is doubtful that it has inverted entirely. But more to the point, the white students’ and parents’ perception of the system being against them can be laid at the feet of mediocrity. It was no longer enough to be white. There was competition. The true complaint is–there were not enough scholarships for mediocre students to go around.
The men marching on Charlottesville are no different, except they are in a worse predicament. They are both captives and ultimately, sacrifices in the cult of mediocrity. Their yearning for the day when being a mediocre white male was all that was required of them necessarily brings them terror. Terror at the thought that outsiders will dash their fantasy. Indeed, it’s already begun. Diversity has slowly raised the stakes, and given time, will not leave room for being mediocre.
But their worship is also their curse; the same mediocrity that they unwittingly defend also mocks them. It mocks them by leaving its mark on each of their pale foreheads that sweat in foreign light (an irony apparently lost on them). They stand out, but not in the way that they had hoped. In comparison to many of the “outsiders,” these men are outing themselves as mediocre. They have become the thing that we all revile–basic. Basic because when compared to the newcomers, they are just like everybody else, they are not distinct, they do not stand out any longer. They are ordinary. So the mediocrity that they both love and hate suffocates them. They lash out and flail and attack trying to regain control and breathe the breath of privileged ease once more. But all they have to do to save themselves is stop holding the pillow to their own faces.
The bitterest of ironies comes last. The mediocrity that they hold so dear is slowly being replaced by the very thing they claimed to want all along–meritocracy.
Originally published at millren.wordpress.com on August 18, 2017.