Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Plight of Mediocrity

I was sitting in political theory class listening to idealistic, conformist-liberal brats speaking, when I thought of a new approach to analyzing the way society rewards individuals. I believe society rewards unusualness. That is, people who don't conform to the norm, both in positive and negative ways, receive some sort of overcompensation (beyond their relative contribution to society). For example, the exceptionally intelligent, beautiful, strong, captivating, etc. will have better chances of success. They have attributes which generate "awe". Then, there are those who are unusually poorly-endowed mentally, physically, emotionally etc. who fall into society's safety net. For instance, those with disabilities qualify for various forms of assistance, and the poor and unemployed can claim forms of state support. They have attributes which generate (crudely) "sympathy".

What becomes of the individual who is unexceptional in either way? They face society's great burden - to support the others. Their lives becomes vehicles by which the privileges of the have-alls and the have-nothings are sustained. For instance, it is the middle class upon which the tax burden falls in the contemporary United States. Unusually wealthy individuals and corporate entities pay very little, while enjoying similar benefits. The unusually poor cannot afford to contribute much, yet benefit from the state's welfare programs, largely funded by middle class tax-payers. Yet another example set is formed by athletics and by the exhibition of human rarities. The multi-million dollar salaries of basketball players are in a large part sponsored by the average individual watching the sport (live or otherwise). The flip-side of this coin is the fact that so-called "freakshows", popular in the early-mid part of the previous century, provided a livelihood for individuals who would have otherwise remained unemployed. There are numerous other such examples that I do not want to spend time delving into.

The more important question is why does society reward unusualness? I believe that this is the result of two fundamental human reactions: the desire to be what one is not, if 'what one is not' is seen by society as positive, and the desire to change what one is not, if 'what one is not' is perceived as negative. The assumption that a young child intently observing birds wishes that he could fly, is the simplified underlying premise behind the first part of this argument. Adult humans (unfortunately disillusioned) realize that they cannot be what they are not, hence vicariously satisfy this desire through observing exceptional members of their own species. Adults try to support especially disadvantaged individuals because altruism is socially observed as just. Do all 'average people' give to the mendicant? No, but society as a whole tends to. As described in the previous paragraph, the emergent result of both actions is similar.

Then, is systematic overcompensation morally right? This is a mere observation, and I prefer not to normatively analyze the world. Certain philosophers would argue that justice and morals are not absolute in their definition, but are determined by the way society behaves. Therefore, society's collective act of unequal compensation would be deemed morally right. A Rawlsian distribution paradigm approach would argue that only equality is just.

Just some thoughts and a poorly constructed argument, but I find this interesting nonetheless.