Levelling Down

In 1962 Gabriel Marcel wrote in Man Against Mass Society that as the world trends toward “mass man” (i.e. a homogeneous human population resulting from a growing tendency to be alike) human minds would tend toward mediocrity. There would be a leveling down, not up. The “A” grade would no longer connote excellence, it would be the norm — as indeed it has. Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence. Indeed, excellence will no longer be recognized and even despised, as will “greatness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this coming, in America at least, when he visited in 1831 and listened to what people had to say and what sorts of things they thought were important. He concluded that:

“I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they would seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

Poets like Shelly also saw this happening around him and fought to maintain his individuality — and others, following his example, became individuals just like Shelly.

But, more to the point, the “freedom” that Tocqueville mentions here is identical with the freedom sought by so many Americans today, namely a freedom from constraints, a freedom from those who would be “in your face.”  But a freedom from constraints is not freedom, it is chaos (by definition). Real freedom requires constraints — as John Locke pointed out long ago and anyone who ever tried to get on a crowded tow-lift at a ski slope can attest.

What Tocqueville is speaking about, of course, is the American tendency to keep up with the Joneses, as we say. If they buy a camper, we must buy one as well — perhaps even one slightly larger than theirs. But the tendency to seek out others who think like ourselves is a part of what Tocqueville is concerned about as well. We avoid reading or listening to those whose opinion differs from our own so we hear only those things that want to hear, those things that reinforce our own preconceptions and make us feel wiser. This is happening on our college campuses, as I have mentioned in previous posts, and it is very worrisome indeed. We fear difference and we find comfort in sameness. Even those who should be champions of difference in the name of cultural diversity.

But the thing about the leveling down of the human mind that is most distressing is that comes at a time when keen minds are absolutely necessary to deal with the many problems of a global nature that humanity faces in our day and age. And the fact that we have a mediocre mind in the White House who has attracted a plethora of mediocre minds around him who all deny such things and global warning, beat their collective chest in the face of international threats, and cut into the budgets of social programs to further develop the military and build walls the keep different people out — all of this is very disturbing indeed.

A democracy, especially, requires open minds  meeting together to seek and try to find the best solution to complex problems. All sides of every issue need to be heard and taken seriously — and not dismissed with a wave of the hand and a sneer. As John Stewart Mill told us years ago, we don’t know anything about an issue until we have heard from those who disagree with us as well as those who agree with us.

But all this is the result of the leveling down of our minds in a mass culture that relies on the entertainment industry to tell us what to like and dislike — and what to buy. In a commodified culture, like ours, the trend toward a leveling down is even more pronounced than it might be otherwise, because the messages drummed into our heads hourly all tell us to be like everyone else. “Buy this coat: it’s very popular.” Be “liked” on Facebook — or else. It does not encourage difference and individuality and while those who seek to be different are at times over the line, they are to be admired — even if they do so in much the same way.

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8 thoughts on “Levelling Down

  1. Hugh, great post. There is pressure to conform. There is a Rush song called “Subdivisions,” which pokes fun at the concept that nonconformists are cast out. From movies and books, it appears conformity is valued in the Japanese society even moreso than here.

    These are reasons why I treasure the ececlectic. I love seeing a women wearing black high tops with a dress. I love seeing someone who surprises me when they act differently than I expect. There are certain things we should confirm with such as following laws, but we should value those who break the mold. Well done. Keith

    • The push toward conformity grows stronger with the growth in human population, I would think. I agree: hats off to those who try to do things a bit differently! Thanks for the comment.

  2. Very nice post, Hugh and it gives me food for thought for the day. I am guilty, too, of choosng to spend time with like-minded people and avoiding those who assert differening voices… The also deserve to be heard and accepted, as their voices are important… “We find comfort in sameness.” – thanks for this!

  3. “Excellence becomes average and average is supposed to represent excellence.” That sentence makes me wonder how we can hope to improve what we do in the future, since we are no longer rewarding true excellence and have lowered the bar more than a few notches. This is a great post, my friend … much to ponder here. I must admit that I, too, am guilty these days of reading mostly those opinions with which I already agree. I say I keep an open mind, but do I really? I’m not sure anymore. The past 2 years have changed so many things, and we see things in our society that … are an aberration and we are not quite sure how to process them. Some just accept and move on, but I keep trying to find answers, as do you. It’s almost reminiscent of those toys we had when we were 3 or 4 years old, shape-sorters, I believe they were called. I am having trouble with my shape-sorter! And finally, you are far more generous than I when you refer to the motley crew in the WH as ‘mediocre’ minds. 🙂

    • Many thanks. I think we all have a problem coming into close contact with ideas that are in conflict with our own — especially as we grow older. But we must make the effort, though at times it seems impossible.

      • Yes … and I have tried in the past year, but what I find is that when I try to listen to the ‘other side’, they scream and rant, but say little. When pressed for reasons, there seem to be none … the response I have heard most is “I don’t have to tell you my reasons.” It is rather a conversational dead end. Sigh. The other day I came across an op-ed in the NYT that was praising Trump for all his wonderful actions, and I only got about 1/2 through it before I had to stop … I was feeling unwell. But you are right … we must keep trying.

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