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.

Controlling The Masses

With tongue in cheek, I recently imagined the possibility that a small group of very wealthy men meet secretly to decide what steps should be taken to continue the status quo — to allow them to continue to amass huge profits and maintain their power in a supposedly democratic society. I want now to suggest that while the meeting of such men might be a “paranoid fiction,” the notion that the country is becoming increasingly undemocratic and that the wealthy exercise their power in insidious ways is by no means a fiction.

In his book The Revolt of The Elites, subtitled “And The Betrayal of Democracy.” Christopher Lasch notes that the dissolution of classes was one of the “great benefits of democracy.” He quotes Henry Adams as saying that “Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization now aims at this mark.” Lash, in expanding on this claim, notes how we have always rejected the notion that there is in this country a “laboring class.” As he goes on to point out

“A laboring class implied as its necessary antithesis a learned and leisure class. It implied a social division of labor that recalled the days of priestcraft when the clerical monopoly of knowledge condemned lay people to ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition. To have broken that monopoly — the most pernicious of all restraints on trade, since it interfered with the circulation not only of commodities but also of ideas — was widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the democratic revolution.The reintroduction of a kind of clerical hegemony over the mind would undo that achievement, reviving the old contempt for the masses and the contempt for everyday life that was the hallmark of priestly societies. It would recreate the most obnoxious features of class societies, the separation of learning from everyday experience.”

In other words, democracy is incompatible with the notion of social or economic classes. In a democracy everyone is educable and all have a right to participate fully in the political process. Priestcraft presupposes an intellectual elite that has knowledge and exerts power through that knowledge, as was the case, for example, in ancient Egypt. These classes of men were less concerned about closeness to their God than they were about their presumed authority over the ignorant. As Lasch notes in this regard, “[Priestcraft] was incompatible with the authority of reason and freedom of mind.” And that’s the point.  Ignorance among the many was encouraged in order to assure the power of those who knew — or claimed they know. Is it possible that we are headed down that same road?  Lasch does not suggest this, but I do wonder.

Consider these items: To begin with there is the obvious shrinking of the middle class in America, the continued growth in wealth and power of the very rich, and the growth in the numbers of the poor who depend upon others for their daily bread. Next, there is the widespread attack on the public schools, targeting such things as teacher unions which seek to assure the teachers a living wage and, presumably, allow the profession to attract better minds to our schools which currently rank near the bottom of the 32 “developed” countries. This trend is coupled with the stress on job-preparation in the schools and the trend away from liberal learning in the colleges, a trend that assures that those who graduate will know something about one or two subjects, but lack the ability to think critically about things outside the area of their expertise. They may learn how, but they are not encouraged to ask why.

Both of these trends seem directed toward creating a class of persons who will make good workers but fail as leaders, malleable and adaptable, but not thoughtful and imaginative. The very few who can afford to attend private schools and continue to amass great wealth might very well be separating themselves as a “priestly class” who claim to know what is best for the country and — through the media which they control — what is best for the masses to think about. It was never clear that the priestly class in Egypt really knew anything important, but it was clear that they used what they knew to control those who knew even less. Knowledge is power; ignorance guarantees the lack of power.

Though I hesitate to attribute superior knowledge to our “ruling elites,” a pattern is emerging that suggests the priestly class that claims to know and thereby gains control over those millions they keep in the dark by pulling the strings of those they have seated in places of political power and controlling the media that daily preaches to the masses the false values of a materialist culture.