Re: the solidarity of mediocrity

Stephen Barnard (
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 11:22:23 -0800

Gerold Firl wrote:
> Sisial used the concept of "solidarity" to analyze the formation of
> power blocs in society, and that led to an interesting thought: the
> solidarity of mediocrity. Think about places where you have seen this
> in action.
> The first and most obvious example that comes to mind is one that most
> of us have experienced first hand, related to competition for grades in
> school. There is always a certain amount of pressure to not do *too*
> well coming from the less capable students. This pressure is exerted in
> different ways, and is most overt in the lower grades, but generally
> takes the form of mockery or ostracism of higher achievers, trying to
> cast them in the role of brown-nosers, uncle toms, teachers pet, nerd,
> dweeb, uncool social misfit, etc. I see this as an attempt by the lower
> achievers to ease competitive pressure; what is surprising is how
> unconscious it seems to be. Very young children, 8 or 9 years old, are
> able to use fairly sophisticated techniques to influence their fellow
> students into compromising the quality of their education. where does
> this skill come from?
> Another example which comes to mind is the recent discussion on
> standards of female beauty. There is a widely accepted premise that
> current western standards of female beauty are a form of patriarchal
> oppression, goading women and girls into striving for a look that is
> unnatural, unhealthy, and psychologically damaging. Proponents of this
> view hold that the female models and actresses who represent current
> beauty standards are dangerously undernourished, leading to problems
> with anorexia and bulemia among girls trying to reach a virtually
> unattainible ideal. (See _the beauty myth_ by naomi wolf for examples)
> To me, this position appears patently false. It looks much more like an
> example of the solidarity of mediocrity than a concern for the health
> of women and girls. Compare the physique of a female athlete to that of
> a model; models tend to have higher body-fat levels than any endurance
> athlete, and higher than most other athletes as well. It appears to me
> that current western standards of female beauty are closely related to
> the kind of body type which is associated with youth and physical
> vitality.
> This is a fairly minor example, of course, and it is certainly
> understandible why a woman might prefer to eat a bon bon over running a
> few miles or lifting weights. Where such a tendancy gets to be
> dangerous is when it interferes with something as vital as education,
> politics, or the media presentation of public debate over issues of
> critical importance.
> Another thought, related to more traditional anthropology: what about
> traditions of human sacrifice? In societies which did practice human
> sacrifice, how were the victims chosen? Early commentators often
> claimed that the best and brightest were favored as victims; could this
> be an example of a society-wide solidarity of mediocrity? Is it
> possible that such processes might be operating in our own society
> today?


This is an interesting idea, and I'm suprised there haven't been
followups. Maybe you've hit on all the important examples. I know the
pressure for conformity has been put forward as a reason why girls tend
to perform more poorly than boys in mathematics. (Personally, I have my
doubts about that, but who knows.)

At the great risk of indulging in stereotypes, I wonder whether cultures
that put more value on conformity have more solidarity of mediocrity. I
think the Japanese have a saying that goes something like, "A nail that
sticks up will be hammered down." (Of course, there are many, many
highly accomplished Japanese, so please don't take this as an insult.)

With respect to human sacrifice, I'll bet you'll find that it is usually
captives who are/were sacrificed (e.g., the practice of the Aztecs), so
I don't think that's a good example.

Steve Barnard