In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)

I've been thinking. Is mediocrity the greatest sin in the world? Why is badness vilified in such unforgiving terms in most societies? I mean, everybody can't be an overachieving hard worker in a world of zero sum equations. It's a matter of simple logic. Badness sustains the value of excellence. Without mediocrity, achievement would be diminished in worth and the world would be a bland, undifferentiated playground of overachievers. Without badness, we would not recognize goodness. Although the opposite proposition is also true, badness and mediocrity are not the normative standards, so they are not the paradigms that need to be reinforced or defended.

Please follow my logic carefully. The Protestant work ethic has socialized us into thinking that work and achievement constitute the only markers of noble humanity. Don't get me wrong; I love my work. No, I enjoy my work. If I didn't work, I would be bored to tears. But as I reflect on it, I am not entirely sure if that's what nature intended or if I am simply an unwitting victim of the capitalist denunciation of laziness, badness, and mediocrity and its simultaneous recommendation of work, excellence, and achievement. Those of you who are fanatical campaigners against mediocrity ought to temper your intolerance with a sober acknowledgement of how your intolerance may have been formed by forces outside you - by the work-obsessed capitalist system.

A graduate school professor of mine, an encyclopedia of a man, patented a phrase of critique that was stinging or entertaining, depending on whether you were a spectator or a target. He would examine a piece of writing or presentation and conclude that the product had two, three, four, five, or six "levels of badness."

That phrase was magical. It caught on fast among graduate students of our cohort who were familiar with its inventor. We used it to entertain ourselves, to laugh at ourselves and our work, to preempt and laugh off critiques of our work. It was therapy in the harsh, depressing world of graduate school. We even invented our own variation on the phrase. A piece of writing, art, film, musical production, or theatre might have three major levels of badness and/or two minor ones. That was our self-consolatory take on it.

As we made our way through graduate school, and as I reflected on the "levels of badness" thesis, it occurred to me that the phrase encapsulated a mindset that does not brook mediocrity, however defined - a mindset that refuses to recognize how mediocrity is ultimately constitutive of and indispensible to excellence. Without mediocre engineers, we cannot recognize or appreciate engineering excellence; in fact we would not have the category of "engineering excellence." If all engineering is excellent, then "excellent" loses its function as an adjective of value.

Capitalism is partly to blame for our obsession with excellence and our disdain for mediocrity. The stigmatization of mediocrity is a product of the culture of obsessive work, which is itself the culture of capitalism. Disciplined work has a history, which is intertwined with the history of capitalism. The notion that everyone has to be a worker and producer, and that this should be the central defining feature of humanity is neither natural nor is it even upheld by capitalism itself. That's the ultimate contradiction.

Capitalism is supposedly about working and producing but it depends for its survival on a non-productive activity that requires little or no work: consumption. Consumption is not a capitalist activity. Yet it helps sustains the entire edifice of capitalism - work, profits, pursuits of excellence, and other idioms of capitalist progress.

Some sectors of capitalism in fact depend on laziness and mediocrity for their survival. In the United States, the lazy man is a butt of jokes and snide remarks and is projected as a cautionary tale. He is alternately called bum, slob, and loser, among other derogatory names, and children are asked to work hard so as not to end up as a couch potato.

The couch potato is theorized as being useless to society, an unproductive, lazy burden on the capitalist system. But how would the chip making industry survive without the couch potato - the one who sits or lay on a couch all day eating chips and watching TV and movies? Speaking of TV and movie watching, how would TV shows get their ratings without the vain patronage of couch potatoes and lazy bums who reject the tyranny of hard work? The multi-billion dollar video rental industry is sustained largely by people who society would define as slobs. Who do you think consume the junk that have become the staple of daytime TV in America? How can mass hard work coexist with daytime TV?

In a world without the couch potato, perhaps the worst hit capitalist sector would be the soft drink industry. Where would fizz makers find a market to sustain them?

The alcohol industry is the quintessential bum industry. There is a symbiotic connection between the bum and alcohol. The industry sustains the 24-hour party industry, which is itself dependent on a vast army of underachieving fun lovers. The industry sustains circuits of socialization that are populated mostly by people we would characterize as lazy bums. The beer brewing industry is especially beholden to the large population of slobs and couch potatoes.

This is the age of multitasking and people can snack and work at the same time. But would they snack as much as they do and consume as much soda as they do if they worked as hard as society would want them to? In the juggling game of life something has to give. We can't have people working all the time and pursuing successive goals and still get all the comfort foods we produce consumed. Let's face it: idleness, along with its indulgences, is a complement to, and sustainer of, hard work and obsessive productivity. I am not sure the snack industry would survive if all we did was overwork and overachieve.

Capitalism would be dead without the regenerative power of consumption, without the productive - yes, productive - input of laziness and mediocrity.

Society stigmatizes badness but depends on it. Capitalists rail against laziness and mediocrity but survive on it. That's the supreme irony of our world.

I was an unsparing critic of Nollywood, knocking its stories, plotlines, dialogues, acting, and the technical integrity of its films. Then I had a conversation about Nollywood with my friend, Farooq Kperogi. He shared my critique of the industry but cautioned me against dismissing the industry on account of its many levels of badness. He had talked to a film scholar who is sympathetic to Nollywood and celebrates its genius. The scholar had asked Farooq if he had given a thought to the possibility that the popularity of Nollywood was derived from its indisputable badness. His theory congealed to a single poignant question: what if the badness of Nollywood is its selling point?

Farooq proceeded to tell the story of a Westerner who, motivated by haughty notions of artistic messianism, set out to save Nollywood and to help the industry realize its potential, which he thought was being hampered by the technical deficiencies of its productions. If one preserved the cultural appeal of Nollywood storylines and combined this with sophisticated, expensive production, Nollywood would explode to a different stratosphere of success. So he thought.

Our Western artistic do-gooder set out to make a film along those lines. He used a Nollywood script with the typical Nollywood story line but shot the film on celluloid and passed it through Hollywood editing and post production. He then decided to screen the movie for free in select Nigerian theatres. Very few people showed up despite an aggressive publicity campaign. The movie was a commercial disaster. His theories of Nollywood deficiencies thoroughly confounded, our Western artistic savior packed up and sauntered away.

It got me thinking. Here is a home video industry that is as crude as its stories are amateurish. Here is an industry that thrives on technical mediocrity. Yet thrive it has. Mediocrity has an audience. Badness must have its appeal. Crudity can be a virtue. Nollywood has shrewdly and profitably catered to the appetite of Nigerians for mediocrity. Perhaps not everything has to be sophisticated and technically sound. Just as not everyone has to be an overachieving workaholic.

If artistic mediocrity is entertaining, so is the mediocrity and laziness of bums and slobs. We hard working members of society entertain ourselves with slobs and couch potatoes. The figure of the "loser" is perhaps the most popular figure of entertainment and mockery in American popular culture. We laugh at their social awkwardness and their failures. Whole television shows are built around the "loser" and countless movie scripts are inspired by him.

We need the couch-sitting loser to validate ourselves, to make our slavish devotion to work and the endless production of value worthwhile. The unspoken capitalist myth that keeps us working and achieving even at the expense of our freedom, happiness, and health, is that we could end up like the loser if we stopped working hard. We resent the slob and the failure that he supposedly embodies, but he is freer than we are, and he controls the way we live our lives - we are constantly striving not to become a loser, and so we are imprisoned by work and the pressure to achieve more.

Consider this: what is the unsavory consequence of someone becoming a slob? How does his being a slob affect us or destroy us as a society? There is an obvious economic cost to slobbery in lost economic value, but this is offset by the centrality of social laziness - vain consumption - to capitalism. All said then, I cannot think of any significant cost imposed on society by slothfulness. If anything, it is central to our self-esteem and is a fulcrum of our capitalism. 

In politics, however, the reality is radically different. Politics is the only domain where badness and mediocrity are destructive and without value. If social mediocrity is without net economic cost to society, political mediocrity is a dangerous proposition that has the capacity to destroy and kill. Compared to the harmless laziness and incompetence of the social slob, the actions of a political slob can have devastating effects on society. A bad political decision or mediocrity or laziness in governance can kill, literally.

There is a human toll to every manifestation of political badness. Children could die of curable diseases; hospitals could go without drugs or life saving equipments; roads could become death traps; schools could exist only in name; and life-taking poverty could run rampart - all because of a bad, incompetent, and lazy leader. Mediocre leadership is particularly injurious to quality of life. Bad political decisions and lethargic governance can set a nation back by decades.

Society can afford and accommodate socio-economic badness, but not political badness. It is too costly, in human and material terms. Here is a clear case of the asymmetrical impacts of the two kinds of mediocrity: Nollywood's mediocrity has cost Nigeria little, if at all. In fact, it has brought capital, jobs and recognition to Nigeria. Abuja's multi-layered political badness on the other hand continues to decimate the human and material capital of Nigeria, threatening its very existence. 

This is why even as I praise mediocrity in other domains I must make a strong exception in the terrain of politics and governance. It becomes a humanitarian matter when the logic of virtuous laziness is imported into politics. Politics and mediocrity do not go together; the world cannot afford bad, mediocre leaders. There is too much at stake.

The author can be reached at: meochonu@gmail.com



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Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Pius72 posted on 07-29-2009, 11:04:50 AM
Now, Moses, you got me thinking as usual. Why exclude governance from your purview? Taking your logic to its logical conclusion, mediocrity in governance does have its uses too. If Nigeria didn't have such catastrophic and mediocre governance, how would you measure the progress and strides of the likes of Ghana and Benin Republic, especially in governance?

Pius
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Edoji posted on 07-29-2009, 11:14:12 AM
Badness sustains the value of excellence. Without mediocrity, achievement would be diminished in worth and the world would be a bland, undifferentiated playground of overachievers. Without badness, we would not recognize goodness.

Yea, just as we need the mediocre Yar'adua to appreciate the genius in Obasanjo.....The kleptomania in Obasanjo to appreciate the saintly Abacha....the crooked Andy Ubah to appreciate the innocent Umaru Dikko....NO?
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Byndaletto posted on 07-29-2009, 11:34:51 AM
In support of Pius: yes the thread that holds individuals in the socialization process is just the same as for nations!

In support of the writer, welldone for stringing such mass of validities! Enjoyed it beyond words too.
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Aguabata posted on 07-29-2009, 11:38:18 AM
what a nice line of thinking!best light hearted write up of the month! I've once told a friend that if nollywood stories become too sophisiticated they may loose their audience, nollywood films are so relaxing that the songs help explain the plot to you, a man who is dying will call your attention with 'i'm dying i'm dying i'm dead!!!!!!.'
However for a society to develop mentally and socially in capitalist ideology she needs her very best in key areas of leadership. in every population their is a tiny gene pool that has extra mental capabilities, these individuals should be in key areas of leadership bringing about epochal changes in social development and technology. This suggestion is for countries like Ghana.
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
WayoGuy posted on 07-29-2009, 11:48:59 AM
QUOTE:
Capitalism would be dead without the regenerative power of consumption, without the productive—yes, productive—input of laziness and mediocrity.


Profound, interesting, refreshing, out-of-the-box, reasoning. I agree.
fficeffice\\" />>>
It reminds me of one new-age Nigerian pastor who praises bad people, thieves, political thugs, and embezzlers because, according to his reasoning, Chukwu kere ndi ojoo ka anyi mara ndi oma, (God created bad people to help us identify the good people). I thought the pastor was profound too. There would be no social or religious value in being good if there were no bad people. The value of good people is inextricably dependent on the continuing existence of bad people. Praise the Lord!>>
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
M. Akosa posted on 07-29-2009, 12:26:48 PM
Oga Ebe,

A very interesting article. I laughed through out from the first line to the end.

My own grad school Criminal Justice professor in England, said "The devil always need an alternative (the good) to compare his handwork. To realise that yes he is also working very hard"

People cannot always be expected to be doing good or do the same, otherwise life and the world would be boring and bland.

Although I am open to tolerance, but I agree with you that (Nigerian way)political and leadership mediocrity in decison making and responsibilities is baaaad.....
Infact the deepest end of the bad.....
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Ebe posted on 07-29-2009, 14:54:45 PM
QUOTE:
Now, Moses, you got me thinking as usual. Why exclude governance from your purview? Taking your logic to its logical conclusion, mediocrity in governance does have its uses too. If Nigeria didn't have such catastrophic and mediocre governance, how would you measure the progress and strides of the likes of Ghana and Benin Republic, especially in governance?



Pius,

You are right about the elasticity of my logic and its applicability to the political arena. But I excluded the realm of governance solely on account of cost to society. As I demonstrated, there is virtually no cost to society or humanity as a result of mediocrity and laziness in the socio-economic domain. In politics and governance, however, mediocrity and laziness are not only costly to society in human life and economic and social setbacks, they have the capacity to destroy a nation. Nigeria is an obvious example. I mean, can we really equate the cost of mediocrity in Nollywood and other spheres of social and artistic production to the cost of the mediocrity and badness of the Yar'Adua-OBJ-Abacha-IBB continuum?

So, yes, my generic logic applies to politics in the sense that without good, competent leadership, we will not have the category of bad, mediocre leadership, not to talk of even lamenting it. But my point was to show that in terms of liability to society, socio-economic mediocrity is a lot more tolerable and compatible with human survival and happiness than political mediocrity. While both mediocrities are useful symbolically in underlining and highlighting the value of excellence, socio-economic mediocrity is economically beneficial to society while political mediocrity is destructive to society economically, socially and, of course, politically.
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Silent 1 posted on 07-30-2009, 04:52:55 AM
Hope I do not deviate too far and I follow the "logic carefully" enough in suggesting that: badness does not sustain excellence -- excellence is sustained by nothing but excellence -- excellence has an intrinsic sustainability/generative force. Infact, exellence is/ cannot not be defined by badness. The gulf between badness and excellence is too great for either one to define the other. Hence the brilliance of, say, Albert Einstein, is not defined in relation to me or the general populace, but rather to his also excellent contemporaries.

On the above premise, I will suggest that, "laziness and mediocrity", rather than sustain capitalism, will kill it. Capitalism is so clearly sustained by excellence. Indeed it can be argued that in many cases what we call laziness and mediocrity is simple, bare variety.

Finally, no excellent society can have political badness/mediocrity (not withstanding the inherent "badness" of politics) -- they just can't and won't go together. Excellence can't and won't suffer "badness"/mediocrity. And,
nollywood is no more mediocre than the society that patronizes it.
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Tola Odejayi posted on 07-30-2009, 09:34:01 AM
Ebe,

I agree with you that in many cases, it is a good idea to aspire to mediocrity rather than excellence, but not for the reasons you give in your article.

Your position seems to equate mediocrity with laziness and excess consumerism. I agree that laziness and consumerism are important to capitalism (the first encourages innovators to think of new ways of doing things that makes life easier for the lazy person, and you can figure out easily why the second is important), but I disagree that they are the same thing as mediocrity. To me, mediocrity means being average in contrast to being excellent; it means being 'not too bad' rather than being 'great'. So you can be hardworking and frugal, but you can still be mediocre in the work you do.

But like I said, I agree with you that mediocrity can be good. The reality is that aspiring to excellence has its costs; it involves more time, more physical and mental energy, more money than if you want to achieve a mediocre result. It is not always worthwhile investing effort and resources in achieving this excellence. For example, you might want to sweep your room clean of every single speck of dust - that would indeed be setting out to achieve excellence. But would it really be worth sweeping every single nook and cranny, even places where people were hardly likely to see?

This is the thing about Nollywood. The movie creators do the minimum that they need to do to make money. The only motivation for them to invest extra resources in cinematographic technology and techniques is if there was a guarantee that such investment would be rewarded with even bigger profits. Otherwise, what is the point in aspiring for excellence, when you end up broke?
Re: In Praise Of Mediocrity (Except In Governance)
Ebe posted on 07-30-2009, 10:04:40 AM
First of all, Shoko, let me say that when I posted this piece, I said to myself: "self, one person is guaranteed to respond to it--Shoko." And he has responded. I like it when my projection (abi na profiling?) about people is right.

Secondly, thanks for those thoughtful responses. That's exactly the kind of thinking and reflection that I hoped to provoke by doing the piece. On the substance of your response, I don't disagree with anything you said. I found your thoughts on the subject intriguing actually. I will only say these:

1. Your point is taken that mediocrity can result not only from laziness/idleness or lack of work but also from hard work, although it seems to me that it is more likely to be the outcome of laziness, slobbery, and other idle preoccupations that of hard work. Nonetheless, regardless of its origin, my point was to show that mediocrity can be a good thing for individuals, society, and capitalism, and that it is not always rational or better to aspire to excellence, a contention with which you agree.

2. My other point was to critique the propensity of capitalism and capitalists to rail against laziness and mediocrity while depending on, catering to, and encouraging the mediocre and lazy in their lifestyles by making it easier for them to be more lazy and mediocre. Capitalism self-interestedly "subsidizes" and enables laziness and mediocrity. It is a symbiotic relationship that is rarely acknowledged in the rhetoric that constructs laziness and mediocrity as being antithetical to capitalism.


Thanks for your insightful response.
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