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