A sort of a treatise on the concept of exceptionalism.
|The only thing I think I know
Is that my name used to be Joe
It ain't so difficult to say
I might change it back one day...
c. littleplanet Records 1995
I figured that current events combined with the past 2 or 3 decades of modern history should invite a bit of commentary on the concept of exceptionalism, or the idea that a person is exceptional for any particular reason, and if they happen to accomplish something exceptional or extraordinary in their life, it is due to any particular or specific innately exalted trait. In other words, they're special.
I disagree with this idea from force of habit, more than anything else, but the reason for that disagreement comes from a stubbornly-held belief.
And that is that we appear to be sliding into a socially-accepted attitude that there are many fairly ordinary things that far too many people are incapable of achieving in their lives. The main reason I disagree with this, is that it puts all the people who don't seem to have this problem, at a distinct advantage. Which is fine as far as it goes. But if these advantages of ordinary application become increasingly cast as privileges, this can lead to the idea of getting rid of this advantage - by attacking what used to be ordinary and commonplace abilities.
In other words, leveling out the playing field not by raising anyone up from the bottom, but instead hauling down from the top. Only it isn't even the top, because the top is rarely considered, let alone attacked. Instead, it is those multiple layers descending from the top layer all the way down to a layer that is alarmingly close to the bottom.
I've seen this in my life, though long ago it was. Someone looking to fight their way up from some lower echelon, only to be met with some negative force in their social lives, intent on dragging the individual back down. The dreamer was getting uppity. Forgetting their place. Looking to put on airs, getting above themselves.
It didn't take too much looking to realize what the commotion was really about. Jealousy and envy, and being shown up. As in - if they can do it, then there is really no good reason why I can't either. And sometimes, this is very much the truth. Sometimes, it's a little more complicated than that.
But when this is in fact, the truth behind the response, my curiosity asks, why would someone's upward climb not be an inspiration instead of a threat?
That's what puzzles me no small amount, when I ponder this. When I was a kid, the last thing in the world I wanted to be considered as, was average. And yet that category really was the reality of my existence. It was only after I'd grown up, that I realized that the middle ground can be a pretty comfortable place to be. Part of this had to do with the fact that most (but not all) truly above-average people I knew were not particularly happy. They were accomplished, credentialed, vetted, praised in certain quarters, and generally from the outside looking in, possessed of at least the appearance of success. Yet still, they weren't any happier than I was, and in some cases, decidedly less so.
The older I get, the more I recognize a pattern now in my life, where in the middle of a discussion, argument, debate, or just heated words about something or other regarding the activity of human affairs, someone else will point out that my views are only valid due to my exceptionalism. Or that I managed to solve or work out a thing because I'm 'special.'
Now, I play a pretty good guitar. Not great at all, but good. And I happen to have written a tiny handful of reasonably decent songs in my time. Those are the only things about myself that I can possibly consider as something that might even deserve to bump up against and gently nudge that concept of 'special.' And the only reason for this at all, is that I have very intimate knowledge of the kind of work, effort and discipline that it takes to learn how to do these things. That's it.
So when I'm arguing or at least strongly advocating for basic human decency, accountability, agency, autonomy, and most of the rest of what I consider to be the absolute foundational bedrock that holds up human freedom - and which reasonably reassures us that the basic idea of it is a sound one...I do not accept the idea that this sort of freedom is something that cannot be earned, shared, enjoyed and employed in the lives of a very vast majority of the citizenry.
Which is kind of what it is all about, for me. I admit it. I'm a Libra. Freedom is my religion. All things that help to serve individual and independently self-aware lives are the religion's holy scripture.
I am well aware that many cultures in this world do not hold a lot of this in high esteem. I am also well aware that this can produce no end of mayhem and uproar, too. Mature adult humans can be very good at shouldering responsibilities. Which is a damned good thing. Because without this, we'd be in one hell of a mess. As messy as we are anyway - multiply that exponentially, if this kind of maturity did not exist in the world.
But now I sense the reader growing a little fractious. Where did this business of exceptionalism go? What happened to that? Bear with me.
I think that the very concept of freedom is one of the most powerful forces buried away in the collective human psyche. So much so, that we know it can never be narrowed down to a simple idea that it can only be bought. With millions. Or some amount beyond the ability of well over 95% of the human race. That kind of exceptionalism will just never fly.
So back to average. Let's examine that a little bit. Can an average person experience the victimization from who knows what and heal themselves without the aid of a professional? Can an average person succeed academically, become literate, and so continue a lifetime of the kind of learning derived from printed material? Can an average person make a good marriage, and good friendships that last a lifetime? Can an average person cast a knowledgeable, honest and truthful eye upon the world, and figure out what's what? Is average good enough for lasting and useful skills and abilities that come in handy in life, not only to help oneself, but others in need?
Can an average person present a squared shoulder to the boredom, the failures, faults and flaws that filter into those moments of weakness and wreck havoc if allowed, or dissipate from a bit of moral persuasion? Can an average person even occasionally come up with a bit of effort that even the most skeptical among us would have to admit at least bordered a little, on the heroic?
Can an average person ask the world in general, "Hell, if I can do it, who can't? There but for the grace of.............."
Because it is the concept of average that's being discussed here. Not exceptional. Average, by definition, is where an awful lot of us live, whether we admit it or not.
Did I happen to mention my name in passing?
I'm Joe Average.
Pleased to meet ya.
Disclaimer: As Bob Dylan once sang,
"I ain't lookin' for you to see like me, think like me or be like me..."
Thanks, Bob. I do believe that yeah, you were a little exceptional.