By David Ramírez
If I was going to pick the single issue that has brought more misery to humanity in our known recorded history, the issue of people feeling superior to others—with or without merit—would be the one that would take the cake. Having said that, I have to differentiate between people feeling and people being superior. People who feel superior only do so under their own perceived notions, while people being superior are thus acknowledged by others to be so. And both are independent, again, of whether such merit exists or is actualized or none at all. It could be real; it could be the figments of someone’s imagination—that of your own or others.
I must admit, the whole idea of using the word “superior” is nonsensical to me; not because I do not think that people and things can be better than other people and things, but rather because I think that all people and all things are better in different qualities, capacities or natures in different respects to others. There is nothing superior to anything or to anyone because simply there is no single being or thing that excels above and beyond in all qualities, capacities or natures.
What the above means is that each and every individual has or cultivates different qualities, capacities or natures. An athlete who plays professional American football would probably not excel in soccer football, being that the physiological requirements for each game are different. So such player would not be “superior” on a soccer field. An autistic person, while probably not able to function as a normal person in society, he or she might have certain cognitive abilities that are “superior” to the rest. Some people may think that bland food is better than spicy food (and thus “superior”), and others may think spicy food is better than bland food—it all depends on their definition what is better according to their personal preferences. And likewise we can list a myriad of comparative examples. And again, the issue is not so much about being “superior,” but merely about being better in different qualities, capacities or natures.
This why I found it interesting to have stumbled with the following article by Dr. M.G. Piety, “On Greatness,” where she attempts to give her explanation on the “superior” and its importance in leadership.
Piety believes that all people “lookout for greatness.” To her this is the nature of all mammals, being the social animals that we are. This greatness in turn, her theory goes, is the source of the cult of personality to which we all are held swayed. Then she laments that Democracy diminishes the role of the “superior” being, who can serve as a leader.
She addresses the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s statement “all men are created equal,” which is a “self-evident” truth. But obviously, she goes on to say, it is not true that all human beings are equal:
“Some people are more beautiful than other people, some faster, some smarter or more talented in one way or another, some people are even kinder or more tolerant by nature than others. Parents who are honest will admit that many of these differences appear to be present from birth.”
Wait a minute. I am no Constitutional scholar, but even ignoramus me knows that that is not what the U.S. Founding Fathers meant by “all men are created equal.” A simple search on the Internet allows us to see the full text where that phrase is written:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
So, if we follow the reading of the latter statement, “being created equal” means that “all men” have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” There is nothing there about being equally smart, equally beautiful, equally faster, etc. I do not know about you, but I think no sane human being would ever think that. It is obvious we all have our physiological, physical and cognitive differences, yet people with differences that have equal Rights. This is a cornerstone of modern democracies, which is continuously being worked out.
Contrary to what Piety thinks, neither religion nor secular humanism has been able to protect the less fortunate from the ravages of those deemed “superior.” A simple overview down memory lane can confirm this assertion.
Piety thinks this idea of equality in our post-feudal world represses our ability to recognize someone as “superior” among the good ones among our peers. To her, Western culture practices a leveling dynamic, which is a desire to bring down anyone who dares to rise above the fray. In that vein, she sums up the attitude in what the Danes call Janteloven, which is in her words “No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.” The Wikipedia article explains it as follows:
“[A] sociological term to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.”
Having grown up in a highly stratified society such as Mexico, I can certainly relate to what Piety expresses with Janteloven. However, such attitude in a Mexican context does not come from a desire to make everybody “equal,” but from the very idea that there are “superior” and “inferior” beings, the result of a combined legacy of Pre-Columbian cultures, feudal political and social attitudes from Europe via Spain, and Catholic teachings. Has religion ever helped change that on going reality? No. Has modern secular humanism—promoted by state-sanctioned secular primary, secondary and higher education—ever changed that? No. Mexico still has over 50% of its population living in extreme poverty.
I do not know what would be the source for such feelings in a Danish socio-historical context, as novelist “Sandemose [creator of the concept of janteloven] was seeking to formulate and describe attitudes that had already been part of the Danish and Norwegian psyche for centuries.” But I can certainly tell you that in a Mexican context such desire to better yourself and become “above the fray” is pushed down by people who have weaseled their way to the top—either by means of long-standing privilege or cheating—, and whom out of envy, jealousy, classism, racism or their own sense of incompetence in the presence of the more talented and capable, they want to keep everyone else in their “inferior” station.
Now, I would like to address a curious term that Dr. Piety brought, which is that of “leveling,” where I think revolves her whole concern. The term, my meager search yields, is highly associated with the Danish existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Being that Piety is a Kierkegaard scholar, I would have to trust and defer the use of the term to her.
However, I found contradicting positions on the use of the term by Kierkegaard himself. One where the individual suppresses his individual uniqueness to the point of non-existence:
“Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality.”
The second is meant to make everyone to have equal access by erasing the distinctions among individuals:
“[B]y averageness and leveling down, everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone… by virtue of an insensitivity to all distinctions in level and genuineness, and in providing average intelligibility, opens up a standard world in which all distinctions between the unique and the general, the superior and the average, the important and the trivial have been leveled.”
The latter perfectly behaves along the lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. This concept levels the access of different peoples to the same Rights.
In the Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers (Vol. 4. London: Routledge, 2002), the editors speak that Kierkegaard’s concern with leveling was brought about because of Denmark’s socio-cultural situation at the time. Kierkergaard saw Danes as having no passion for life, spending their time mindlessly and reflecting on things without end.
For Kierkegaard, the argument in the Introduction goes on, we are all subsumed to mob rule, as a result of leveling social institutions, which dissipates passions and prevents individuality from becoming manifested. This has two negative effects on society: One, it makes people complaisant, content with anonymity, and fearful to step out of line; stepping out of line would mean becoming an outcast and therefore alone and lonely. Two, “the crowd… militates against the emergence of any genuine, authentic individuals.” This resonates with Dr. Piety’s concern.
If this accurately reflects Kierkegaard’s idea of leveling, I think he is giving too much credit to institutions, and too little credit to the individual’s self-interests and sense of preservation.
Be it as it may, it does not appear to me that Kierkegaard ever meant the term in the sense that Piety wants to apply it in her article. Plus, I do not agree that Western culture practices “leveling,” at least not in my Anglo-American experience while living in the U.S.
The U.S. is a veritable meritocracy. People prize people who better themselves; our peers are genuinely happy, even excited, to see someone advance. We see it in practically all walks of life, which when practiced to the extreme, sometimes merit is given for things that really do not deserve distinction, but only done to provide a feeling of self-worth—however false or real it may be.
All cultures recognize people’s merits, whatever each would find worth considering any given attribute as a merit; some more or less than others.
Of course, humans will be humans, and there is no shortage of jealous, envious, racist, classist or incompetent weasels that will put people down at all cost. But then again, this is an issue of feeling “superior,” not one of leveling. Just ask the Americans of African ancestries, who have been particularly victims of this onerous attitude for over 300 years.
Having said all the foregoing, I strongly disagree that a democratic society that strives for egalitarianism ever attempts to suppress self-advancement as part of its egalitarian programming, at least not in an Anglo-American setting.
And then there is the issue of leadership intertwined with the issue of being “superior.” I disagree that those deemed “superior” can be leaders, even if they are admired by others. In fact, many leaders are rather mediocre when it comes to their own intimate personal relationships, education, morality; the list goes on. But effective leaders do possess a charisma and/or a message and/or intended purpose that resonates with people, which makes them follow him or her. A leader has to be in the right place at the right time.
Recognizing someone as “superior” does not automatically make someone a leader. Leadership, especially leadership for change and transcendence, is not a function of being “superior.” Leadership takes on a multi-faceted role that includes self-sacrifice, self-doubt, incomparable patience, fearless in the face of failure, and a good deal of stamina to be able to continue after failing over and over again.
Such was the case of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose missions in the beginning was rejected by many in his community, and only over time it gained momentum. People did not look up to him in the beginning, yet his perseverance, negotiating and rhetorical skills, ability to make people coalesce behind his vision, made a watershed change in civil rights. Before him, Gandhi liberated a whole country, from whom Dr. King took many ideas. And neither were perfect human beings.
Chomsky, on the other hand, may be a genius in his field; his insights on politics and history uncanny. For all we know, he might even be the “most quoted living writer, and the eighth most quoted in history” according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. However, he is not a transcending leader the way Dr. King was. Aside from his anti-war activist participation during the Vietnam conflict, his exposés of super-structures for over 40 years have not made any major change in society, nor has it stopped the evolution of wage-slaving and consumerist-pushing markets and imperialistic impulses of the U.S. and Europe, much less hinder the capacities of U.S. chicken-war-hawks to continue on launching new wars, which not only have destabilized the entire Middle East, but now are destabilizing Western democracies too!!
Besides, I bet that the self-effacing Chomsky would feel very uncomfortable been given a “superior” station, as Piety has already acquiesced to him. He does not even give me the impression of wanting to be a leader. In his many conferences and discussions, he advises his listeners to make up their own opinion; to compare notes among different sources and make your decision; to coalesce around a single idea, organize, and act to promote change. Don’t listen to me: Study, search, inquire, decide and act. This seems to be Chomsky’s overall activist message, which to me defeats the very idea of following a “superior” as a leader.
And on that observation I would like to finish the present article. Chomsky approach is easier said than done. It sure diffuses the need for an all-knowing super leader to take care of business, but misses the overall problem of human nature, namely the human being as a social animal and its instinct for self-preservation.
This is something that Chris Hedges has called attention to in his explanations on how the market corporations have coopted social and political institutions to their will. As a result, the vast majority of people, whose very living depends on working for a wage, are resilient from activism for change for the very fear of upsetting the powers that be, which can risk their job security, and therefore their livelihood. We have certainly seen this happening with outspoken college professors in recent memory.
Then there is the issue of mass delusion, which is the result of what Chomsky would call manufacturing consent, where people are kept misinformed and complaisant via mass media news and entertainment. Skewed news keeps people from caring for the things that really matter; entertainment keeps people sedated and pummeled into stupidity.
And of course we have the weasel acolytes who perfectly know what is going on, and happily work for the matrix, provided they get their own benefits and privileges. Screw humanity and Earth!
It is not that people lack passion, but that their passions are channeled to benefit the 1%, and not their and their families’ future.
Neither Hedges nor Chomsky offer an easy way out of this oppression other than self-education, organization and action. But I would not doubt they both would like to keep the idea of the “superior” boxed where it belongs: To the dangerous arcane and passé ideas of yesteryear.
 “Law of Jante.” Wikipedia.org. June 8 2015. Web. June 18 2015.
 Kierkegaard, Søren. The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion (New York; London: Harper Perennial, 2010), pp. 51–53.
 Dreyfus, Hubert. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 158.
 Sampson, Geoffrey. The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate (London; New York: Continuum, 2005), p. 11.