Put to the test

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Artwork by Mark Palfreyman.

One of the easiest and sincerest ways of flattering hosts is to observe that they’re a proud people. And the wellspring, the essence of that pride, be it in nation, region, religion, sports club or street gang, is that almost every human grouping thinks it’s the best. In-group identity naturally comes with an encoded sense of self-esteem. You take pride in your group, and you therefore want to believe it’s better than the others.

Thus, from pride comes exceptionalism. A belief that there’s certain things that the group excels at, that its name is indelibly associated with. Brazilians are exceptional at football, Welsh and New Zealanders are exceptional at rugby, Indians and Pakistanis are exceptional at cricket.

Such belief in exceptionalism isn’t necessarily prejudiced if the believer understands that it’s just that, a belief that may not be shared and may not even have any basis in fact, and – crucially – is also willing to put it to the test.

It’s exactly this combination of pride, and the knowledge that a decisive test for the basis of that pride is coming, is what gives such a frisson to sports events. Will our tribe, our group, our team demonstrate that they’re as good as we believe? Or will they be found wanting? The key thing with sports is that those claims of exceptionalism are put to the test. Repeatedly. Fixture after fixture, season after season, year after year the tests go on, and if a trend emerges within that crucible of proof – like New Zealand in rugby – then sometimes the claims of exceptionalism start to have a ring of truth about them.

It’s nothing to do with nation or race or even biology, of course. It’s culture. A winning team will have a certain culture that has given it an edge, and once that fact is acknowledged, its competitors will try to either copy that system (witness the rise of possession-based football in the wake of Spain’s dominance 10 years ago) or ultimately evolve tactics to negate it (witness the current primacy of pressing-based tactics in football).

Pride and exceptionalism get dangerous when they’re not tested. Complacency sets in when that belief of superiority is allowed to flourish without tolerating any evidence to the contrary, or without putting it to the test. Decadence follows. Both the Roman Empire and the British Empire were forged in contest with other states, but undone when the absence of competition let them grow fat.

In the UK and USA responses to the coronavirus pandemic, we see the corrosive effects of such complacency – by believing they were exceptional, that they knew better than the WHO, that they were better prepared than other countries, that they were so inherently superior that they would be sure to handle it better than the Chinese, the Italians, and the Spanish, they ended up with the virus running riot. Countries that have handled it well (Germany, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand, Taiwan to name a few) have generally just acted quickly and followed WHO recommendations.

Exceptionalism, the corrosive belief that your group is better than others, produces harm in other ways. How else to explain Dominic Cummings, special advisor to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, flouting the very lockdown rules that he helped to craft unless on some fundamental level he believed that those same rules didn’t apply to him? It is one of the great ironies of right-wing populism that its leaders, in their behaviour, seem to despise or at the very least disparage the very people they claim to champion. The unavoidable message of the Cummings scandal, as implicitly parroted by a shameful parade of government ministers, is that he could be trusted to behave responsibly even if he broke the terms of lockdown, while the general public can’t. In the government’s view, its members are exceptional, and are therefore free to flout the very rules they impose on their voters.

Furthermore, the belief that members of your group are automatically better that others breeds nepotism. Nepotism is another manifestation of exceptionalism, stemming from a belief that people “like us” are always going to be the best for a position, because they belong to our group and are sympathetic to our attitudes. It also reflects the strength of that in-group belief: you look after your own before you look after the others. You promote in-group members.

If the combination of pride, exceptionalism, and avoidance of proof are corrosive, then the addition of nepotism makes them utterly toxic. It removes diversity. It removes plurality. It results in a monoculture that reflects the entrenched attitudes of its members, unchallenged by any contradictory position or perspective.

And avoiding proof can be accomplished in a more active and sinister way than mere evasion, it can also be achieved by systematically denying other groups access to similar opportunities. You weaken other groups in order to maintain the dominance that you see as a birthright, and, in a circular argument, its very perpetuation becomes evidence of its truth.

In the US, this systemic discrimination appears to be coming to a boil. African Americans are dying disproportionately from both the coronavirus and from the police, and the message being given is clear: to the group at the top, you are not like us, and your lives are worth less than those of ours. This is exactly why Black Lives Matter is such a resonant slogan because it speaks directly to the heart of the problem: all American lives are supposed to be equal. Those principles are what originally set it apart from the despotic monarchies, especially those of Europe, that its 18th and 19th and 20th century immigrants left behind – places where the lives of aristocrats (those in a state of grace) were of inherently greater worth than those of the damned.

If arrogance stems from an assumed sense of superiority, then privilege is the automatic possession of actual superiority, at least in the eyes of society and its agents. The English have long been accused of arrogance by their Welsh, Scots, and Irish neighbours, who understand that while there may be more English people, there is nothing intrinsically superior about them (quite often the opposite). In America, black Americans have to live with the awareness both that there is nothing intrinsically better about their white neighbours, and that the whole apparatus of the state and society is directed towards maintaining the privilege of that group.

When systemic injustice has stripped you of opportunity, equality, and often your liberty too, sometimes your pride is the only thing you have left. Because deep down you know you’re as good as any other.

Does that mean that America is now in a state of irreversible decline? Not necessarily.

Academia is another at-risk area for complacency (leading to nepotism and cronyism), especially given that unlike the corporate sector, it’s harder to put to the test – there is no invisible hand of the market to continuously provide feedback on performance. Witness, for example, the stagnation of German and Austrian science in the 70s and 80s, which had as one symptom the continual promotion of people from within the system. The good news is that from the 90s onwards, both German and then Austrian academia arrested their declines. They recruited internationally, they restructured, they diversified. They’re still not perfect, not by a long shot, but there was a frank admission of shortcomings and an attempt to address the systematic inadequacies that had led to the decline.

In essence, it’s no different from watching what successful sports teams are doing and replicating it. Change for the better is possible, if the commitment to change is wholehearted, and from across the societal spectrum.

Dedicated to all the protesters out on the streets, all around the world. Stay safe.

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