Now and again I go to something called a spin class. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it involves a group of people riding stationary bikes in a hot dark room while being shouted at. Nothing weird about that, is there? Loud dance music booms away, although occasionally the sound system malfunctions and for a few seconds all you can hear is the creaking of bikes and bones, like the whirring of death itself. At the end of the session a screen tells you how far you haven’t travelled and, crucially, how you performed relative to everyone else in the room.
I always want to know that. Not because I’m super-competitive – I’m only averagely competitive – but because I’m the kind of person who is always checking himself against those around him. I’m interested to see if I’m exceptionally good or exceptionally bad at anything. The answer, I’ve reluctantly come to accept over the years, is that I’m average at almost everything. Among my friends and colleagues, I am averagely intelligent, averagely well read, averagely successful. No matter who is in my spin class, I’m always smack bang in the middle of the distribution. I am median man.
People often say that you shouldn’t compare yourself to others – that you should live your life, just be you and so on. But the truth is, you don’t know who you are without making comparisons and you don’t know who anyone else is, either. We only see the qualities or defects of people when they are thrown into relief by those around them. In fact, our attributes are only meaningful insofar as they exist in relation to those of other people.
One of the many ways in which I’m unremarkable is that I’m an averagely good person. I’m mostly fair to people but sometimes not, I’m kind sometimes and careless others. I was thinking about this last week as I watched the Republican senator Mitt Romney explain why he was voting to impeach a Republican president. If you haven’t watched his speech in full, I urge you to do so. Romney, who ran for president only eight years ago, now seems like a visitor from another age. He speaks the language of constitutional politics: scrupulously argued, historically informed, civil. Restrained in style as it is, the speech is also deeply emotional.
A reporter who spoke to Romney just before the vote described him as looking like a man who knew a chandelier was about to break over his head, and in his speech he is clearly nervous. At points he almost comes to tears and has to compose himself. You can feel the immense, almost physical effort he is making to resist pressure from his Republican peers.
Afterwards, most opponents of Trump acknowledged Romney’s bravery, but a few asked why on Earth we should congratulate him on doing what was so plainly the right thing to do. After all, every Democrat senator voted the same way – should we congratulate them too? Of course, this misses the point. Democrats did the right thing, but no one single Democrat deserves special approbation, because they were all doing what their party expected them to. Romney’s act was morally admirable only because it was at odds with his peers.
There’s nothing particularly admirable about those, like me, who adhere to the moral median of their tribe, even when their tribe is more estimable than the other tribe. The individuals who are truly worthy of admiration are those who exceed the mark set by those around them – who surpass the median. When a left-wing politician is sold to me on the basis that they opposed apartheid in the 1980s, for instance, I don’t find it persuasive, because that’s what every left-wing politician was doing. It doesn’t actually tell me anything about them except that they were there.
The moral median is a useful lens through which to view some of the darker debates we have about historic behaviour. A frequently heard defence of men whose sexual misdemeanours were exposed in the wake of #MeToo is: “That’s just the way things were back then.” To some extent, this is fair: just as we shouldn’t single out those who do the right thing when most others are doing it too, we should be slow to condemn individuals who were only averagely awful. Three hundred years ago, most people you knew would have leapt at the chance to watch a man killed in public. The median shifts. That shouldn’t disguise the fact that someone such as Harvey Weinstein was exceptionally nasty, even by the low standards set by his peers.
For all its manifold flaws, the society we live in now is fairer and kinder than it was in the past. We don’t make a public spectacle out of execution, or allow children to be worked to death, or ban people from voting on the basis of gender or race. Many of the biggest moral battles have been settled. But this leaves a ghost haunting the liberal conscience. I conform to the norms of my peer group, being averagely free of racial or sexual prejudice. Does that mean I would have conformed to the norms of a hundred years ago too? Would I have accepted that homosexuality is perverted and that women shouldn’t be trusted with the vote – or would I have been one of the few to recognise that such attitudes were abominable? I don’t know.
Although there is an inevitability about my middling score in spin class, I never quite concede beforehand that the middle is where I’ll end up. I start each session hoping that this time, if I push myself a little harder, I will win a place in the leading group, and now and again I succeed. Similarly, when it comes to personal conduct, we shouldn’t stop trying to be better. Having said that, I don’t trust people who actually believe in their own moral superiority – they are usually the worst of all.
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose