In Defense of Excellence
I've noticed a trend, particularly in paganism, toward "elite" becoming
a derogatory term. "Elitist" has very unpleasant connotations. In the
mad scramble toward equality and egalitarianism, perhaps the trend has
gone too far.
I am all in favour of equality of opportunity. I believe in Martin
Luther King's dream, "I have a dream that someday my children will be
judged, not upon the colour of their skin, but on the content of their
Yet, I am deeply disturbed by structures and titles meant to reward
excellence downgraded and dismissed as being elitist and hierarchical.
It the Wicca, this is most strongly epitomised by the continuing
attempts to do away with degree systems on the basis of being elitists
So I ask, what is wrong with elites? Elites exist as an informal (and
often highly formal) network of persons who, by virtue of
personal qualities, or power, or money, or birth status, are capable of
shaping and changing the structure of society. Some elites are based on
nothing more than bank balances or parentage. Others are firmly based
on intelligence, wisdom, commitment and ethical stance of their members.
I have no problem with the concept of elites. Not everyone has the
desire or capability to belong to every group. The problem lies with
the qualification for membership, not with the concept.
Hierarchy has an even nastier reputation. Yet in all societies,
regardless of size, structure of purpose, have a hierarchy. Leadership
roles exists and will be filled by those who can fill them. Leaders are
necessary to achieve the goals of the group, regardless of how that
leadership manifests. It is only when a hierarchy becomes closed and
fixed that the structure becomes abusive.
The concerns of those who dislike the concept of hierarchy due to
experience of its abuses are valid. It is very easy to fall into a
system where power rests, not on those who are qualified, but upon
other,less desirable criteria, such as birth status, or wealth, or
loudness of voice. However, doing away with the formal structure of
hierarchy does not solve the problem. Non hierarchical groups often
fall into leadership by peer pressure. Those that are thick skinned and
dominant will lead de facto, especially if there is no de jure leader.
Hierarchies exist. They exist because, like physics, nature abhors a
vaccuum. A power vaccuum will be filled regardless of the good
intentions on all sides. The solution is to have structures where all
persons have the opportunity to become leaders, to participate in the
decision making process, based only upon ability and desire to do so.
Equal opportunity,equal access.
The degree system within the Craft is not perfect. Like any other
system,it has its abuses. However, if properly used, it has rewards far
greater than having no such system.
First, there is the reward for excellence. Those who have personal
qualities such as commitment, talent, study, intelligence and open
mindedness, should be rewarded for their abilities. The reward is not
just a fancy title, but a recognition of that excellence, and membership
in an elite.
Second, there is a benchmark for others to judge by. If I know what
degree a person holds, mundane or Craft, I have some idea of their
abilities and can assume a certain level of understanding.
Third, there is the recognition of self. A standard of excellence is
required and achieving a degree is a feedback upon the levels achieved.
There are other aspects dealing with the magic rite itself, but even if
there were not, the hierarchy of degrees and the elite groups formed by
having them are a mark of excellence for those who belong. Within my
tradition and, according to my faith, within the Wicca itself, there are
no barriers of opportunity to the system. Therefore, I see no reason to
abandon it. I do not say that the system cannot be improved or that
another system cannot provide the same benefits, but I haven't seen one
that provides a reward for excellence while avoiding the pitfalls.
Without active encouragement of excellence, whether in Craft or in the
mundane world, entropy says that we will end up with mediocrity and
least common denominator. And a world where mediocrity rules is not a
world I wish to live in.
(This article previously appeared in "The Messenger")