Of the many crimes that industry awards are accused of committing, one of the gravest is the failure to be sufficiently inclusive. The problem with this complaint – well, one of the many, many problems with it – is that I haven’t seen any of the accusers define “sufficiently inclusive.” What does “sufficiently inclusive” mean, what does it look like?
The latest attempt to cure this sin is a proposal I’ve seen shared about on the internet to name all of the finalists (of one specific set of awards) winners. Well, if the point is inclusion, why stop at the finalists? Why not all of the semifinalists? This is not a serious proposal by a serious person. The cynic in me wonders if it’s merely clickbait meant to attract equally unserious readers, who predictably pass it along while attaching to it their unserious platitudes.
If inclusion is the ultimate goal, and “sufficiently inclusive” can’t be defined, why have awards at all?
It’s one thing for a winner to stand on stage, award in hand, and acknowledge their fellow nominees, bringing them along with her as “fellow winners.” That’s a true champion, both literally and figuratively, a good and gracious sport.
But it’s a very different thing to stop shy of a declarative commitment to one winner and simply say, you know what, all of you are good enough. Since when has “good enough” come to take on a superlative significance? Not only is this killing meritocracy, it breeds mediocrity.
I understand the desire to increase and diversify the pool of eligibility. Helping people maximize their potential to reach eligibility is a noble pursuit that deserves serious consideration. But merely manufacturing a more diverse result by manipulating eligibility standards is lazy and deeply counterproductive. It underestimates and tokenizes people, and, depending on how you go about it, it’s possibly unethical too.
Eric Adams, the incumbent mayor of New York City, makes this very point in a recent interview with journalist Bari Weiss on her podcast “Honestly.” Weiss asked the mayor about the battle over the city’s eight, merit-based public preperatory schools, where admission is tied to test performance. With dropping admissions among Black and Latino students in those schools in recent years, Mayor Adam has faced intense pressure to remove the testing standards. He pushed back:
“Our answer to black and brown children not reaching proficiency is to cut off places where people have reached proficiency. I have a better response. Why not have black and brown children reach proficiency? Why do we have a school system where we’re spending over $30 billion and 65% of black and brown children don’t reach proficiency in math and English every year?”
Societies advance when there’s competition, when its members are encouraged, inspired, and aspire to be better, if not the best. Ideally, society applies its rules objectively and fairly, and equips as many people as possible to compete. This is what we should be spending our time and effort achieving, not propagating a culture of “good enough” inclusivity.
There is nothing egalitarian or equitable about conferring awards and recognizing excellence. This is an inherently exclusionary act, the value of which relies on aspiration for motivation and merit as measure. Change any of this and what you have is not an award or honor, but a decorative commodity available to anyone who desires it enough.
Photograph: Cinestill BxWW; Arifana, Portugal (October, 2022)