The displaced “Middle”

The Germans have a knack for creating single words that sum up a complex thought or idea. The one we all know is “Schadenfreude,” which translates to “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.” To me, it just means being a bitter person.

In any case, there’s a lesser-known German word that sums up another complex thought or idea: Entmuendigung. Alternatively translated as “depriving one of his voice”; “a taking away of your own decisions”; or, more simply, “incapacitation.”

However you translate it, it’s not good. In fact, I’d say it’s perhaps the worst thing you can do to a person.

In Faulkner’s under-read masterpiece Go Down Moses he talks of a displaced “voce,” and of an attempt by an “outsider” narrator, Mollie, to not be quieted and insist upon a “voce” even under the worst types of masculine oppression.

On the surface, Faulkner used “voce” rather than “voice” in order to give a sense of dialect. Just below the surface, he used that spelling because it relates to the idea of “viva voce,” which translates equally well as: “with living voice” or “word of mouth” and represents the idea of people speaking “face to face.”

People wonder why traditional record labels and other pre-modern institutions are crumbling, and the answer is sort of obvious: the over-arching presence of Entmuendigung at these institutions.

This occurred largely because the institutions have become top and bottom heavy, and the middle has been destroyed. Those at the top – the higher-paid executives – have lost any real voice, because they fear the reprisal of speaking authentically: they will be fired, and will not be able to afford the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Those at the bottom have no voice; they are simply cogs who are not listened to.

The authentic voices tended to come from those in the middle. Those in this position had less to lose than those at the top (they were paid enough to sort of live on, but certainly not so much that losing that amount would be catastrophic), and more to gain (rising to the top) by speaking with an authentic voice.

It was from the middle that innovation came. How often did we used to hear about someone who was a mid-level executive (perhaps one who rose from the lower levels (the “mail room” being the Alger-ian trope), coming up with an “outlandish” idea, giving voice to this idea even though it meant potentially being fired, and, when the merits of the idea were borne out, rising to the top, and changing industry paradigms along the way.

We don’t hear about this (to my ears) nearly as much any more. Rather, the same old ideas are recycled at these pre-modern institutions.

The middle has essentially moved on from pre-modern institutions. Those who sat between the over-paid and scared and the under-paid and voiceless have been ejected. Some are now reclaiming their voices and thus avoiding being incapacitated by becoming entrepreneurs.

Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly many businesses in which there is a thriving and encouraged middle; one full of smart people who are pushing boundaries, and who have superiors who, rather than being threatened, embrace and guide these people – knowing that by doing so, not just the company, but also they (those at the top), will reap the benefits. These are the companies who tend to innovate and perform.

When assessing a company’s or institutions prospects (deciding, for instance if you want to work there, or invest in the company), look to the middle.

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