I love the idea of meritocracy, don’t get me wrong; everyone gets what they earn, no more and no less. I just wish we lived in one. And I wish we didn’t have such a flawed, fanatical sense of what it means to live in a meritocracy. I would even posit that we hold the meritocracy–the sense of getting what you deserve and deserving what you get–closer to our collective American heart than the democracy.
Meritocracy leads to False Entitlement
The problem with the idea of a meritocracy is that we act as though EVERYTHING is given based on merit. If someone wins the lottery, falls in love, gets a good job or is thin and attractive, they say, “What did I do to deserve this?” Most people eventually determine that they “must have done something right.” This ignores luck, familial ties, social/institutional advantages, gender, race, geography and genetics. This then leads to thinking that if you have something, and it’s because you deserve it, then those who don’t have something must be lacking because they don’t deserve it. Inevitably, this leads to major judgments (often of the moral variety) of those who are overweight, single, homeless, unemployed, less educated, poor, you name it. Of course, for most Americans, this whole thought process takes place in less than a minute.
We’re Not Really a Meritocracy
A meritocracy is great, but unfortunately we don’t really live in one. Age, height, attractiveness, gender and race all have significantly more to do with your successes or failures than your actual hard work (or the other guy’s). I think the people who don’t believe in this, in institutionalized and sub-conscious racism, sexism, elitism etc are the ones who have a hard time believing that quotas and Affirmative Action can be a good thing. Instead of looking at facts and our flawed system (and minds), they cling to the emotional narrative of the hard-working white man who is constantly bypassed for promotions in favor of women and minorities. Never mind that this man (your son, father, husband or friend) may not actually deserve the promotion, the person must have been less experienced, less educated, less deserving and with less seniority, and they must have “gotten away with it” because of their minority status.
If we let go of that emotional narrative, and see that white men by and large have the most advantages of anyone in our society (especially if they’re tall, have their hair, and are attractive), then we can see that perhaps other people deserve a chance.
I leave you with this, from the talented and blissfully succinct Jessica Hagy: