Girly Thoughts

September 16, 2008

Meritocracy

Filed under: Uncategorized — judgesnineteen @ 6:32 am

Hey, I’m still alive.  I’ve been too wrapped up in grad school applications and whatnot to be thinking hard about The World lately, so I haven’t had many overflowing rants to blog about.  But then I found one.

A little background: I watched a PBS movie on race last year, and then a few months ago I found the website for it.  I read a bunch of their articles and wanted to post on them to sort of summarize for people who don’t know this stuff (I didn’t) and don’t have time to read the whole website, but that still hasn’t happened.  The website is here, in any case.  In a nutshell, the point that I wanted to bring out was that minorities have been systematically denied opportunities for financial gain that were given to white people, and that minorities have been stolen from (especially: labor and land), the stolen goods being given to white people, and that created economic inequality back when it happened (back then meaning several different times, it’s a popular theme in history).  AND THEN THE PEOPLE WHO HAD MONEY GAVE IT TO THEIR KIDS, AND THE PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T, DIDN’T.  Resulting in economic inequality right now, even though I haven’t stolen from any minorities lately.  This inequality is to blame for a lot of other inequalities – the wealth gap, wealth being the amount of money you have total as opposed to the amount you get paid every month (which would be income, and which people mistakenly look at sometimes when they should be looking at wealth) – the wealth gap explains the achievement gap between black kids and white kids.

So what we live in is not a meritocracy.  Hopefully you already knew that.  But also, I realized that no meritocracy is possible among people who practice things like gift giving, inheritance, “let me see if I can set up an interview for you with my boss, what are friends for,” etc.  Or in any society with families of different wealth levels, where people buy things and do things for family members that they don’t do for non-family members.  Not that we should get rid of all these things.  Just that we should realize how extremely far away we are from a meritocratic society.  Because if meritocracy means succeeding or failing based only on your merit, with merit being defined as something that has to do with accomplishments or the potential to achieve accomplishments – that is, something you could describe starting with “I can …” instead of with “I am…” or “I have…” or “My parents…” or “My friends…” – then you shouldn’t get things that can help you succeed because of who you are and/or who you know.  Just getting a foot in the door counts, too.  We don’t have much trouble realizing that when we’re looking at affirmative action – no, they’re not getting into school/getting the job just because of their race, but it helped them.  But sometimes we totally miss it when it’s due to being a legacy or a friend of a friend or having your parents pay for an SAT prep course or buy you a suit for an interview or because you’re in the boss’s alumni group or sorority or fraternity.  We call welfare a handout, but money from our rich uncle a gift, when in fact the only difference is whether or not we have rich relatives and well-placed friends to help us out, or, in the absence of such connections, we have to look to the government.  None of it is based on our merit, unless you count whatever merit is needed to fill out the proper forms or suck up to rich people.

But again, I’m not sure we want a totally meritocratic society.  Not that I want a nepotistic society either, but think about what complete meritocracy implies: if you fail, it’s because you deserved to fail.  It’s because you couldn’t do what you needed to do, or you couldn’t do it better than your competitor.  Now, I’d rather people fail for that reason than because of their skin color or sexual apparatus, for sure.  But when you get people convinced that that’s the only reason anyone fails – even if it’s true, which of course it wouldn’t ever be in our world – you get people convinced that they don’t need to worry about people who fail.  Now I would say, ok, you wouldn’t need to worry that they were treated unfairly, but it sure would be nice of you to worry about whether they have enough to eat.  Because pure meritocracy wouldn’t guarantee any rights to anyone on the basis of what they are – humans – or what they have – suffering.

So I’m disinclined to believe that anyone is a self-made person, or that anyone pulled themselves up entirely by their own bootstraps, but I’m also disinclined to think that’s a bad thing.  We’re social animals, we help each other out for the good of the group.  If we didn’t help anyone else ever, we’d leave all our infants to die and the human species would end, which we tend to view negatively.  The trick is to make “the group” mean all of us, and even more than us, instead of just our families, our friends, our social class, and so on.  In the face of the impossibility of worldwide communism,  I guess all we can do is try to strike a good balance between helping and being unbiased. I certainly don’t know how we should do that, but I can point out that it will take awareness of the dangers of either extreme.  Not surprisingly, I think human rights can help a lot.

This shows one of the problems with charity though – you give to whom you choose to give, and you choose based on things like who you’re more partial to.  Your relative had x disease so you donate to the research fund for x disease, that kind of thing.  Or you donate to what you think matters the most.  I’ve heard that cute cuddly animals get more funding to keep them from going extinct than ugly animals.  Helping is natural to us, but bias comes with it.  I’m still thinking about this, hopefully I’ll follow up on it later.

I still can’t figure out what you do to rectify a wrong that was committed by and against people that are dead, but remains committed and continues to effect the descendants of both parties.  It would be easier if that was all there was to it, but immigration, emigration, and all kinds of ways of moving money around complicate the problem immensely.  But we’re definitely not going to find a workable solution as long as people keep ignoring the fact that this is the issue.  When we learn about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and resulting slavery, for instance, we learn about the horrible conditions of the slaves, we learn to feel bad for them.  But they died, their pain is gone with them.  The money made off them didn’t die, though.  Why don’t we learn about the money that the slave owners made by not paying their laborers like everyone is supposed to?  Why didn’t we learn how much less money they should have been able to keep and how much more money African Americans should have started their free lives with?  Not even counting the money they should have made by suing slave owners for being so late in paying their wages and for all different kinds of abuse.  Why didn’t we discuss the ethics of paying a debt posthumously?  It wouldn’t have made the issue simpler, but at least we would see what we were dealing with.  Nearly all the debate I hear about things like this center around arguments that completely miss the point.

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1 Comment »

  1. Ah! Thank you for this post! Brilliant! I am sending someone a link to it right now.

    And I had to watch that movie for my freshman preceptorial class last year as well. It was very powerful, I remember, but I haven’t though of it much since.

    Comment by Amelia — September 16, 2008 @ 6:40 am | Reply


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