Against Meritocracy

Geek Feminism has a guest post entitled, “you keep using that word”, which argues, “…a meritocracy is not a real thing. It is a joke.”
(NSFW tag for expletives, including in the quote below.  Also p.s. the homepage of Garann Means is pretty spiffy.)

A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best. If it were, the “best of the best” in almost every goddamned industry or group on the planet would not be a clump of white men. I’m having trouble finding good stats on this, but white men are something like 8% of the world’s population. When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.


Obviously the argument is glossing over issues of local demographics, but the point is still interesting even in that respect.  When we talk about department or conference demographics, we implicitly understand that there are parameters likes citizenship, age, formal education, etc. that limit the pool of people we are willing to look at.
Also, the experience of viewing something *as* an anomaly is really interesting   I remember when I first started reading research in psychology last year and I realized that about 40-60% of the stuff I was reading was written by women.  I then glanced over at a stack of philosophy books–ten or so with nine written by men–and for the first time I explicitly thought, “Huh, that’s looks really weird in comparison.”  It’s a powerful feeling when something no longer seems normal, but rather skewed.  Now when I look at philosophy syllabi where it’s all men, that *looks* weird/skewed to me. It’s interesting though that I still haven’t experienced this kind of visceral weirdness when I’ve walked into a philosophy conference where it’s 80-90% white men. That still feels ‘normal’.

9 thoughts on “Against Meritocracy

  1. “I still haven’t experienced this kind of visceral weirdness when I’ve walked into a philosophy conference where it’s 80-90% white men. That still feels ‘normal’.”

    Your honesty is helpful.

    Here is an approach that might change one’s visceral experience. When walking into a philosophy department or conference, make an effort to note how many blacks, for example, are present. Usually, there will be occasion to think, “This is how things back in the days of the Jim Crow North must have looked and felt.”

    For reasons mostly beyond my control, I don’t have to make such an effort. My normal response triggers thoughts like, “This racialized state of affairs isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.” A feeling of “weirdness” is only part of my experience.

  2. The white dude bit seems typical, but I’ve found it upsetting for years now. I think it is tragic that there are so few African American’s and members of other underrepresented groups.

    I was going to say “so few people with disabilities,” but without planning it, I had asked 5 members of the central division APA program committee (out of 12, counting myself) who had disabilities. Perhaps there were more, but these were fairly visible disabilities.

  3. Iris Marion Young wrote about this in her 1990 work, Justice and the Politics of Difference, in a chapter called “Affirmative Action and The Myth of Merit.” in it she argues that merit functions as ideology, which is precisely why it seems so ‘natural’ for those already in (or scrambling madly for) a job that those around them look pretty much like they do, on the one hand, and why those who don’t look like everybody else are a suspect class, on the other.

  4. It’s also worth noting that many minority populations (hispanics, native americans, etc) may be invisible at first glance even if present. White doesn’t mean WASP.

  5. There’s a lot worth discussing in the article (which she admits is more rant than argument).

    Anyone know where to look for various accounts of “merit”? A field could hand out positions based on who is the best of the best. Is that meritocratic if the candidate pool isn’t populated by meritocratic processes? If philosophy became bias-free tomorrow, there would still be huge disparities for non-discipline related isues.

    Does one merit something by one’s efforts, abilities, both, something else? Is a genuine meritocracy, either in the small or across society, even desirable? Is it a matter of justice? Utility?

  6. I personally have used Alison Bailey’s piece on privilege, called “Privilege”, I believe, to point out how we are often led to understand merit as a fair game because we fail to perceive the unequal playing field of background injustice as sort of the air we breath. There is also a 1977 article by Richard Wasserstrom titled “A Defense of Programs of Preferential Treatment,” that I first encountered in Van Camp, Olen and Barry’s ethics textbook, Applying Ethics: A Text with Readings. It was initially published at Part II of “Racism, Sexism, and Preferential Treatment: Approach to the Topics,” U.C.L.A. Law Review, vol. 24 (1977): 581. There he makes some interesting points about desert, merit, tradition and expectations.

  7. In reality, though, the best of the best will, disproportionately, be the most privileged (in various ways).

    Or, put otherwise: privilege implies genuinely superior opportunities for realization of human potential. Privilege means realizing more of your cognitive potential. That is, truly realizing more potential — becoming truly better than you would have been, without those extra capabilities. Not as a matter of perception, but as a matter of actual capability.

    When you look at famous geniuses, Mozart, Newton, etc., they always come from (at least moderate, but usually quite substantial) privilege. They are never, ever, ever field-workers. A field-worker simply doesn’t have the kind of life that allows him to realize his intellectual capacities. So a field-worker really, truly will not become the best of the best.

    Privilege is not based on “discrimination” against equally-capable, unequally-considered, unprivileged people. Privilege is based on the actual destruction of the capabilities of the unprivileged. It is for that reason that meritocracy is a cruel joke. The elite cut off the feet of their competitors, and then hold a race to decide who will rule. We don’t like to admit this, because for most of us, it means admitting that we, too, have suffered the damage of this cobbling, and that we cannot simply will it away. But we have to own up to it, if we truly want justice.

  8. The article has some problems (to be clear I’d be in agreement if it said claims US society is meritocratic are a cruel hoax but that’s not what it is claiming)..

    First, the origin of a word is totally irrelevant. I realize the author is just using a rhetorical flourish but she makes it sound too much like a satire was responsible for the *idea* of meritocracy rather than just popularizing the word so I think its worth noting.

    Second, one can’t coherently claim both that meritocracy isn’t a real thing and that “Hacker culture is a great example of a meritocracy” or that “A meritocracy is a system for centralizing authority in the hands of those who already have it.”

    Reading charitably I think we can reconstruct a coherent argument that is probably something like what the author had in mind. Namely that the ideal meritocratic system that one might describe in the philosophy room doesn’t exist (indeed maybe even can’t) but that the result of *trying* or aspiring toward a meritocracy leads to the supposed harms of hacker culture or causes centralization of authority in the hands of those who already have it.

    But the problem is that the author presents no evidence or even argument for this claim. Indeed, other than the fact that the author seems to have some unrelated dispute with individuals holding up hacker culture its not at all clear why we should think hacker culture is the result of an attempt to achieve meritocracy (remember if we evaluating the effects of *trying* for a meritocratic society then its the attempts to make such a society we need to look at not whatever corners of society some dudes online think of as meritocratic).

    However, it is quite plausible to believe that hacker culture (and even employment via gig work like upwork) is relatively meritocratic (so still far from ideal). Its just that the world which one must navigate to get the skills and resources necessary to master programming isn’t meritocratic. And the author’s claim about hackers that “They created an arbitrary set of metrics for membership and according to their metrics, they triumphed. ” is just absurd. The whole deal with hacker culture is that there are very low barriers to entry and if you know how to program computers you can just show up and start submitting patches (not this is a separate thing from silicon valley or tech culture). Unsurprisingly, people who want to run software mostly care that it works so unless the author is suggesting the metric of being able to make a computer do things other people find useful is arbitrary this is totally unsupported. Note I’m not claiming hacker culture is particularly meritocratic, I’m not sure, but we don’t have any reason to believe it isn’t either.

    This same point (there is a difference between a culture/field being internally meritocratic and drawing members from a meritocraticaly structured society) applies more broadly to most of the points in the article. Now one can argue that the morally appropriate thing to do in the face of an unfair society is to offset that unfairness by giving out jobs and promotions in a field in a way that somehow balances out the prior difficulties certain groups of aspiring members of the field faced but thats simply not what the word means. One can argue that its bad to be a meritocratic field in a non-meritocratic world as you then ignore the fact that some applicants for jobs had to overcome far more hurdles to study or practice but one can’t tell if the field is internally meritocratic merely by looking at field wide demographics. That requires seeing if internal promotion rates are what one would expect if they were determined purely based on ability/performance (when done the research does suggest the tech industry certainly falls short of meritocracy but again tech industry isn’t the same as hacker culture).

    So this leaves us pretty much totally without any argument. Maybe meritocracy is in principle impossible to achieve but so too is a just society and that doesn’t mean it isn’t good to aspire toward them (regardless of where the word came from). It might have been that meritocratic aspirations somehow result in bad consequences but the author has provided no argument for that. Indeed, I strongly suspect that most of the things that aspiring to meritocracy would require (equalizing educational access, providing poor children the same resources as rich ones etc..) are things the author would approve of so I’m genuinely puzzled what the argument is supposed to be here.

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