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The hardest ideology to examine critically is your own.  Meritocracy is a social norm in Canada and the United States, woven through the fabrics of our societies.  It is a belief that supports much of the status quo and reinforces some of the harmful myths that cause suffering in society.  Is it all bad?  Of course not, but it can lead one down a path of making moral assessments of other people’s worth based on the material or social goods that they have ‘won’ in society.  It can be easy to overlook the role luck plays in achieving and getting ahead within our social systems.

Clifton Mark, writing for Aeon Magazine writes about the place meritocratic ideology occupies in our society.  This is the juicy part, but I’d encourage you to go read the entire article.

 

“Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The ‘even playing field’ is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. Its ideological alchemy transmutes property into praise, material inequality into personal superiority. It licenses the rich and powerful to view themselves as productive geniuses. While this effect is most spectacular among the elite, nearly any accomplishment can be viewed through meritocratic eyes. Graduating from high school, artistic success or simply having money can all be seen as evidence of talent and effort. By the same token, worldly failures becomes signs of personal defects, providing a reason why those at the bottom of the social hierarchy deserve to remain there.”

It is fascinating how quickly we convert material success into also meaning good moral standing.  There is no reason for the linkage as we all are aware of people who disregard social norms and leave a trail of destruction in their quest for personal glory and achievement.

 

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