A screwed up society
Escritor: Daniel Ospina
You are incapable, you are not useful, work, you are a piece of garbage. The foundations of a system that constantly degrades people, humiliates them, makes them feel less and despises them. Where social inequality is constantly accentuated and based on it to spread its plague from schools to work spaces. And which no longer needs bases since society has become its base, since it has been in charge of appropriating and expanding it, damaging people, their mentality and the functioning of the world every day. Meritocracy. A name that is probably foreign to many people, which makes it even worse, since they are not able to see the problem in which they are involved. In order to really get to know the problems of meritocracy we have to start by acknowledging we are part of the problem, and we are going to be able to do this by making a deep analysis into this concept, then creating a critical posture and finally, not making a change at all, since in order to ruin the system we would have to ruin the mentality of all the people inside, who are all of us.
Meritocracy has been for decades the way in which the elites maintain domain over masses, since it has been the way in which a hierarchy around the idea of merit has been constructed. This same idea of merit has been spreaded into society as a positive encouragement, since it has been presented as the way in which “the most talented people [are directed] into the most functionally important positions and thereby enhances a society's survival and efficiency” (Scully, M. A., 2015). But this utopian view about society has been based on many incoherences that have led to a non-realist system. The base of this incoherence is the ideal of a social equality in which all the members of society are able to have the same privileges and opportunities. A misconception that, with it, leads to the justification of those same inequalities. As Shanon McCoy said in his book Priming meritocracy and the psychological justification of inequality, “this belief system justifies status inequalities by locating the cause of status differences in the individual talents and efforts of group members” (McCoy, S., 2007). So basically, meritocracy is what leads to discrimination, stereotypes and non-dignification in society. All this may sound like a hasty conclusion, but if all the panorama is analyzed, we can evidence the way in which the problems starts with the roots of our society. Education.
The American educational system is a mechanism politically used to keep alive the meritocratic ideal, since it helps students to digest the idea that everyone in the school has the same possibilities, and good or bad grades are aligned only with the effort factor. According to Bell (1973), higher education in a post-industrialist society, becomes a “defensive necessity”. However, in that same post-industrialist society the access to education itself is limited, so, going back to Bell's statement, not everyone in society has the same opportunities to “defend”. Education is a determiner of the future stratification of society, and if not everyone has access to education, the exclusion and margination of groups of people is inevitable. A troubling effect of an uncritical view of meritocracy is that by not acknowledging there are greater structural social inequalities at play, there may be a tendency to view students who do not reach higher levels of educational attainment as having failed on their own terms (Karabel 2005; McNamee and Miller 2004; Young 2001). On the other hand we have the creative and developing restrictions inherent to education. Due to the differences between individuals, their different abilities, capacities and talents, the way of viewing society as the surveillance and success of the most talented is biased by the idea we are a mass. In schools or universities, people is not taken as individuals, but as masses, that can all be standardized and categorized “just as potatoes, grade A, grade B, grade C, and therefore know which is the better potato and which isn’t, which is the better person and which isn’t” (Wolff, 2020). In this way, people are just conceived as equals, same capacities, same possibilities, same talents, the system forbids students to develop creatively and to give their own contribution to society in a way they can really give their best for others, based on what they are good at. This last part leads to the problem of work, which we are going to see is also one of the principal contributors of the degradation of society from meritocracy.
After education, the necessity Bell (1973) explained evidence itself in the laboral world, what many people call the “real world” and it is in this context, that margination, humiliation, exclusion and inequality in general is most hardly evidenced, but least recognized. The answer to the question: why least recognized? is basically because education already predisposes individuals to that same mechanism. Humiliation when getting a bad grade is as humiliation when your boss insulted you at work, IT WAS YOUR FAULT. Degradation when you conceive yourself as less due to your grades is as when you feel less capable, or less talented regarding your coworkers, IT IS YOUR FAULT. In laboral spaces “initial differences in opportunities and rewards shape performance and/or subsequent opportunities and rewards, such that those who receive more initial opportunities and rewards tend to receive even more over time.” (Khan, S., & Jerolmack, C., 2013). So if the educational system was initially totally screwed up due to its social inequalities, this will directly reflect in a laboral workspace. It was not actually your fault to fail in the “real world”, that feeling is the system blaming you for its faults and problems.
So the system actually prevents you from succeeding if you didn’t have that initial stroke of luck (opportunities and privileges). But if we are going to talk about succeeding we have to look at the definition society has given to success. “Society’s definition of success is a fairy tale we hear continuously. It’s a deceptive shortcut to happiness, a social construct we feed ourselves as a means to living well with no assembly required because it’s easier to want something ready-made rather than something we build ourselves” (Michelle, R., 2016), so we focus our definition on society based on what our context provides. For example, if we are in a context that requires money to be considered successful, money is a synonym to success. This example is being seen nowadays and it's constantly related to academic and laboral factors, such as the university a person studied in or the work a person has. But this conception is a problem itself, since it leads to the degradation and humiliation of some works and so of some people. We concieve some works as better and so the peole that have them. We stereotype individuals and categorize them intellectually based on the work that they have and the years they have studied. But when we look to our society, this conception is totally disconnected from reality, in fact, a study lead by Herrnstein and Murray revealed that “Earnings, occupation, productivity—all the important measures of success—are unrelated to the test scores”, this test scores referring to the SAT and IQ tests that were done to a jew community. So the intellectual hierarchy that we’ve been establishing from the hand of meritocracy doesn't even have a logical argument, but we conceive it as normal. Degradation of work, and more than anything of individuals, is a problem we need to solve, starting from the self-consciousness of the shortcomings of the system and the social inequality in our society.
Finally, the effects of meritocracy impact directly on individuals, leading to self-depreciation and conformism due to the idea of “your fault” that this system has spread. Unhappiness is constantly related to the failure in obtaining “success” in life. So unhappiness in modern society is also hardly related to the capitalist and consumer model. Unhappiness nowadays is caused by the way society works, by a constant desire of an utopian life, that revolves around the idea of money. Money is earned through a job and that earning is delimited by what you have been able to learn through your life, which is inherent to establish as a parameter, due to the social differences in our society. A failed system. “Kasser describes his and others' research showing that when people organize their lives around extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems. Kasser distinguishes extrinsic goals--which tend to focus on possessions, image, status and receiving rewards and praise--from intrinsic ones, which aim at outcomes like personal growth and community connection and are satisfying in and of themselves.” (DeAngelis, T., 2004). Until we are able to change the definition that society has given to success, our happiness will become an impossible goal, since the system in which we currently live constantly prevents it.
We have to value life, let go the stereotypic definitions of success in our society, realize about the problematic society we live in due to meritocracy and capitalism which have a direct impact in democracy (basically impeding its healthy acting), and try to make a personal change, since a community change would imply people to follow all the steps above, and most of them don’t even know the definition of meritocracy. In fact, I didn’t knew it until last week. Ignorance.
Goldthorpe, J., & Jackson, M. (2008). Education-based Meritocracy: The Barries to its Realisation. Stato e mercato, (1), 31-60.
Liu, A. (2011). Unraveling the myth of meritocracy within the context of US higher education. Higher education, 62(4), 383-397.
McCoy, S. K., & Major, B. (2007). Priming meritocracy and the psychological justification of inequality. Journal of experimental social psychology, 43(3), 341-351.
Brown, P., & Tannock, S. (2009). Education, meritocracy and the global war for talent. Journal of Education Policy, 24(4), 377-392.
Haybron, D. M., & Haybron, D. M. (2008). The pursuit of unhappiness: The elusive psychology of well-being. Oxford University Press on Demand.
Hauser, R. M. (2002). Meritocracy, cognitive ability, and the sources of occupational success. Madison, WI: Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin.
van Dijk, H., Kooij, D., Karanika-Murray, M., De Vos, A., & Meyer, B. (2020). Meritocracy a myth? A multilevel perspective of how social inequality accumulates through work. Organizational Psychology Review, 10(3-4), 240-269.
DeAngelis, T. (2004). Consumerism and its discontents. Monitor on Psychology, 35(6), 52.
Michelle, R. (2021, 19 febrero). The Popular Definition of Success & Why It’s Complete Bullshit. Medium. Recuperado 16 de febrero de 2022, de https://medium.com/the-ascent/the-popular-definition-of-success-5a1b2e15770d
RichardDWolff. (2019, 23 agosto). Wolff Responds: Meritocracy [Vídeo]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyV6w9oviF4
TED. (2020, 15 septiembre). The tyranny of merit | Michael Sandel. YouTube. Recuperado 16 de febrero de 2022, de https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qewckuxa9hw&t=235s
The Agenda with Steve Paikin. (2020, 23 septiembre). Michael Sandel: The Tyranny of Merit. YouTube. Recuperado 16 de febrero de 2022, de https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFaLj3YWkGo&t=818s
Levy Economics Institute Levy Economics Institute. (2016, 25 abril). Richard D. Wolff Lecture on Worker Coops: Theory and Practice of 21st Century Socialism. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1WUKahMm1s