Meritocracy Stinks

I’ve been reflecting a lot on privilege — mainly my own — and what enabled me to co-found a start-up and continue working on it, where as many others would have to give up, especially after 7 years of constant struggle😬. This made me revisit meritocracy. Meritocracy is rife in Aotearoa, New Zealand (and pretty much everywhere), but what exactly is it, and how does it impact us?

Meritocracy is the political philosophical notion that our society is built in such a way that those who make it in life, do so because of their effort, abilities and talent. In theory it sounds wonderful, as it implies that anyone can be successful, rather than be held down by hierarchy, race, culture, gender, sexuality, or disability. We function on an even playing field, and if we fail to succeed, it’s because we didn’t want it bad enough, or we didn’t try hard enough. It presents a facade of flourishing and fairness.

Let me provide some context. Back in 2009 a UK study showed that 84% of participants thought hard work is important for getting ahead. A similar study in the US in 2016 showed that 69% of participants thought that people are predominantly rewarded for their intelligence and skill. Things such as luck, race, education, and coming from a wealthy family were seen as less important.

If we take Bill Gates as an example of success, it becomes really clear how flawed our ideas are around merit and its contribution to positive outcomes. Luck can be thought of as a conduit that grants people merit. It creates the provisions for circumstances where merit can translate into success. It doesn’t mean that talent and hard work aren’t factors for successful people. What it does demonstrate, is that this connection between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect. It’s particularly true in contexts where there is plenty of competition. So, back to Bill Gates. The likelihood that there are other programmers out there who were nearly as, or more skilful is pretty high. So what made him the richest man on earth and others fail? Most probably luck and privilege: white, cis, Harvard university student, from a family of bankers and lawyers.

And that is the what makes me so angry — because although we believe in, and are fed this idea of equal opportunities, in reality, it is a myth.

What’s more, social systems like meritocracy which only reward through power, wealth, job status, and material success will contribute towards further inequality, segregation, and a filthy culture of blame, shame and guilt. There is growing evidence in psychology and neuroscience which links meritocracy to more selfish, less self-critical and discriminatory behaviours within societies. Meritocracy makes us forget all the external factors that shape and support us (or hold us back).

It’s governed by competition, and therefore people who fall behind become defined as, and begin to believe that they are losers. This further stigmatises and divides people, as those who have ‘made it’ convince themselves that it is indeed through their own merit. They have worked hard and earned their success. They ignore the advantages and privileges that got them there such as education, class, family support and assets, the colour of their skin, their gender etc. And again, the people who do not benefit from this system blame themselves for their lack of achievement, but the truth is, they can do little to change their circumstances. If you are not privileged, and you are successful, chances are you are the exception, not the rule. Now if only the Tony Robbins of the world would stop preaching **shudder**…

As a neoliberalism and capitalist tool, meritocracy gives rise to a myriad of mental health epidemics (that then manifest physically too): self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia (see Paul Verhaeghe’s book What About Me). Which makes me wonder if it is an unexplored reason for the high suicide rates and mental health issues in Aotearoa. People are predominantly told that they have access to all the tools, education and resources they need to be successful, happy, well-functioning people — whereas that couldn’t be further from the truth. What’s this about structural unemployment? Please, if you don’t have a job it’s because you are lazy, unenterprising, unskilled and uneducated. What about home ownership? Owning your own home wouldn’t be impossible if you stopped buying avocado on toast (my only legitimate option for home ownership is a camper van… and even that’s a bit of a stretch)! If our society is so fair and equitable, then the only reason for my failures is me, and if I cannot pull myself out of this failure, then what options do I have? Meritocracy is like putting a bandaid on a gangrene affected arm. It shields us from seeing the nasty societal forces that continue to hold people back from living their full potential… until your arm falls off.

Sadly, if you are not a straight, white, male, you will be disadvantaged in some way, whether you are consciously aware of it or not. The colonialist foundation in which our beautiful country has been built on inevitably creates a basis where white privilege prevails. Meritocracy absolves our governments from needing to address the inequalities within our society, because the blame is placed upon our individual shoulders. We are responsible and deserve everything that happens to us. Until these systems have been dismantled, there is no such thing as equal opportunities.

Meritocracy stinks.

p.s. Check out this cool video on meritocracy by my favourite peeps, The School of Life: