Manners: Meritocracy is Bullshit

So I had someone ask me to write about this – it wasn’t something I had directly run into, but the minute I googled it I went “Ah, yeah.  I’ve heard this argument in other versions”

The reason I put this as a “Manners” post is simple.  If you aren’t addressing your own imperfections/biases/etc. you are allowing yourself to be shallow and cruel – even if it’s unintentional, it’s rude.  It’s poor social skills. You may not realize you are being hurtful – but if I swing my elbow and break someone’s nose accidentally – my intention isn’t what mattered.  I apologize profusely, I grab gauze & tissues to stanch the bleeding.  I get a damn ice pack and try to be more careful I’m spinning in place.  I learn from the effect and I don’t shrug it off with “well that wasn’t my intent so suck it up and grow a thicker nose.”

Ok, so hopefully you’ll buy into “ok, intent isn’t the issue – but merit is good right?”

In theory yes.  Merit is awesome. So, the definition of these “meritocracy” companies is based on the idea that MERIT should be the #1-only-conceivable factor to come into a role.

And it’s bullshit.

Let’s look at places that claim to be a “meritocracy” – Kotaku just did a write up on a gaming company (who made League of Legends) who has rampant sexism – and can’t even acknowledge it.  They claim to be a meritocracy… shocker they also have rampant sexism.

Here’s the problem.

Claiming to be “merit based” can only be done if you can guarantee that personal bias doesn’t play.  And that isn’t possible.  We all have personal bias.  It’s nature.  It’s like people who say “I don’t see color.”  Ok, you are either blind or delusional.  Because even the color-blind can see the difference between Norwegians and Nigerians.  We all see it.  Blind people I’ll give a pass to on “I don’t see color.”  Saying that you just ignore your biases means you are ruled by your biases.

You can all too easily end up in confirmation bias if you don’t acknowledge you have bias.  I don’t want to spend this talking about that – but it’s out there (click here for a Google search)

I really like this video (grainy quality and all) that discusses priviledge in terms of a “race:

Don’t discount the advantages you’ve been given which can influence your bias.  Everyone works hard, but the same amount of work might get someone from point A-D whereas the person who started at B or C gets to E or F or sometimes even G because A really was a tough step and once you have A, damn – B and C aren’t nearly as bad and really you can get that extra letter’s worth of distance with the same amount of effort.  A is just that big and tough a step.

And the hard part is – I teach managers about hiring and finding the best candidate.  And I try to a void the word “bias” because it has become so loaded.  I tend to call it ‘rose colored glasses’ and talk about triggers which might “endear” a candidate to you subconsciously.  I then stress how having a well balanced team of personality types, strengths, and skills is a powerful tool.  If everyone is exactly the same… well you are going to make the same box-house.  But add and empower someone who considers a dome. Or east & west wings of a house.  Or a ranch instead of a cape cod.  Neighborhoods with character – have different kinds of houses.

Diversity builds character and interesting culture – just think of A Wrinkle in Time.  The planet IT controls is “everything is exactly the same” – and it’s BORING.  So not only (a) do you not WANT to be “color blind” because then you are just getting the same in a different package (I know, the Zelda 3DS is cool looking, but really? It’s the same machine) but (b) you are lying – because we DO have biases.

There is a quote, and I couldn’t find who said it originally, the closest I saw was something on imgur that said “my mom used to tell me” and it really sums up what I think is wrong by claiming ONLY merit matters:

The first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think; what you think next defines who you are.

If you never stop and think about the thought about people – you will never define yourself.  You will live by someone else’s definitions of how you should behave.  Hell, I’ve caught myself with instant thoughts that make me recoil:

  • God she looks like a slut.  Shit.  I don’t want to judge other women that way, she isn’t a slut because of the way she dresses.
  • Ugh, that dude smiled at me. Bet he wants sex.  Hold on – maybe not. Stop assuming all men think about sex all the time.
  • Those teens are probably brats.  No, they are being loud but that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be assholes.
  • Ugh. That color is awful.  I wonder if she wore it to clash on purpose.  No, no. People are allowed to have different taste – orange and blue may seem hideous to me, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think it’s awesome.
  • That man looks creepy.  Oh nope, the way he’s looking at me definitely makes my skin crawl.  Avoid.

It isn’t easy to unlearn trained biases and society does have those.  Jim Crow laws still existed in my parent’s generation – what parts of that shitty system crept into their mindset that they haven’t unlearned yet?  As a culture, we have issues – and there is statistical evidence to back this up – that racism is a VERY REAL issue.  So if you aren’t willing to confront your internal biases – then when you are interviewing someone and that insidious “he’s black, I bet he’s a ‘thug'” creeps through your mind… you don’t squash it.  And since it isn’t there for the white dude – *GASP* you end up with a super-white team.  And it was all “merit’ to you – but was it?  Or was it you unwilling to do the hard work of acknowledging you were given some bad nails in your upbringing that make your steps creak. Well, I guess it’s just a feature, not a bug then right?


2 thoughts on “Manners: Meritocracy is Bullshit”

  1. I don’t know if this is going to work the way I want, but I created a video response to the one element of your argument I disagree with.

    If the embedded video doesn’t show up correctly in the comments, here’s the link on YouTube:


  2. I appreciate it! And I agree – there are different types of merit OVER ALL. But when you are setting two people to look at the same task/role and ignoring potential biases…. your “merit-based” anything is Bullshit. IE – two people go for a job interview and the white male manager hires the white male candidate instead of the black female… ‘but i swear it was merit’ – everytime? Every single time???


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