On Meritocracy and Mouse Poop

[I]t is only by reconciling contradictions that power can be retained indefinitely. In no other way could the ancient cycle be broken. If human equality is to be for ever averted — if the High, as we have called them, are to keep their places permanently — then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Let me ask you a personal question. What’s the grade you’re most proud of in your life? For myself I couldn’t pick a favourite. But a very strong contender would be an Ethics test I took in my penultimate year of secondary school, graded by the single grumpiest and hardest-to-please teacher I’ve ever had, Mr H.

By the time I entered that course, my relationship with Mr H. had already been compromised by various factors, the biggest one probably being that he got to be our head teacher during my peak puberty years. He wasn’t holding a grudge, though, surely; at least none that would show in my grades. It was simply part of his finicky personality that he preferred not to hand out generous rewards, which made every A he gave feel like a private victory. The reason my grade-A test startled me, however, is that he was awarding me that honour even though I hadn’t managed to finish the test for lack of time. What compensated for those missing pages had to be — I couldn’t believe my eyes at first — extra points!

For one of the overachiever essays that had earned me extra points, I’d had to give an account of my personal concept of justice. I remember having argued — acquainted as I was with various schools of thought on the issue — that my definition of justice would have to be a mixture between egalitarianism and meritocracy: a system, built on a level playing field, that grants certain benefits to those who put in more than others. And to make things meta, the moral justification I gave turned out to have enough nuance to warrant such a meritocratic reward itself. (Standardized testing, eh? What a cornerstone of equal opportunity!)

In retrospect, I can’t imagine Mr H. being impressed so much as simply going “Nice utopia you got there, buddy!” upon reading my essay. And that’s fair enough. Justice is an ideal after all. Still, I wonder if at the time I was aware of the extent to which I was unfairly benefitting from a system that overtly ignores the exact ideals I outlined. Hell, I don’t think I’ve grasped the full extent of my privilege to this day, so what’s the point in judging my past self for underestimating it?

What I’m trying to say is, if you’re anything like me and you ever have a hard time accepting that there’s no extra points in real life, odds are you were dealt that winning hand longer ago than you can remember. Meritocracy, to put it bluntly, is a myth.


┬áJohn’s point here is straightforward (albeit somewhat undermined by that mouse poop subplot): since we have to submit to unequal opportunity, we might as well be grateful for our dumb luck. A good way, arguably the only sensible way, to express that gratitude is by elevating the less fortunate; basically, serving the egalitarian ideal despite (and precisely because of) our awareness that it is impossible to fully implement.

While I would argue the Vlogbrothers have been comparatively good at “giving back”, I don’t think I myself am on a good path to pay my fair share. I addressed that concern to a friend of mine a couple of months ago and came to the conclusion that among a lot of young people, there’s a vague impulse to break loose from your prospective career and dedicate one’s life to a charitable purpose. I don’t think that’s a sign of good nature necessarily. The appeal of delving into this hands-on approach to social justice, with direct and tangible results, could just be symptomatic of an inner struggle, namely that we know our means to be limited: we know how small an impact our donations make, and we’re sick and tired of paying them just to appease our conscience. So the only way out, it appears, is offering our precious education to people who wouldn’t otherwise receive it: become an ex-pat at a refugee camp or something.

The key sentiment here is, of course, “or something”. In most cases, those well-meaning altruistic urges go unsatisfied. Which makes me wonder: is that remote fantasy of going full Mother Teresa a cheap escape from guilt after all? Is it a code you share with other pseudo-philanthropists to prove your good intentions, to show remorse for the privilege you inherited? Basically, do we say it for the placebo effect?

That hypocrisy hits you right in the face. I can virtually feel the burn on my cheek. Writing this has left me on the cusp of a breakdown, frankly. Which can only mean one thing: we’ve reached the part of the essay where every reader has to retreat into their own mind in search of answers. But in the name of justice, let them be compassionate ones.

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