The Meritocracy Myth

I guy I know online just read my commentary, ‘Poverty Is Not A Frame of Mind’ and wrote to tell me that he had coined a phrase for the belief system Joe shares with a lot of other people; he calls it ‘The Meritocracy Myth’ and describes it this way:

I don’t yet have a quick way of summarizing the idea, but the closest I can come is the false idea that wealth is the yardstick of human worth — if you’re poor, it’s because you have flaws. In your friend’s world, one unit of effort always equals one unit of reward. And when presented with the mismatch between his economic ideology and real world evidence, he’s decided that he’d rather believe the myth than his own lyin’ eyes — the myth can be just that powerful.

What strikes me about this concept is what an old idea it is. I remember the section in Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur (‘The Death of Arthur’–source of the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) when Arthur is sick and for as long he’s ill, the land fails: the rains don’t come, crops wither, the flowers all die, the rivers and streams dry up, cows stop giving milk, goats and sheep die, the works. When he recovers, so does the land: flowers bloom again, rains come to replenish the crops, the rivers run loaded with fish, and the people’s lives are once again filled with abundance and joy.

In Egypt, Ahkenaton was detested long before he pulled down the multitude of Egyptian gods in order to invent monotheism (Jews insist he got the idea from them but it’s debatable which way it went) because he was ugly and deformed from birth, which the people took to mean the gods didn’t favor him. He must not have thought so either since on reaching adulthood he destroyed them all and invented one of his own who didn’t think deformity was anything to get excited about.

They were both rulers, not common folk, but the belief held there as well. In most of the world’s societies, whether primitive or not, people believed for centuries that physical beauty was somehow a reflection of goodness and that goodness would be rewarded with success. Religions in most places at most times simply grafted those beliefs into their dogma, re-defining and codifying them as proofs of god’s approval. To be rich or good-looking was to show the tangible effects of that approval; to be both was practically the same as being a living angel and you were virtually worshipped. Which, naturally, means that to have neither was to be at best unfavored by god and at worst the spawn of the devil.

It seems we still cling to these ancient superstitions without even knowing it. If K is right about his ‘Meritocracy Myth’, and experience tells me he is, the only way you can explain such a belief is with magic: in some mystical, quasi-religious way, some part of us still believes that riches equal goodness, and that therefore poverty must equal evil. I’ve often wondered–I hasten to add that Joe’s accusation was painfully and even kindly spoken; a gentle and tolerant man, he never went this far or ever could, but others have, a number of them using this attitude to make their way into govt–why so many people feel so free to attack, ridicule, and debase us just because we don’t have as much money as they do. They often treat us as if the fact that we don’t have money makes us somehow sub-human, near animals in fact.

When I was teaching, I heard teachers be told by businessmen that nothing they had to say was worth listening to because ‘my chauffeur makes more than you do.’ The owner of a small restaurant, hardly in the ‘industrial tycoon’ class, felt perfectly free to lord it over a teacher who was trying to explain that his son was having difficulties in school by snapping that if she knew what she was talking about she’d be doing something she could make some actual money at, contemptuously adding that she probably lived in ‘an apartment’ as if that proved how incompetent she was.

She didn’t, as a matter of fact, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if he’d known that. It wasn’t the apartment that was the issue but what apartments represented to him–they meant poverty and poverty meant failure. He had more money than she did, therefore he was better than she was. It really came down to being just that simple.

As it happens, I knew him; I lived next door to his restaurant at the time, and he wasn’t, by any credible measure, better than she was. Unless your idea of ‘better’ involves a petty tyrant running over everybody who got in his way and toadying to anybody who had a bigger business or more influence in town. Was he as greedy as he was because he believed that being poorer than the owner of the mill meant that he was inferior and the only way to prove that he was a good person was to get richer? Was he as unkind to his tenants and employees as he was because they represented the ‘bad person’ (poor) he had once been and never wanted to be again?

Both sides, it seems, pay a heavy price for their mythology, so why–apart from the fact that it’s a myth, a lie, not true, imaginary–don’t we dump it? Why do we hang onto it so hard? Why do we, even now, insist on defining people in terms of their financial statements? When survival was difficult and hoping for more was a far-off pipe-dream, maybe it made sense to decide that a man with ten cows was a better husband than a man with two. That was based on an economic reality everybody had to deal with. But why did it ever make sense to decide that having ten cows made him a better man?

The correlation between the two is so ingrained that ‘If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?’ is a cliché but Carlos Guerra’s re-statement of it–‘If you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?’–isn’t. The former is considered a truism, the latter a wisecrack. The first is a put-down, the second is a joke. Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living; are unexamined beliefs worth holding? Because we have absorbed them. We believe them almost as readily as you do. We most often see ourselves as failures if we can’t afford a new car every two years or a widescreen tv or that new designer dress or a computer monitor the size of the Kansas prairie and just as flat, and what we can afford–barely–is new shoes for the kids (if they’re on sale) and a used winter coat from the thrift shop.

But we’re not failures. In a lot of ways, we’re the ones who keep things humming by doing the jobs that have to be done but nobody else wants to do. We keep your office clean and cook and serve your food, we stock the shelves so you’ll have things to buy when you go to the store (think a manager’s going to lower himself to do that every day?), we plow your streets and rake your leaves and take care of you when you’re sick, we teach your kids and watch them when you’re at work and empty your septic tank and pick your vegetables and staple your recliner so you won’t fall through it when you sit down. We’re a lot more important than you think.

We’re a lot more important than we think.

I want to go back to the teacher for a minute. She didn’t tell that man that she lived in a house. Maybe she knew it wouldn’t matter to him, but I saw her face when he said it–confusion, followed by anger, guilt and shame. She knew what he meant and she knew her house was a lot smaller than his. She got the point, alright. And she accepted it. She didn’t fight back. For that moment, she felt useless, like what she had done with her life was a mistake. She saw herself through his eyes for an instant and what she saw was that she was a failure. And she accepted his judgment. She accepted it because he had more money than she did.

I was standing there. I saw it. I’ve worked with her and I knew her for a kind, patient, tolerant teacher, firm when she had to be and sweet as new corn when she could be. I saw her face down an angry adolescent with his fist raised one day and hug him the next, and he was smiling. I’ve seen her give kids rides to school when their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t, not for a day but for weeks–months–at a time. I knew all this and I was standing right there and I said…nothing. Nothing to him, nothing to her. I didn’t accept what he said but I didn’t fight it, either.

I don’t know if that was wrong or right. It wasn’t my place to fight her battles, but I liked her and she didn’t deserve what he gave her. But what I’m trying to say is that it never occurred to either of us to stand our ground, to say calmly and quietly, ‘We’re people. We live in houses and apartments and condos and mobile homes, but whatever we live in, we’re still people. And we don’t deserve to be treated like that.’ It never occurred to us because we, maybe, have the same ancient superstition inside us that he has, and that’s why we believed him if only for a moment.

Maybe it’s time we dumped that superstition once and for all. All of us. After 6000 years, it’s about time, don’t you think?


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