Friday, January 13, 2017

Meritocracy and grace

Here is a good article that gets at something I've long felt but couldn't put my finger on or succinctly describe as such:  the moral bankruptcy of the modern economy based on narratives of meritocracy and ultra-competitiveness.  In short, the current US economy is not in fact very meritocratic, since the wealthy and the well-educated  get good jobs that keep them above the fray of the most fierce competition, while the poor are stuck in crappy jobs that offer little hope of advancement, regardless of their hard work, and they are kept from the educational opportunities that would endow them with the "merit" to access better jobs.  But the meritocratic ideal serves to exalt the well-off as more worthy, more meriting of success, and scorn the losers of society as lacking in character, ability, and drive.  In short, the ideal of meritocracy does more to entrench a stark separation of the classes than to really provide equal opportunity for all.  Beyond this, meritocracy is often taken to mean that some people are more deserving than others of basic human dignity.  What of those who don't have as much "merit" according to the standards of a given society (those who are less smart, less educated, less ambitious, less white, less beautiful, less Brahman, whatever)?  Should they not enjoy the same rights, comforts, and benefits of a given society?

I like the author's proposal that we should all inject more grace into our lives.  This means that we should look to improve life for all, not simply those we deem to be more deserving according to some arbitrary standard.  I think that we in the US particularly are very quick to "excuse nothing" (to quote from the article), to look for reasons to blame the victim of a given situation, or to disqualify someone from our sympathies because of some perceived deficiency that makes them "deserve" their misfortune. 

But at the same time, I think many of us live situations in which we recognize that a meritocracy is not a valid system.  That family member or child of yours who for whatever reason can't take care of himself without cash support from everyone in the tribe?  You don't simply let them rot, because despite their flaws, you love them and feel responsibility for them.  The crazy guy on your block that people give food to and let stay in their garage on cold nights?  You feel a collective duty to take care of him.  People's mere humanity entitles them to a certain share of dignity.  Their humanity is its own merit. 

Societies that work well manage to expand this sense of shared responsibility for one another to include everyone in the society.  In the US I feel this expansion of consciousness often runs up against our own racial prejudices.  The sympathy many are now feeling for the white underclass, afflicted as it is by outsourcing, deindustrialization, drug abuse, and violence, is a good thing, but where was it when blacks and Latinos were going through the same things starting in the 1960s?  Too many of us that are now talking of treating rural opioid or methamphetamine addiction as a public health problem were eager to treat inner-city crack or heroine addiction as a failing of individual character, to be met brutally with incarceration and humiliation. 

I'll close with another quote from the article: 
"the people who could learn from grace are the prosperous and college-educated, who often find it hard to empathize with those—both white and nonwhite—who live outside their sunny, well-ordered worlds. When people are not so intent on blaming others for their sins—cultural and economic—they can deal more kindly with one another".

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