Friday, August 6, 2010

The Pugnacious Fallacy of the Merit-Based World

I would love it if the world were truly merit-based. Or even if the world were genuinely merit-based, but with random shit that happens in an equal distribution to everyone. Or the random shit could even possibly happen to the people at the bottom of the merit-based world, because the people at the bottom have chosen to be there. I wouldn't prefer that those at the bottom get more shit, but if it had to be that way, I'd accept it.

Unfortunately, the world is not merit-based. The people on top, with the money, the power, the privilege, are not there because they deserve to be there. The people on bottom, with the poverty, the violence, the disenfranchisement, are not there because they deserve to be, either. Our society and world does not start from an equal playing field. All people do not have the same opportunities nor the same starting resources.

In US society, we like to pretend otherwise. We like to pretend that it is possible to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We point to the statistical minority who overcame the odds and take them as anecdotal evidence that upward social mobility is as easy as working hard and being determined. Therefore, everyone at the bottom who stays at the bottom is just lazy. Is defective. Deserves their miserable lives. We even like to castigate the poor for asking for help. We like to tell them to go help themselves. We prattle on about "a hand-up, not a hand-out," as if we know what they really need. You're hungry? Well, here's a job that you can't go to because you have no childcare and cannot afford to pay someone to do it, look how lazy you are, it's your own fault you're hungry, and you're a bad parent for failing your kids. In fact, you're a failure of a human being because you had kids you can't afford. Oh, you couldn't afford/didn't have access to contraception information? Well then you shouldn't have had sex. You're a slut, too.

In addition to loving to blame those on the bottom for their troubles, we also like to defend those at the top. How dare you feel threatened by an unknown male of obvious physical prowess walking behind you, a lone woman walking at night? That's discriminatory against men! Nevermind that there is a significant history of sexual violence in our culture, much of it perpetrated by men against women, within a culture that actively excuses rape. What? You, a woman, have been sexually assaulted? You must have been asking for it. It must be your fault for not being aware enough of your surroundings, or for wearing provocative clothing, or for drinking alcohol/doing drugs at a party. You should have protected yourself better. Surely it isn't your attacker's fault that they attacked you. I know you got hurt and traumatized, but I doubt it was even an attack. It was probably just consensually rough.

And then there are those who feel threatened by discourse and programs designed to point out/correct differences in power and privilege. What? There's an affirmative action quota that says so many people of color have to be hired, even if they have worse qualifications/test scores that me, a white person? That's racist! Our society isn't racist against people of color anymore, we have a black president! We live in a post-racial world! Quit discriminating against white people! What, you say that the systemic institutional discrimination against people of color for the last several hundred years has left their communities ghettoized and impoverished with inadequate schools and little to no inherited resources, so that correcting for it through affirmative action programs constitutes a small and inadequate measure of justice, but it is something? Well, that's bullshit because we live in a merit-based society. They're poor and undereducated because they are lazy sluts who just want to live off hand-outs, paid for by my hard earned tax money!

Countering all of these arguments is exhausting. The premise, the merit-based society, is a myth, but it is a strongly held one. It shores up all kinds of fallacious arguments that keep injustice from being seen and justice from being done. The defensiveness of the privileged gets old. The pugnaciousness of willing ignorance and blindness is infuriating. And there are times when I just refuse to engage.

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