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The Myth of the Meritocracy

December 17, 2007

There are millions of ways that society enforces and strengthens hierarchy. Sometimes these are obvious and in-your-face: Segregation, barring gays and lesbians from marrying, excluding women from voting. These can be fought as concrete battles, in courthouses, in writing, in the streets.

There are also social myths that help reinforce inequality: The mars/venus bs (we’re practically different species!!!!!), the myth of race*, and the meritocracy myth.

The myth of meritocracy is simple. The people who rise and prosper in our society are the people who deserve it. Hard, honest work and smarts is what’ll get you to the top.

Like all good social myths, it has just enough truth to worm it’s way into our collective psyche, to make us doubt ourselves and others. It sounds true, after all. It sounds good. Especially if you do work hard and you are smart and you do well in life. See! I deserve this. I did everything right and I got to the top.

So the people at the top constantly reinforce the myth. They have to. If you stop believing that you’re special, that it’s your specialness that got you where you are, then….well, it sucks. Especially in a society built on hierarchy where so many of us base who we are on who we are better than. Acknowledging social forces have helped hoist you up means acknowledging that there are those for whom it has worked in reverse. Better to believe that the poor and the people working dead-end jobs with little hope of improvement are fundamentally incapable of ever being or doing more than to contemplate that the person cleaning your office might be smarter than you.

But this myth is also very often held up by those at the bottom because its simplicity and its promise are so seductive.  You can do it. The vast network of social oppression can look impossible to fight, but putting in extra hours, working three jobs and going to school are all under your direct control. And the terrible beauty of it is, if it doesn’t work, you only have yourself to blame.

And while us socialist types are sometimes accused of romanticizing people, let me say that I do believe that there exist people who work harder than others, who are smarter than others, who have talents that others do not. It’s just that I also believe these people are spread out over all races, genders and social classes.

The myth of the iron-will of the thin is a part of the meritocracy myth, a part that most of us are very familiar with. Thin people have self-control around food that the fat lack. They have motivation to exercise that the fat don’t. They are the beauty ideal because they reflect health and vitality.

And like the myth that hard work and brain power can get anyone to the top, this myth’s simplicity helps to make it popular. Calories in, calories out. 30 minutes of exercise per day. Donuts vs broccoli. A little bit of self control and *poof* you will be thin.

We are taught to believe that thin is within our reach. Easily within our reach. And when we inevitably fail, then we only have ourselves to blame.

And we believe this for multiple reasons, the loud and constant repetition from the rest of society, the way it puts being thin and the privileges of it within our reach, the simplicity of it.

Because it is simple. Simplistic. The complexity of our world. The vagaries of luck. The stunning diversity of people. It’s all swept away and in its place we have an easy story, a neat fable that we can fall back on. It’s under our control. It’s all our own doing.

And it’s not just easy for fat people, it simplifies everyone’s life. If you accept both the supremacy and the normalcy of thin, then you don’t have to question your place in the hierarchy. You don’t have to question your attractions. You don’t have to accept that death and disease could come to you just as quickly as anyone else.

Too bad then that it’s a lie. Poor people are smart and hard-working. Men are emotional. Fat people are disciplined. And the first step to a better world is to accept that no one class of people have more of the good or more of the bad than any other.

*What I mean here is the myth that there exist any concrete racial categories that you can place people in based on physical/genetic characteristics. No such classifications exist, but that doesn’t stop racial oppression.

One Comment
  1. January 1, 2008 1:16 am

    Excellent post, attrice. Would you please come over to Hoyden About Town and self-nominate it for the FemmoBolsho 2007 compendium? I’ve exhausted my noms according to the rules, and there’s still nearly twelve hours until noms close. I’d love to see more people read this post, because you have nailed so many myths so succinctly.

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