Thursday, January 12, 2012

Falling Short in the "Meritocracy"

Which Way Forward?
One of the major myths we grow up with here in the USA is that we live in a meritocracy where brains and hard work are rewarded. The theory is that Americans comprise a homogenized mixture with equal parts this and that and the cream will naturally rise to the top. In other words, George W. Bush earned his spot at Harvard and Chelsea Clinton was the most qualified applicant for her plum position at NBC.

The lie of meritocracy harms people by:
1. Obliterating the reality of socioeconomic class and all other forms of prejudice and discimination.
2. Making tons of folks feel inadequate for their lack of accomplishment.
3. Falsely reassuring the achievers that they are the most intelligent and deserving members of society.

In the capitalist workplace the truth is far more complex. Brains and innate ability comprise part of the story but, in our society, even very smart folks may end up in jail or on the street. The largest component of the ability to function under capitalism is socialization. By that I mean having parents or care-givers who were willing and able to model appropriate behavior. The universal assumption in our culture is that everyone is raised with this kind of exemplary parenting.

Many children, whether from wealth or poverty, are raised with the relatively basic guidelines where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished. But some children, especially if parents are substance abusers or if child rearing is not a priority in their lives, acquire no reliable index of propriety. In these homes whatever action a child initiates will either be followed by a random, totally unpredictable reaction or no reaction at all. There can be know learning of values and norms under these circumstances.

My sister and I were raised in such a home. Being five years her senior, I had the honorary position of her mother in our family. We were pretty much ignored. Our friends envied our lack of supervision as well as the prodigious amount of alcoholic beverages available in our residence. There was usually quite a bit of food in the refrigerator and if we wanted to eat a whole package of Sara Lee brownies washed down with Coca Cola for dinner, that was always an option.

My mother couldn't deal with my curly-kinky hair so she only washed it about once a month. Both my sister and I had the experience of showing up at school without skirts at different times in our early lives. Luckily, we had the wherewithal  to put on tights over our legs.

On the positive side, we became quite adept at navigating through the world because this skill was engendered by necessity at an early age. But later, in the strictly choreographed world of the capitalist workplace, the children of neglect tend to fall down. Since the cultural norms that have been passed to them have come only from superficial observation, not gut-level understanding, the workplace is fraught with hazards. Hierarchy and pecking order are antithetical to those raised without them and, no matter how old I grow to be, I still believe that these are inhuman constructs to begin with.

My dream, as I approach retirement age, is that one day we will create a society big enough to encompass all our differences; our failings as well as accomplishments and hold them, without judgement, as nothing more than what they are: survival strategies. The next step would be to build a culture, expansive and compassionate enough to accept each individual's contribution, their gifts as well as their limitations, with the equanimity of a sane and just society.