Meritocracy Has its Merits but it’s No Way to Build a Society #56 #cong20


Meritocracy is the fairest way to organise society, right? But what about those it leaves behind?

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Key Takeaways:

  1. New media has facilitated the rise of populist leaders who cast aside facts in favour of emotion.
  2. They succeed because their emotional message resonates with people who feel left behind by meritocracy.
  3. Left-wing parties ought to appeal to these people, but those parties embrace of meritocracy leans towards elitism.
  4. The question of whether one individual is ‘worth’ more than another cannot have a place in a sustainable society, no matter how that worth is measured.

About Conn Ó Muíneachain:

Conn Ó Muíneachain works in Communications for Blacknight, the Irish web hosting company. He’s a writer, blogger, podcaster, radio prodcer and engineer. Labhair Gaeilge leis.

Contacting Conn Ó Muíneachain:

You can connect with Conn on  Twitter or see his work with Blacknight.

By Conn Ó Muíneachain

15 years ago I bumped into a friend of mine on the street. He was a mentor to me. He gave me my start working in local radio and taught me about media, professionalism and editorial standards. Back in the early days of independent radio in Ireland, he, and others like him, brought old-school training and experience from RTÉ and BBC. They worked with ex-pirates like myself to forge a new era in broadcasting in Ireland.

We had both moved on from local radio by then. Though working as an engineer, I was still interested in media and excited by revolutionary developments on the internet: blogs and podcasts. Excitedly I told him about blogging, about two-way media, about subscribing and aggregating and curating feeds. I talked about consumers being in charge, programming their own media consumption, bypassing the gatekeepers.

He was horrified.

“Who are the editors? Who controls this?”, he asked. “What about journalistic ethics?”

I could see his point of view. In the old world, media was restricted to those who could invest in printing presses and distribution, studios and transmitters. Along with that came a sense of obligation, a knowledge that having a platform – or a pulpit – put one in a position of privilege which must not be abused.

By the same token, the traditional institutions of the media had authority and trust with the public. In particular, government-funded public-service broadcasters viewed impartiality and integrity as core values and people in general had a sense that, if you saw it on the news, it must be true.

I replied that, however noble its intentions, traditional media disenfranchised some people. I talked about “the wisdom of crowds”, the self-correcting nature of platforms like Wikipedia, the openness and debate on many blogs and forums.

I was deluded.

We were both right, of course, in our own way. One of the elements of blogging which I had come to appreciate was the ability to ‘invite yourself into a conversation’. If you had experience and expertise on a particular topic, your writing could help to establish you as someone with authority in the field. I had seen many examples of that, especially with people involved in the web startup community. I still recommend blogging to people whose professional credentials can be enhanced by developing their reputations online.

I envisioned a meritocracy, a virtual enlightenment salon on a global scale. But I gave no thought to what the less enlightened would do with this technology.

Now we know.

The rise of populist authoritarian politics, particularly in the US and UK, is, in my opinion, a direct result of the democratisation of media which resulted from what was called Web 2.0. Brexit and Trumpism are destructive phenomena which worsen living standards and damage society. But they appeal to people who felt they had no voice. The disenfranchised.

That’s not to say that some of these people, or rather their opinions, are not “deplorable”, as Hilary Clinton said. Many are barstool bullies or ‘karens’, who derive their own self-worth from disparaging people who are different, and discriminating against them. Racism, sexism, hate and terrorism are unnacceptable in a civilised society.

But perhaps part of the problem lies in a word I’ve used already: meritocracy. In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit, the philosopher Michael Sandel argues that the current failure of left-wing parties to attract support from the people who stand to gain the most from their policies, is because left-wing ideology has embraced meritocracy. And, while meritocracy has its merits (obviously), it also has a dark side. In championing merit, it leans towards elitism, and the implication that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.

That’s not a nice feeling, and it’s easy to see why those who feel rejected by those they see as elites are swayed by populism. Trump’s success has been to cast aside facts and truth in favour of an appeal to the emotions. He tells people what they want to hear.

In doing so, he manipulates social media in exactly the way that it is designed to work. No editors. No fact-checking. The consumer is in charge of programming their own content, signalling their likes and preferences, and the algorithms respond with more of the same.

This is what my friend foresaw and I failed to recognise. In recent years, I’ve despaired at the monster created by Web 2.0: a world polarised into silos and echo chambers, where people only hear the ‘facts’ which confirm their own biases.

But social media didn’t create the problem. It just revealed it. It’s true that populists have used it as a tool to whip up support for their “burn it down” message, but if a sense of grievance exists among a sizeable proportion of society, then perhaps the problem is with society itself.

If so, then for ‘Society 3.0’ to succeed it must take this disaffection into account. That doesn’t mean we should pander to hate. But Sandel’s argument suggests we should consider the role played by notions of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is inherently exclusive. You cannot have winners without losers. But we are all losers in the end. Pandemic has brought about an existential crisis, a reminder that no one gets out of this alive.

The question of whether one individual is ‘worth’ more than another cannot have a place in a sustainable society, no matter whether that ‘worth’ is measured in terms of money, or virtue, or beauty, or talent. That may be difficult for us to accept, but I believe it is the only way forward.

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