Meritocracy tends to signal a belief that each person should be recognised and treated according to the merits of their selves — their work ethic, their intellect, their empathy, their treatment of others. Individualism is thus often integral to this idea. You can’t have a meritocracy if you’re in the habit of lumping people together. Those who believe in a meritocracy often see feminism as a bit of a dirty word. Here the feminists come with their burning bras to tell me that women are disadvantaged, suffering, helpless victims. If they could only shake off that belief, they might get somewhere. In some ways, I understand. All political and ideological systems are flawed, whether they be individualistic or collective, and feminism is no better. It is the product of human thought, and so is imperfect. As a result, some iterations of feminism do exclude POC from the mix; those feminists might’ve been brought up in a quietly racist household. Other iterations of feminism don’t consider the experiences of people who are disabled; those feminists, like many of us, likely grew up in a world in which disabled bodies were made invisible.
That’s the funny thing about the issues with feminism, though – it proves that the notion of meritocracy is entirely impossible. If we lived in a world which truly allowed us all to be individually judged against one another on a level playing field, we wouldn’t have racists or discriminatory feminists because there would be no discrimination in the first place. Feminism wouldn’t actually exist. There would be no need.
I’ve noticed that people who love to hate on things like positive discrimination schemes are often in favour of meritocracy. But I’m a person too! You should be judging us on the merit of our personalities, not on the colour of our skin! Now you’re being a racist against white people! Of course, meritocracy sees that these kinds of schemes take away from fair judgement, and often believes that the world would be fine if only we could only see people as individuals; not as a woman, or a Black person, or as a homeless person. Individualism will supposedly solve the problem of discrimination. I completely agree that this is the ideal — but that is why I’m a feminist. Meritocracy only works in an ideal world in which there is no structural inequality. In which there were not centuries of scientists and theologians naturalising ideas of women being inherently weak of mind, body, spirit, and morality. In which the skull shape of varying ethnicities wasn’t used to naturalise racism. In which sexologists didn’t pathologize difference in gender and sexual expression. In which libraries were not barred to anyone but the white, educated, wealthy male.
In the ideal world, meritocracy works perfectly because the playing field would be flat and level – we would all be able to access that corporate job. In that world, you would only end up with the job if you had chosen to apply and had been the best candidate according to your personality, skill set and aspirations. But we don’t live in that world. In the real world, meritocracy for the socially disadvantaged only works for those with a rare talent which will somehow overcome structural limitations, or the resources – typically money and social connections – with which to do so. For a meritocracy to ever have a chance at being a workable approach to life, we first have to deal with the fact that we do not live in the ideal world — and to get even close to it, something has to be done about all of those pesky limitations which feminist love to harp on about.
Feminism wants many of the same outcomes as you, idealistic meritocrats of the world. What I would call ‘proper’ feminism does, at least. The system of discrimination which feminists understand as the root cause of all evil, The Patriarchy, is what disadvantages everyone and unequalises the playing field — even for men. The current crisis concerning men’s mental health can be seen as the result of patriarchal gender roles which sees men as unemotional, logical, and the helpers and solvers in our lives. This gender role helped to naturalise — among other things — ideas linking emotion to hysteria that allowed women to be written off as unreliable and weak, keeping power securely in the hands of men. This gender role works to many men’s detriment, as men find themselves unable to seek help as a result of a system they didn’t ask to be born into, in which they are taught a gender role which makes their life harder by putting exponential amounts of pressure on their ‘manliness’ and ability to be assertive and successful. This same system keeps people in poverty, unable to access systems of healthcare or proper financial, emotional, or physical support, unable to access certain jobs or even have an education which might help them fulfil their goals. Feminism wants to fix this problem, but as intersectional thinkers will tell you: you have to begin with those who are the least advantaged and give them their safety and liberty first.
While all humans are capable of suffering in similar ways, the fact remains that if you are a white man with some money, you have a better chance at not suffering so acutely. When we work through all of the systemic issues which mean it is not safe for a Black, gender nonconforming, poor, disabled person to walk down the street, the street will then be safe for everyone. When feminists focus on those who are the most structurally victimised, they are not ignoring those with privilege but instead are focusing on those suffering the most, in the hopes that in shifting their chances for the better, this will have a positive knock-on effect for all others. There is nothing exclusionary about this. Don’t let the political focus on particular groups of oppressed people make you believe that you are being ignored and thus must take the stance of meritocracy to secure your rights. If you support meritocracy because you truly wish for a level playing field, then you will have to be a feminist first.
As far as I can tell, at this political moment, meritocracy is either redundant idealism or a quietly discriminatory framework seeking to maintain hierarchies of privilege. To those of you who still believe feminism to be unfit for the job, I encourage you to shop around. If a mode of feminism tells you you’re weak and victimised and this feels counterintuitive to your experience or generally unpleasant, then don’t engage with it. Look down a different route. You don’t write off all cheese just because you don’t like brie — or at least I hope you wouldn’t because that would be making your life considerably worse for no good reason.
In my head, the first step to being able to achieve anything close to this utopic vision is going to have to be the dissolution of such forms of political extremism in which you’re either an individualist, or a sheep tied to an incoherent political system. People are tending to fall into their camp, and nobody seems to want to realise that it might be more productive to understand the nuances of each idea. We’re currently all addicted to the validation and power we feel when we create our own picket line. Even if the utopian vision of a level playing field were to be possible, we would still be nowhere near. While individualists may think of themselves as the most effective and subversive political agents in rejecting the norm, I often feel that they are inadvertently putting their heads in the sand because they are privileged enough to do so. If feminism is trying to teach anything at all, it is that we must do better than that.
Featured Image: ‘My Feminism Will Be Intersectional or it will be Bullshit‘ by Thomas Hawk from Flickr is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 (link to license deed).