September 13, 2015

Meritocracy, yes, but…

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:37 pm

without the sparkling clean conscience. I certainly agree with Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle that the emergent post-victimary tendencies, indeed, any post-victimary tendency, would have to re-privilege “performative criteria” over “ascriptive” ones. Indeed, that is the point of Vox Day’s, in my view irrefutable, axiom: “The more an institution converges towards the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice, the less it is able to perform its primary function.” But what I am seeing, and what I think we must expect to see, is quite a bit rougher, and more raw, than the hopefulness with which Martin Luther King Jr. asked for us all to be judged on the “content of our character.”

For those urging the meritocracy in the emergent post-WW II American order, the argument for meritocracy was completely consistent with the argument against using ascriptive categories to judge people. It was possible to believe (bliss it was to be alive in that dawn, but to be young was very heaven!) that once all the legal restrictions and inherited prejudices were eliminated, everyone would, indeed, be judged on the content of their character and—most importantly—everyone would be happy with the results. Good intentions seemed perfectly aligned with good outcomes—and with historical “momentum.”

We can no longer hold to such naïve Enlightenment blank slatism. We know to a logical certainty, that even in a completely free system, with no external restrictions on anyone’s mobility, we will not have an equal mixture of all ethnic and sex groups in all occupations. Some ethnicities will be more heavily represented in brain surgery, others in street cleaning, still others in organized crime. And we already have a pretty good empirical sense of how the proportions fall out. It matters very little whether the asymmetries are the result of biological or cultural differences, as cultural differences are equally beyond the power of government to transform. We can even say that the more free the social order, the more those differences will increase the asymmetrical outcomes of different groups. Even more: these differences will be transmitted from generation to generation: on average, it will be easier for a child of a doctor to become a doctor than it will be for the child of a janitor, no matter how many medical school scholarships we set up for children of janitors.

Now, if we add to all this the greater comfort people have with others of the same group, and their greater ability to notice merit in those more similar and familiar to themselves, and, finally, add in the inevitable nepotism that would ensure that certain professions are, if not dominated by, weighted heavily in favor of, some groups over others, we can conclude that two things. First, that a free society is a highly stratified one; second, it is impossible to prove that a society is really free. The very disproportions that must emerge provide prima facie evidence for the belief (and it will be a very comforting belief for many) that the “so-called” meritocracy in fact veils the domination of society by privileged minorities. Even more: disproportion in the professions in a modern society means more than some groups benefiting more than others, or at the expense of others—it gives the appearance (irrefutable, even if false) of disproportionate influence, control and domination by those groups over others. And, of course, this means more in some areas than others. Can anyone really believe that a particular minority could represent, say, 60% of the teaching profession and professoriate, the entertainment industry, and the financial sector, without distorting those institutions so as to serve their own interests?

I repeat: when someone comes along and does the math (and livens it up with a vivid collection of anecdotes and stereotypes) and accuses groups a, b, and c of using their controlling share of crucial institutions to screw over, economically, culturally and even spiritually, groups x, y and z, there will be no way of proving them wrong—not to the satisfaction of an objective observer, much less to the satisfaction of members of groups x, y, and z. And the same will be true of members of groups a, b, and c telling the others to stop whining, get off their fat posteriors, and engage in some self-reliance—or speculating on the bad habits, cultural backwardness or deficient gene pools of x, y, and z. The greatest attractive force holding people within the gravitational sphere of the victimocracy is precisely the intuition that this stratification and the consequent acrimony would be the result of its abolition, and we can’t be sure that things won’t be much worse.

That’s why another faith will have to replace the cult of the victim. There’s no way to predict the details of this faith—most likely, it will be a convergence of several, old and new—much less “produce” it. But of one thing we can certain: for this faith to be genuinely post-victimary, it must be centered on a belief in the possibility of what I have elsewhere called the “third person,” i.e., the person who can set aside his own interests and decide impartially between contending positions. Regardless of how we see the reality, a large majority would have to believe that it is possible for a boss to promote the best person, for a university to hire the most promising researcher, for a Hollywood studio to “green light” the best movie, etc. In other words, that all these figures are capable of acting in the best interests of the institutions they are responsible for. I think this faith has declined dramatically in the West, so much so that it has become impossible to say what the “best” is, or that there is a “best.” Still, anyone who is good at anything must have such a faith, otherwise how could they practice and hone their skills? But the victimocracy has successfully squeezed this faith out of the public arena. As with any faith, there is always counter-evidence for the faithless to draw upon in the indictment they draw up.

If we are to be avatars of such a faith, we must be prepared to make a case for the “better,” if not the “best.” But I don’t think we can rely on inherited judgments here—it’s not a question of defending the classics, because if it was, there would still be better and worse defenses of the classics, and most of those defenses that take received cultural hierarchies for granted are pretty feeble. Even if Shakespeare is the best, the one injecting Shakespeare into the cultural bloodstream has to be better than the one doing the same for Jay-Z. In the sciences and technological fields, hierarchies of value are still preserved, if for no other reason than that poor countries like China and India are in such a rush to exploit them. But in the moral, esthetic and political spheres, the ability to reason is in free fall (try sometime to get a 20-something “marriage equality” fanatic to explain why there should be an institution like marriage in the first place and you’ll see what I mean), and those arguments (through environmentalism, in particular) impinge directly and disastrously upon the science and technological institutions.

This is where I think originary thinking can make an unparalleled contribution to human flourishing. Originary thinkers are the only ones who can know that what is really the “better” is whatever defers the most immediate threat of violence (or violence indicating disruption) while preserving and enhancing our capacity for deferring potentially greater violence in the future. Appeasing those who threaten violence now may work, for now, but makes things worse by depleting our “stock” of discipline; retreating into the certainty of “eternal” principles may preserve a cultural heritage but only until the violence overwhelms the few who still remember it. Deferring violence now while/by enhancing disciplinary reserves is the source of cultural creativity and civilization. There’s no formula for doing this, but thinking of how to do it is what will actualize our commitment to and manifest our faith in the better.

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