Photograph looking up several floors of outdoor stairs

you keep using that word

This is a guest post by Garann Means. This post originally appeared on her blog.

I keep seeing the word “meritocracy” pop up, mostly in discussions that seem to have stemmed from Faruk Ateş’ “A primer on sexism in the tech industry”. Do yourself a favor, don’t go googling. It’s the same shit:
“Sexism isn’t real because I’m a woman and no one did the sexism to me!”
“Women resent being treated as women instead of being evaluated solely on their capabilities!”
“You’re a sexist!”
“Some people called me a sexist after my sexist blog post and it hurt my little feelings and I’m leaving the internet!”
“You GUYS, remember this is supposed to be a meritocracy.”

Except no. No it fucking isn’t. Because a meritocracy is not a real thing. It is a joke.

The word meritocracy comes from a political satire. It was never meant to be something we should aspire to. It was the opposite, actually, a warning about how we rationalize what we believe we’ve “earned”. If that sentence doesn’t seem to you applicable to the tech industry and our cyclical discussions about sexism, racism, and even occasionally classism, go get yourself another cup of coffee.

There’s some dumb bullshit in one of the current crop of reaction posts waxing poetic about “hacker culture,” and its freedom of speech and lack of PC dogma. Hacker culture was a bunch of white dudes. Hacker culture is a great example of a meritocracy. Some of the most privileged of the privileged got together and formed a community around the idea that they were smarter than everyone else. They created an arbitrary set of metrics for membership and according to their metrics, they triumphed. This was the first time in the history of the world white men had experienced the elation of peer recognition.

A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best. If it were, the “best of the best” in almost every goddamned industry or group on the planet would not be a clump of white men. I’m having trouble finding good stats on this, but white men are something like 8% of the world’s population. When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

A meritocracy is a system for centralizing authority in the hands of those who already have it, and ensuring that authority is only distributed to others like them or those who aren’t but are willing to play by their rules.

Somebody on twitter told me that when the computer industry was overwhelmingly female, it was due to merit. I think that makes a really good counterpoint to this meritocracy bullshit. Because no, it was not due to merit. Merit didn’t fucking enter into it. Most of those women had no experience in the industry and – even if we accept the lol-worthy premise that merit can be objectively measured – there was no way to evaluate their merit as computer scientists. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use that as a template. We absolutely should. Those women had jobs and were happy to have them. They worked hard. Those who stood out did so because they had demonstrated that their work was good (through their work, not through their savvy) and because standing out and advancing the field was necessary to their work. I would rather work with a roomful of those women than with the arrogant, privileged brats our industry too often recognizes “merit” in these days.

If we met the utopian ideal we toss around in blog posts, we’d still have lots of middle-aged women in this field. We’d have black people. We’d have Asian people – not a smattering, but a majority, cause the world is mostly Asian people. We’d have an even ratio of men and women. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned after sixteen years in this career, it’s that if a middle-class white boy who literally never had a job before getting a sweet internship at some cutting edge technology company can eventually, through practice, become a passable computer programmer, anyone can do it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after thirty-three years of being alive, it’s that if you see middle-class white boys flocking in droves to a particular career path, it’s a pretty fucking easy job and you should try and get yourself one like that.

I guess that’s a little mean. Sorry, middle-class white boys. I’m not calling you dumb. I’m calling you soft. I’m calling myself soft, also, and everyone else who works in this field. What a meritocracy really protects us from is challenge. If we don’t even allow most people through the gates, we don’t have to worry that we might pale in comparison to them (pun intended). There will always be a place for us in an industry we keep others out of. That’s why we should seek out diversity – because the lack of it makes us weak.

If you give a shit about this industry’s goals beyond making yourself look smart and cool, for fuck’s sake, stop calling it a meritocracy.

21 thoughts on “you keep using that word

  1. Mika

    I hadn’t thought very deeply about “meritocracy” before (only felt frightened by the elitism which follows from it), thanks for the good analysis!

    One thing I would object to, though is your equation from soft to weak. If there’s something which white dudes (like me) need to learn, I think, is not being the hard guy. If I do feminism, I do it also because of the shit people keep telling the boys and their unabilities resulting from that. So I think appealing to not being weak/soft might work, but still we shouldn’t. You don’t need to be the hard guy to stand up against inequality and injustice. I even think being the hard guy hinders you to do so.

    And with respect to the white dudes in programming: I think they are lazy in the sense of letting others do the underpaid, shitty jobs.

    1. Garann

      Ah, sorry for the confusion – I’m not saying we all have to be tough guys and tough girls. What I meant to say is, I believe, the same thing you’re saying about laziness, and perhaps that’s a clearer word for it. In not challenging our industry to accept a wider, non-self-reinforcing view of merit, I think we’re being lazy.

    1. AMM

      Thanks for the link. It is a very good article.

      The one nit I would pick is that it talks about “merit” as if it were a well-defined concept. The fact that all the methods that have been devised to test “merit”, whether IQ, intelligence, or whatever, are not only so susceptible to gaming (e.g., test preparation classes), but to expectations, culture, etc., should make us question whether our whole idea of “merit” isn’t built on fallacies.

      I suspect that centuries from now, our ideas of “merit” and “intelligence” will sound as stupid as phrenology sounds to us now.

  2. Calliope

    This is a thought-provoking post, but I have to admit I’m put off by the amount of profanity in it. II feel anyone with a strong point should be able to make it without swearing …

    1. Dorothea

      Tone argument. Do not pass Go, do not collect any kudos.

      Seriously, lots of folks use this kind of argument to shut women up. It’s only worse when we do it to ourselves. So let’s stop, please.

      1. Calliope

        I’m not trying to shut her up. It’s just that this post has such good ideas in it, but I almost closed the window three times because I was so offended by the language, and the general lack of respect for the communities she criticizes. If her goal is to get people who consider their community a meritocracy to reconsider their views, I don’t think insulting them is the way to go. And removing the offensive language would mean a broader set of people are likely to read the article all the way through.

        1. Ms. Sunlight

          I think you’d do well to read the wiki’s entry on the Tone Argument if you haven’t already; this might help you understand what Dorothea is saying here, and why your comment is so infuriating to some of us.

          Besides, at what point in the article did the author give you the idea that the point was to make sweet, diplomatic overtures to the privileged? Sometimes being angry and expressing that is important.

        2. Garann

          To echo what Ms. Sunlight says, I’m not really trying to get people to change their views. At least not so much as I’m trying to clarify for myself (and maybe, hopefully, others) the source of an unease I feel when we casually throw the word meritocracy around like we’re already very elevated and objective.

          Regarding the tone thing, I received a number of fairly nasty comments in response to the post when it first appeared that had just as much profanity and bore only a tangential relationship to anything I’d said or implied. To my mind, that’s a demonstration that if people don’t want to hear what you’re saying, they just won’t, regardless of how it’s worded. The audience for criticism of an idea that’s central to how a shocking number of people define themselves is limited by its nature, and I’m not sure being more clinical or professional in presenting that criticism moves the dial very much.

        3. Kimadactyl

          Except the poster isn’t saying “this post is irrelevant because of the swearing”, they are saying “I am *personally* finding it hard for this reason”. You then tell them their personal criticism isn’t valid. I think this is pretty damn shady personally.

          I had a similar response – I don’t like the ablest language used (“dumb”). I agree with the tone of the article tho. Is that silencing too? While I agree that silencing is a tactic in use, I think as long as the poster makes it clear it’s their emotional reaction, it should be taken seriously and not dismissed as derailing.

        4. Ms. Sunlight

          Kimadactyl -

          The problem here is that a response from someone genuinely upset by the language used is identical in both form and function to a response using being “offended” as a rhetorical device to silence or derail. It’s not possible to seperate out one from the other.

  3. Calliope

    Thanks for that, I hadn’t seen that article. I still feel I’m coming from a place of genuine offence, or at least distaste, but I see how this thread is moving the conversation away from the actual content of the posting. So everyone, please ignore me and respond to the other comments that are actually about the article :)

  4. Jay R. Wren

    Excellent fucking post.

    When I go to a fucking conference and I look around, sometimes I see exactly what you write. I see an echo chamber. I see a room full of people with all the same solutions to all the same problems, both technical and social, none of which are very important. I see giant egos on barely capable humans. I see tiny egos on humans more capable than nearly everyone else at the conference. Its a mixed up messed up world in which we live. We are all human, some of us more fucking stupid than others.

    1. Julia

      Conducting standardized technical interviews in software companies is ensuring that a candidate has the same thinking process as everybody on the team.

      Software developers are not math and algorithm experts, CS Bachelor’s programs just skim on some basic math. I know that because I’m a developer who by education and early career experience had a broader exposure to math (about 5-7 times). Yet, I always “fail” technical interviews. My interviewers very rarely get happy if I provide an unexpected solution, those are business owners and older folks. Yet, it’s very common that I bring something up my interviewer doesn’t know, provide an answer different from their cheat-sheet, or they just stick to my manner of writing and such. And then – “it’s not an answer I expected” or “you don’t know X”.

      I understand that nobody can know everything, but those folks just believe that there is one and only one good answer to any question – from their cheat-sheet, and there is one and only one good thinking process – like them. Which draws a line between smart people like them and other people who are lacking talent. What’s the point of bringing diverse demographics, if people are required to drop their unique creativity in order to fit?

  5. jlstrecker

    Interesting. I had always thought of “meritocracy” as synonymous with fairness. You say “Hacker culture is a great example of a meritocracy.” I would say hacker culture is a terrible example — for (I think) exactly the same reasons you say it’s a great example: because privilege and fitting into the dominant culture are so important to success, and skill/potential are comparatively unimportant.

    (As Eric Reis put it: “This is why I personally care about diversity: it’s the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy. When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be. And I believe that is exactly what is happening in Silicon Valley.”)

    Could you explain why you say that hacker culture IS meritocracy — rather than saying that hacker culture IS NOT meritocracy because their definition of “merit” is so messed up?

    1. Tim Chevalier

      I know you’re not asking me, but I would say it’s because what “meritocracy” supposedly refers to doesn’t exist and is unachievable. So, from a descriptive rather than prescriptive point of view, hacker culture is a meritocracy: its members characterize it as one. Also descriptively, what is true of all communities styled as “meritocracies” by their members is that they’re cliquish and based on excluding “other”s rather than on merit.

      1. jlstrecker

        Thanks, Tim. I think I see your (and Garann’s) point about how the word “meritocracy” has been used over history… by groups of privileged people who use it to congratulate themselves.

        If “meritocracy” is not it, then what is the word for the thing that we hacker feminists are striving for? “Fairness”? — which doesn’t have the baggage of “meritocracy”, but maybe “fair” is just a different way of saying “merit-based”?

        1. Tim Chevalier

          Well, what I think of myself as striving for in my small way is to build communities that are open to anyone who has the desire to participate and the willingness to collaborate in good faith. So you don’t have to meet a certain threshold of “merit” to participate — you just have to want to give *something* and be willing to follow basic ground rules to include other people.

          Another thing about “meritocracy”, beyond the problems with hidden inequality that Garann points out, is that it implies excluding people who aren’t good enough, who fail the “merit” test. But why exclude people who someone judges “not good enough” if those people could still be contributing *something*? In my opinion, people have different strengths and ranking everyone on a linear scale of how good you are is just a mechanism that arbitrarily values some kinds of talent and devalues others.

          So I would say that I strive for inclusion, equality, and respect. Of course, every feminist would probably give you a different answer.

  6. A Cook and a Geek

    Really great article here.

    It seems to me what a lot of people are doing is that they are equating hegemony and painting it as a meritocracy.

    I have to say I like the “idea” of meritocracy. Kind of how I like the idea of various philosophical and political systems which never work out in reality. But the problem is actually implementing it in a way that works which is… usually never.

    If one were to say a meritocracy could be enabled by having testing systems, there’s the inherent problem that it is impossible to design fair tests that don’t cleave to the preferences of the test makers, which leads to a chain of problems thereafter.

    1. AMM

      I have to say I like the “idea” of meritocracy.

      I have to say I don’t.

      In addition to the problem of defining “merit” (like defining “intelligence,” it always ends up being equivalent to “people like me), there’s the whole business of dividing people up into winners and losers.

      How many of us remember the gym class tradition of picking teams by having the two captains alternately choose people? It’s a great ego-boost if you’re one of the ones who is always chosen first. Not so good if you’re always chosen last. And the effect is the exact opposite of the supposed goal of gym class (in the USA, at least, the claim is that it’s supposed to get everyone into a life-long habit of physical activity.) Those chosen first get the most practice and attention, those chosen last learn pretty quickly that their role is to sit on the sidelines and play with the grass and the pine needles.

      In the same way, the real effect of the “meritocratic” practice of dividing people up into “competent” and “incompetent” is to insure that the “competent” people don’t have to face any unexpected competition.

      (For some reason, Hunger Games comes to mind.)

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