When the elite in the society hold their position because of their varna or the money of their forefathers, it is easier to view them as oppressors, undeserving and blameable. Because they are perceived as unworthy. But when the same elite are educated, talented, ‘meritorious’, who do you blame then? Are they then responsible for perpetuating social hierarchies that breed inequalities? They earned their ticket to oppress, their privilege of indifference and perhaps, you are to be blamed for not being able enough to climb up to the top. If only you were talented.
Meritocracy, with its origin rooted in satire, has ironically come to become a widely accepted political ideology over the years for its promise of social equality through impartial competition. It proposes that as long as one is talented, hardworking, and capable, they will move up the social ladder. In a society marked by deep-rooted historical inequalities based on inherent identities, meritocracy gives the impression of handing us the control over establishing an egalitarian society—a society where one’s worth is not decided by their family background or prior social status but by their talent and capability. It is the people’s aspirations of success through supposedly attainable talent and hard work that have completely changed the original understanding of meritocracy as a dystopia.
For a person from lower strata who has been discriminated against their entire life because of their gender, sex, caste, class, race or ethnicity, meritocracy gives the hope of a better future. It deceives one to think that the unfavourable characteristic(s) of their identity will cease to be a hurdle as long as they can manage to be talented. However, it fails to account that this ‘merit’ is not accessible for everyone to acquire, and for those for whom it is accessible, the access is not equally distributed. The access to merit is distributed according to the same prohibited markers of discrimination that one wants to escape from through the idea of meritocracy.
Merit, like wealth, is passed down generations through better opportunities to a holistic education. A heterosexual upper-caste Hindu male in Indian society is likely to be wealthier than a transgender Dalit woman from a rural background. The former is also likely to provide their children with better education, teach them extracurricular activities and help them acquire proficiency over languages through the human capital they possess. This way, they can ensure they provide their children with a great advantage in human capital, leading to the creation of a vicious circle. The children of the elite in a meritocracy will be ahead of other children who do not have educated or ‘talented’ parents, have to do jobs on the side, and/or have no physical access to education. The elite of the meritocratic system are also likely to meet, socialise, and create relationships with others from their own strata, resulting in the preservation of the human capital within the strata. This makes meritocracy a static system, hardly any better than the imperfect systems that it apparently achieves to replace.
Meritocracy refuses to acknowledge that not everyone starts the race from the same starting line. It disregards historical discrimination against marginalised communities perpetuated due to institutions; it allows the privileged to blame social inequality on the ability of the marginalized, or rather the lack thereof, for their misery. By doing this, it only gives legitimacy to oppression and social inequality. It reinforces the status quo but with the farce of equality. The elite are provided with the solace that they earned their position, not because of their capital and resources but because they worked hard to secure their position. This likely makes them uncharitable as they no longer have to face the guilt of their privilege. On the other hand, the poor and marginalised, who are unable to fulfil their dream of climbing up the social ladder, have to struggle with inner conflict as they start believing the stereotypes associated with their disadvantaged social group when confronted with failure.
The twisted standards of merit are central to the paradox of meritocracy. The idea of merit or talent in a meritocracy differs heavily from nation to nation. But largely, it is accepted that it is tied to hard work and intelligence. Merit is based on a capitalistic notion that strives to push for productivity within organisations and the State at a larger level; one needs to be constantly busy doing something worthwhile to keep themselves in the race of levelling up their social standing. Conversely, it is believed that leisure is a rewarded privilege available only to the elite who have reached there through their talent.
However, in practice, even they have to constantly do a certain degree of work to preserve their position; particularly today, when ready access to information invites closer scrutiny. This forces people to project themselves as hardworking and busy to be perceived worthy. This projection of them also has to match the standards of merit that a society chooses for itself. To indulge in art or music might be seen as leisure unless you are an expert or connoisseur but to work the entire day for your new business venture is likely to make you be perceived as worthy. At the same time, toiling in an industry is not associated with merit. The idea of merit is very narrow in most societies and is carefully tailored to fit in only a few. The others who do possess or are unable to meet the skewed standards of merit are seen as failures.
Our education system, a means of gaining merit, perpetuates inequality as the standards of talent fixed promote exclusion of the marginalised. Proficiency over communication, particularly in English, form the basis of assessment and evaluation. While this might not be an issue at all for some people who grew up listening and speaking in the language, the students belonging to marginalised groups usually have to work harder to decipher the foreign jargon used in schools and colleges that guarantee success—the institutions that are marketed to the royalty, or the middle class with hopes of a better future for their children. This is one of the many standards of merit that educational institutions base on privilege. The exclusionary reality of our education system laid bare in the times of the pandemic; although many were unable to access academic resources or were going through a rough time due to personal losses, the institutions refused to change their methods of assessment to more inclusive alternatives and forced students to sit through conventional examinations.
Right from college entrance exams to internships and jobs, it is common to see filtration of students on the basis of the kind of school they went to, the languages they boast of, the skills they learnt and the exams they have cracked since childhood. This compartmentalises a person’s life where they no longer are seen as a whole but as a compilation of ‘relevant skills and experience’, of their academic labels and grades. Their personal life, their views and their values become less significant. They become commodities sold by their merit.
The norm is for educational institutions to filter students based on select criteria. These criteria can practically look like the ability to crack a competitive examination. Students are increasingly burned out as they spend hours in schools and coaching institutes to master the skill of cracking these exams, to master a skill that can be replicated with practice, all in the name of merit. This is the norm, with the exception of a few institutions that evaluate candidates holistically without reducing them to their marks or academic labels; this is through an assessment based on application forms that include their interests, their passions, their ambitions and the story they choose to them about themselves. A change in India’s curriculum and evaluation is hopefully expected from the implementation of the National Education Policy, 2020 that seeks to make assessment of merit be done from a multi-dimensional approach.
At its core, meritocracy is a well-intentioned idea. The USA and France’s history shows that when the aristocracy was toppled in the name of natural rights and sovereignty, they attempted to fill the vacuum with a more liberal and secular system to eliminate natural inequality. They both settled on a merit-based system. While they apparently stayed strong to their commitment to equal opportunities, they instated a system based on identifying and selecting as elite those with a greater endowment of privileged qualities, equated with merit. Nonetheless, they included the use of affirmative action to increase the catchment area for the selection of the elite. This accounted for acknowledgement that apart from the those coming from ‘good cultural backgrounds’ who were exposed throughout their lives to books and learning, the selection system needed to find intelligence where learning had been more scarce, to break away from the cycle.
The constitutional idea of equality in India includes this concept of affirmative action. Moreover, the Courts, over the years, have built on the idea of substantive equality. The recent Lt Col Nitisha judgement adds another tool to India’s equality and anti-discrimination jurisprudence—the indirect discrimination doctrine. The doctrine seeks to find and address the discrimination that falls through the cracks during the strict implementation of formal equality. It recognises that the application of the law, rule or provision has different effects on different groups because of their inherent characteristics.
While the law recognises the inherent differences and subsequent disadvantages associated with different social groups, and strives to fix that, a palpable gap exists when it comes to its implementation and its reception by the people. Even today, candidates benefitting from the ST/SC/OBC reserved seats are viewed as undeserving people stealing seats from ‘talented’ candidates, and consequently met with discrimination in various institutions. This, done consciously or because of the normalisation of exclusion, breeds class stagnancy. Justice Chandrachud, while upholding the constitutional validity of a law that protects the consequential seniority of persons belonging to the SC/STs promoted, said, “If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in exclusion, it will produce a pattern of governance which is skewed against the marginalized. If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in equal access our outcomes will reflect the commitment of the constitution to produce a just social order.”
It is incorrect to perceive the prevalent notion of merit as objective or scientific because it is far from it. Even grades on a paper or a trophy in a competition, otherwise seen as well-defined standards of evaluation, are judged by imperfect and diverse human beings with their own understanding of what is ideal. To take values such as empathy, cooperation and solidarity out of the evaluation criteria reduces the being of a human to a mere tiny part of them and the human is left confused and doubtful of their capabilities, striving for the other parts.
It is the people in the system who have the power to change the notion and standards of merit so as to move towards an inclusive society. However, since they are benefitted from preserving the status quo, their interest lies in gatekeeping institutions to ensure that the marginalized are not represented enough for them to even try change the idea of merit. Such is the cruelty of meritocracy that is depoliticizes the concern of inclusivity by presenting non-exclusion as the result of an impartial system.
It’s you, not them.
If… if only the fish climbing the tree could flap its damn wings.