The heartlessness trap of the meritocratic rhetoric

The meritocratic rhetoric works well in cultivating an ideal of providing opportunities for those with merit.

The very notion that if you have merit you can move through social structures is seductive.

In extolling the virtues of merit as individual ability and sheer hard work, the meritocratic rhetoric obfuscates the structures that constitute merit.

Merit, however, does not exist in a vacuum.

It is produced in societal structures, amid overarching inequities and differentials in distribution of power that define what is merit and then reward certain forms of merit.

Merit is a product of social networks and circles of influence. The ability of an individual is cultivated in relational ties, and in socially held bonds. These socially held bonds are further cultivated in schools of merit-making. For instance, the sites of educating merit are themselves further sites of producing elite networks of the meritorious that can then leverage these networks for a wide variety of implicit benefits in the future. From jobs to referrals to health services to education of children, elite networks cultivate and pass on the privilege of merit.

In other words, these implicit benefits of merit networks get passed down through generations. The children of those with merit get further access to sites of merit-making, cultivated in the habits of merit since early childhood. Children of the meritorious trained in such-and-such school miraculously find seats for themselves in such-and-such school.

The power of the rhetoric of merit, however, lies in obfuscating all these spheres of influence that constitute merit, somehow then cultivating the belief that success is one's individual achievement.

The rhetoric of individually-driven success, having erased the powerful role of social structures, cultivates the heartlessness trap.

The elite start believing in the seductive appeal that they have earned the privileges they have. They also become convinced that those that are less fortunate deserve their less fortunate positions in society, that somehow this is all a part of a naturalized social order of things.


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