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Sociology of Merit IV

Merit as Ideology


The common sense understanding of merit is that it is real, objective and easily measurable. The common sense thinks it as obvious that those who top an exam have merit and they deserve all the rewards they can get. However, a famous scholar once pointed out that if external appearances were the same as inner realities, then there would be no need for science. The social sciences help us to peel apart the myths that are embedded in many common sense perceptions. They can help us to see that merit is part of an ideology.

Many social scientists use the concept of ideology to refer to how culture takes up a dimension of power. Culture is made up of an interconnected mesh of symbols and practices and may often prioritize certain interests over others. Certain meanings are brought to the front and others pushed back, all the while maintaining an impression of normalcy and naturalness. Thus fairness gets to be seen as the mark of beauty, over all other shades of skin in India. The ways of the rich and powerful begin to be equated with style and eventually with goodness. Ideologies are believed to be present in not just political parties. Cultures have invisible strings that pull, in an often unconscious manner, to strengthen certain hands and weaken others. The commonest way to do this is by the process of legitimization. The strength of British rule was their having persuaded us that their ways were superior and correct. Thus the ideologies of colonialism held us under their spell as no amount of guns and swords could. This explains why one of the main strategies of our freedom struggle had to be the encouraging of self-respect and faith in our own ways.

Merit, too, acts ideologically in today's India. It defines the desirable qualities for entry to prestigious and powerful positions. It celebrates the few who are selected and they are declared the rightful and just occupiers of those special positions. In this manner the notion of merit magnifies the qualities of the selected, thereby brushing under the carpet the systemic deficiencies that prevent other more or less equally good candidates from also being selected. This may be best illustrated through an angry protest by some MBBS students who were agitating against reservations in a post-graduate departments. They pointed that that there were just 5 seats, of which just 2 would be left after various quotas had been filled. This was a denial of merit, they argued. The hold of ideologies is remarkable: they were willing to agitate against reservation, but not against the fact that there were so few seats in the first place! The first was to them clearly illegitimate. The second was probably seen as only “natural”.

The real issue behind a shortage of jobs, a shortage of college seats and the lack of dignity for most job-seekers is the structure of inequality in society. We have a political system that gives power to a few and not to most. We have an economic system that gives wealth to a few and not to most. Instead of asking why there are so few jobs or why there are so few seats in colleges, we quibble over the criterion of selection.

Entry to the state, the corporate sector and the professions is about the selection of a few and the exclusion of many. In all cases selection is said to be done on the basis of certain qualities. And in all cases the justification of exclusion is at least as important as the supposed utility of those qualities. If there are a thousand qualified applicants for just one post, then how is one to decide? The notion of merit provides a gloss of legitimacy. It claims that the selection is correct because of some standard of measurement. The successful candidate is said to out-distance the rest by a real and substantial difference. Assuming that the selection was done on the right and relevant criteria, there is the problem of the absurdity of 1 percent differences and how much results vary with each repetition of a test. But there is another basic problem in this: many of the rest were rejected not because they were unsuitable for the job. They were rejected because the jobs were not enough for all of them.

The acceptance of inequality and its justification is one of the prime functions of ideologies of domination. Merit is part of a much broader culture that sees inequalities as normal and legitimate. This has become part of our motivation system. A well-wishing friend sitting with me in my car once tried to persuade me to get rich quickly. Why, I asked him? Why not, he countered, don't you want to drive a Mercedes? I was puzzled at that then: he would still be sitting with me and we would still be crawling through city traffic. What would we gain by a Mercedes? I understand that better now. Our motivation systems are less about what we will get by doing something, and more about how much superior we will become to others. As our society becomes more and more unequal, with a certain kind of economic growth, inequality itself becomes our driving force.

Our advertisements are saturated by the desire to be different. In this consumerist milieu, our middle and upper-middle classes do not seek long-lasting satisfaction. To become content means the end of consumerism. That would be disastrous to the growth of our economy. No, what we seek is to be, well, different. And not different as an equal, but different as a superior. To eat better than others, to drive better cars than others, to wear better clothes than others. Superiority is defined by quick labels and there is little desire or inclination to examine the content. The label of merit shares the qualities of the various other symbols of a consumer society: the label is what validates and legitimizes and the brand is what gives value. The content is secondary.

Even when the content of merit is important, its implications are deliberately pushed out of mind. Getting ahead in life needs us to get certain kinds of jobs. And for those jobs we need to be submissive, manipulative and opportunistic. That is what merit is often all about. When 100,000 people sit in a competitive exam for 100 seats, then people with the above qualities will have an edge. The greater the competition, the more difficult will become the selection of students with healthy, all-round interests, or even a practical interest in say, making things with their hands, or taking care of the ill or unhappy. The tougher the competition, the more likely will it be that the meritorious will be the completely focused, the single-minded and the studious. That also means they must be moral cowards who are submissive to the mindless demands of the system, have little interest in real world matters and little practical orientation. This is why we need to fight systemic inequality: it leads to the distortion of even our most cherished values.

Of course, all these suit selecting institutions fine. Such students are not trouble-makers, can be easily controlled and can be counted on not to rock the boat. They also make excellent employees for the corporate sector. However, they don't make particularly good human beings and we see that all the time in our hospitals and in the actions of our private sector.

The ideological weight of merit acts to strengthen the power of those who are endowed with its halo. The professions, for instance, are actually characterized by a powerful exclusionary tendency. Doctors insist that they and only they have the capability and the moral right to heal. They seek to exclude others from the realm of healing. This is central to all professionalization – the demarcation of boundaries and the desire to monopolize control within them. Criticisms of the medical profession get drowned under the pressure of merit. Doubts over intrusive medicine and the violence of hospitals get crushed. Pointing to the dehumanization, greed, selfishness and exploitation rampant in medicine is futile. The best are selected for this profession on the basis of merit. How can they be wrong? If the IIMs and IITs are selecting the most meritorious students in our country, then how they be responsible for anything less than a perfect pollution-free environment and a just, equitable society?

Merit as an ideology can hardly be understood without examining the larger contours of contemporary society and the kind of selections it wants to make. Gandhi understood this very well. When he debunked British education he said that he could understand why people were still reluctant to quit British-designed schools and universities. They gave entry to the charmed circles of power. The nature of those circles of power continues to be central to understanding the hold and meaning of merit. The roots of merit lie in the egalitarian ideal of a meritocracy, where merit is what counts and inherited privileges cease to matter. However, in an unequal society, with continued distortions in the sharing of resources and opportunities, merit becomes a fig leaf. It becomes an ideology to cover up the deficiencies of a system which is pretending to distribute rewards in a just manner. The hope of justice which merit had once held out continues to go unrequited.