We’re on the doorstep of 2020 and we’re rapidly spiraling into the future. Changing so fast that it’s hard to really tell what it is we’ re even spiraling towards. No matter the direction, I think it’s worth taking a step back to deeply consider the subconscious direction America is headed in. Asking ourselves why, as much as we do how.
“… what happens when you get to the cliff? Do you step forward or do you make a 180 degree turn and take… one step forward? Which way are you going? Which is progress?”.
This quote is taken from American conservationist Doug Tompkins, in an exchange with American rock climber and entrepreneur, Yvon Chouinard from the film, 180 Degrees South. This is a movie of wants vs. needs, love vs. fear, and triumph vs. failure — a movie about self and social discovery, and one that mirrors the very notions that led to the creation of The United States of America. I like to think of these implications through the lens of my experiences’ as well as that of my generational peers. Finding myself lost but never in fear of where I am. I would imagine our founding fathers felt the same.
Opportunities are taken for granted every day of our lives, making it easy to never really consider why ourselves or others do the things we do.
“You know, it’s funny when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”.
This is a quote taken from Wanda the owl, in the animated television show BoJack Horseman. This sentiment applies to a broader ideal than the individual. American Democracy, is made out to be a grandiose symbol of holistic virtue. We view ourselves as the pinnacle of human intervention and have for decades. But by viewing ourselves as the super power we are — when we occupy such a global pedestal — many struggle to consider our nation and its actions critically.
With this, I would like to apply it towards Americas current democratic society.
Because… I’m scared.
As a college student, I and many of my peers have one question on our mind. Why am I here? Answering this question can be as easy as considering the consequence for not doing so: fear of failure. And by failure, I mean this term in society’s traditional sense: If I fail to get a degree — any degree — I won’t be able to get the high-paying job needed to buy a nice home, provide stability for my family, and the comfortable life I desire. All these things require money — high income promises by higher education. With the skyrocketing cost of a 4-year degree and a rapid shift in workforce demands, this expectation is vanishing before our eyes.
Setting these assumptions over my own future aside, labeling upwards of 70% of the United States’ population (the percentage of people without a higher degree) as failures is damning. Beyond the belief that a college degree is needed for this outdated ideal of success, why do so many of us believe that only highly educated individuals within our society deserve to hold the most power and wealth? This is what’s known as Meritocracy.
In a meritocratic society, it’s hard to imagine it can be organized any better. After all, it’s true that we should be rewarded for our hard work! And no one wants the D-student doctor performing their operation. But by believing that society’s traditional victors are fully deserving of their success, it logically follows that we should label everyone struggling from under-employment, poverty, sexism, racism, ageism or myriad other biases as fully deserving of self-inflicted, justifiable, failure.
This arbitrary lottery of our personal identities aren’t just characteristics of self, but also characteristics of societal success. And this is the issue —
Meritocracy denies equal opportunities, while hiding behind the façade of outcome equality.
This implicit trust in the value of a perceived outcome condemns its followers to live by a deluded belief that they are more deserving of luxury, while pinning the poor to lives of penury. The twist is that those who want these inequalities resolved most have the least amount of power to effect change. Shattering the status quo is challenging, but as with any paradigm shift, it often falls to those existing under these traditional beliefs to identify and define the issues, and to help society to recalibrate.
We can observe this issue in today’s politics surrounding women’s, LGBTQ, and racial minority rights. Trust in meritocracy pushes political parties, gender, sexual identity, and race to opposite sides of the spectrum, but more devastatingly, our senses of self. Some strides have been made in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go.
With Meritocracy so imbedded into of our lives, it’s easy to overlook its effects on society. With each generation living and dying by this feudal value system dictated by the zip code in which you’re born or who your daddy was, we overlook the progress that we’ve inched towards since the dawn of man: the underlying sense of compassion that makes us human.
Think about the first person to give his neighbor a sheep out of sheer generosity. That one gesture might have been what kept that family fed and clothed for the winter. Fast forward a couple hundred years and here we are. You might be the descendent of that person. Simply put, you might not be here today if not for that simple act of compassion.
It fact, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to chalk up our collective existence to one man’s generosity. We have examples throughout the ages of aristocracies taking in those in need. In aristocracies, which we still see today, wealthy groups of individuals were born into the positions of power — they were destined to be wealthy. While this doesn’t sound like an improvement, I would argue it is. At least in these societies, people didn’t blame themselves for their lack of power. They blamed thanks, as well as fault, to the divine spiritual/ religious powers that spat them out into the life both they, and their superiors, were intended to live. They didn’t view their circumstances, good or bad, to anything more than what amounts to luck.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we can see how values have changed. Those at the bottom of society were referred to as the unfortunates. This word, speaking to their circumstance — not putting blame on the individual for the life they happened upon. Compare this to now, where those sitting at the bottom of our societal hierarchy are seen as fully deserving of their failure. They’re not unlucky, or unfortunate. They’re losers.
Look at the psychological toll on people within our society. With societal pressures, today’s teenage girls value themselves so poorly that they have to put sticky notes on their mirrors saying: ‘You’re enough.’. Not to mention the climbing suicide rate around the globe.
Now here we sit.
Grasping the reigns of one’s own merit comes without any conscious thought, promoting the individual’s motivation towards possible outcomes. Let’s compare this to a dog who has the stamina to go on a 10-mile hike. His reward is a belly rub and a treat. To put this in societal terms, this would be like taking 350 million dogs on the same hike. Some of the dogs would get a head start, some are given more food and water than others, some think it’s a fun race, some are missing a leg, some will fight the others based on their fur color, some don’t like the way the other dogs think, so they try to convince the other dogs that a certain dog’s belief is inferior until that dog is too scared to even try to get to the end, and some are so defeated that they drop out of the race. But the fastest dogs can change the terrain anyway to their advantage. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it would look like quite the shit-show.
Now pretend those dogs are people. It neglects to consider individual ability by pitting everyone against the fastest dogs. This makes success difficult-to-impossible with the right people and beliefs working against you. And for what reason? Tradition? Maintaining the status quo? The perceived need for ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’?
Accepting the competitive nature of one’s merit can be dangerous. Pitting races, sexes, nationalities, cultures, beliefs, strengths, varying degrees of wealth, and the human spirit against one other in a never-ending game of comparison.
You’re black; you drink over there. You’re a woman; you get paid less. You’re poor; you deserve it. You’re Jewish; you’re inferior.
Or some more recent examples:
You’re gay; that’s wrong. You’re Mexican; you’re not welcome here. You’re not good at taking 4 hour long tests; college isn’t for you.
In these historical scenarios, people are being robbed of both sense of self and societal worth. This pierces the dagger of jealousy deeper into the hearts of the misfortunate with each blow to their egos, and each perceived gain for the more ‘fortunate’ ones. This is an issue of inequity that, in time, results in one thing; conflict, and the need for change.
This change will only come from addressing the concerns and accepting the known: the fundamentally human nature of being and our collectively-ingrained idea of equality. With this, take a listen too that song we’ve all heard and forgotten: America the Beautiful, and pay particular attention to the 49th word. Grace.
With grace, maybe we can start to change the way we look at each other. With its altruistic intent, we can start to realize the massive inequalities in our society are the results of our own dated beliefs and nothing more. Taking the power from these beliefs, and placing its value into the infallible merit we all own; compassion, we’ll start to build a better society and, by extension, a better world. Grace will better balance: our craze for perfection, and our longing for empathy. Holding our reflex to reward the best, and the moral urgency to support the least. It’s not until we recognize as a society that it’s in our personal best interest to help those around us, that true change will occur.
With this, I would like to leave you with a quote from Jean Houston.
“I believe that we are here with deep purpose to become all that we can be. I believe that we are headed ultimately in the right direction. I believe that we have been given sufficient stress, crisis, complexity, and consciousness to do things just beyond our imagination. Larger than our aspiration. More complex than all our dreams. I believe in you. I believe in me. I believe in this, the most potent moment in human history.”