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Why elites whip themselves
Elites malign meritocracy precisely to prove that they inhabit one based on moral righteousness.
Written by Bo Winegard.
The educated elite in America are turning against meritocracy, against standardized testing, and toward identity-based policies and rhetoric to promote equity and social justice. Some have suggested that the chief driver of this drift from meritocracy is what Peter Turchin calls “elite overproduction.” America is creating more elites than it can accommodate, and those whom it cannot accommodate are becoming bitter while those who are still competing for scarce but coveted positions in the status hierarchy are anxious. Anti-meritocratic rhetoric alleviates the bitterness and anxiety by providing a justification for defeat: America is not meritocratic and therefore failure is not a reflection of personal unworthiness, but a reflection of the fundamental unfairness of society.
This is an appealing argument but is ultimately implausible or at least incomplete because it almost entirely ignores the most forwarded complaint against the illusory American meritocracy, namely, that the United States is riddled with racism which, though often unseen or ignored, powerfully shapes the status hierarchy in the country. In a piece on the fashionable assault on meritocracy in 2020, for example, Ross Douthat argued that by assailing hard work and discipline, anti-racist rhetoric might even be a cynical (unconscious) attempt by elite whites to sap the ability of minorities to compete, which would explain why elite white families are attracted to a ritualized denunciation of supposedly antiquated bourgeois values. But this still does not appear to address the fundamental function of anti-meritocratic rhetoric about white privilege and toxicity nor does it explain why successful white elites who write for The New York Times and Vox would so enthusiastically embrace it.
The hypothesis here is that such anti-meritocratic rhetoric serves at least two functions. First it functions as a signal to distinguish educated elite whites (or “elites”) from hoi polloi (relatively uneducated whites); and, second, it functions as a justification for the large disparities in prestige between these elites and hoi polloi. It is not, therefore, as a salve for stinging envy and anxiety that elites have promoted the language of white fragility, toxicity, and anti-meritocracy, but rather as an instrument for public (and perhaps self) justification. It is both a signal and a form of apologetics.
Many elites believe that modern society is rife with racism. Some of this belief is an understandable reaction to large and stubborn disparities between whites and blacks. Most elites are what might be called equalitarians and believe that demographic groups are roughly equal on all socially valued traits. Therefore, if there are disparities between groups, then the cause or causes must be environmental. One obvious environmental explanation is persistent prejudices against blacks.
But another potential cause of this belief in ubiquitous racism is that it signals a kind of educated sophistication and skepticism about the West, a cultured disdain for simplistic narratives of European righteousness that distinguishes enlightened elites from nescient rubes. This would explain why such beliefs are often expressed in an obscure argot imported from postmodern philosophy and why even the understandable jargon and acronyms about race and social justice (e.g., “people of color,” “black,” “African American,” and “BIPOC”) routinely change in ways that are baffling to the uninformed. The more these signals discriminate between the educated who have perfected the intimidating vernacular of critical theory and the ordinary who do not have the time or perhaps the verbal facility to do so, the better.
But this puts elites in a tough place. If they believe that society is irredeemably racist and unjust, then how can they possibly justify their prestige? Suppose, for example, that one asks an elite writer at the New York Times, “Why should we listen to you and why do you warrant your status — your pay and your influence and your fancy dinners?” The elite writer cannot feasibly maintain that he or she deserves the pay and prestige while also maintaining that society is systemically unfair, for, if it is unfair, then how do we know that this particular outcome is merited? Wouldn’t that, in fact, suggest that society is fair? Thus, the belief in widespread racism and injustice puts the successful elite in an uncomfortable and apparently indefensible position. Fortunately, the language of white fragility and accusations of ubiquitous unfairness also provide the Nietzschean solution to the very puzzle it created.
Elites deserve their status not because they are necessarily smarter or more talented than hoi polloi, but rather because they are fully aware of their own wickedness. Like the religiously righteous, their self-disgust and self-flagellation are in fact evidence of their spiritual purity, and their willingness to confess their sins is evidence of their ethical enlightenment. Hoi polloi should listen to them because they are morally superior, not because they are more skilled or educated. The world of progressive institutions, then, is in fact a kind of meritocracy; it is a meritocracy of moral wisdom.
Thus the reason that people such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi are praised so fulsomely by elites is because they serve an important apologetic function. They, like charismatic religious preachers, provide the moral narrative that explains and justifies the current status hierarchy. Backward and benighted, Hoi Polloi don’t write for The New York Times or Vox and don’t have as much cultural power and prestige as the elites precisely because they are morally inferior to them. Therefore, elites can maintain without contradiction that instruments that measure intelligence or college preparedness are hopelessly biased and are in fact tools exploited by white supremacy to create the illusion of meritocracy, while also maintaining that their own status is deeply deserved.
America is not a skill-based meritocracy. It is racist, sexist, classist. Elites do not believe this because it assuages their own anxieties about possible failure. Rather, they believe it because it is necessary to explain demographic disparities; and they confess it enthusiastically because the more they confess it, the louder they confess it, the more earnestly they confess it, the greater their own merit and righteousness.
Like the religious devotees who maintained that humans were sinful and depraved, elites maintain that humans are blinkered and bigoted; and like those devotees, the elites believe that the only chance for salvation lies in an absolute and unconditional acceptance of the world’s wickedness. This is exactly what progressive institutions such as universities and the New York Times and Vox and Mother Jones do. They document the many iniquities of modern society, and they unveil the fraudulence of the standard story about merit. And because they do that, the people who work for them and who rise through their ranks really do deserve their prestige. In other words, elites malign meritocracy precisely to prove that they inhabit one based on moral righteousness.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.