Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Arguments of Merit

For an irritated Neville :)

There is a yearning I used to feel (and still do) for equality, for meritocracy, for justice and opportunity – graduation from college, school, finding a job, all of these junctures tested my understanding of these issues. Somewhere along the line, I think I got all these issues mixed up and I'm still trying to unthread the tangle here. Meritocracy is a question of judgement – it implicitly includes a standard, a parameter of judgement – and concerns itself with the issue of procedural justice in passing judgement. Opportunity is more directly a question of equality – it is far more fundamental; before one can quibble over the process of evaluation, one must be given the chance to be evaluated.

So clearly, the question of meritocracy does not, will not arise till the basic conditions of equality of opportunity are satisfied – it’s almost a natural progression. So, is it not natural then that the question of equality of opportunity having been addressed, a society MUST necessarily move on to trying to establish meritocracy?


A Short(?) Aside

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

- W.B. Yeats: 'The Second Coming'

Those are the immortal words that are printed on the first page of 'Things Fall Apart' - Chinua Achebe's novel on the effects of colonization on one African village, and on one man, Okonkwo, in particular. Achebe writes in English but the novel has a distinctive African voice and one is quickly, easily, drawn into the rich, beautiful world he describes. Achebe’s writing is intoxicating; Okonkwo’s hopes and desires become the reader’s, his urges mirrored in our own and the ultimate tragedy of his life – that he is forsaken by his own people, his beliefs and values shattered – leaves a deep scar on the reader.

Achebe writes with an agenda - to demolish the myth perpetrated by the mass of European literature, and in particular Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that represented Africa as the 'dark continent' - backward, uncivilized, and savage. And he succeeds brilliantly; Achebe establishes clearly that pre-colonial Africa possessed a rich 'civilization' - the village life he describes is structured and meaningful, with an elaborate socio-political system establishing rules and hierarchies for ascendancy in society. At the end of the novel, one is left with a distinct sense of loss at the wiping out of the civilization he describes and distaste for the unwavering, inevitable sanitizing spread of the powers of European colonization.

There is one particular aspect of the civilization Achebe describes that is relevant to the subject of meritocracy. Consider: Okonkwo, despite or perhaps because of the precedent set by his father, a lazy, debt-ridden dreamer, rises to a position of power and status in the society solely on the basis of his own achievements. Never is he judged for the sins of his father and similarly, never will his own son, be judged on the basis of the deeds of Okonkwo. It is thus clear then that the system is meritocratic. In comparison to the historical caste system in India, the system Achebe describes is highly progressive, modern.

Yet, despite all of this, the civilization falters, stumbles and finally crumbles, with nary a conflict, a small uprising. Achebe never addresses the reasons directly, but there are hints. There is great dissatisfaction within the society – probably because the structures are too rigid and the great inequality in recognition of different qualities. Okonkwo’s own son, a man of few qualities by the standards of the traditional society, converts to Christianity to make a better life for himself. When Okonkwo kills a colonial in disgust at his condescension, he finds no support in his kin for his actions though what he does would be considered heroic in the strict sense of the traditional value systems.

So gradually… no, not gradually, but with vicious speed, savage insensitivity, with furious condescension, the new replaces the old and a world, an ancient and beautiful world, is annihilated.

The answer (to: Why did the African civilization fall without a fight? What led to the dissatisfaction of the people?) seems then not to lie merely in lack of opportunity, or in questions of meritocracy alone.

I used to be all Gung-Ho about meritocracy; but slowly, surely the flip side of the coin seems to reveal itself to me – justice and judgement hinges on the parameters one chooses to use to evaluate someone/something by and this brings to the table the entire gamut of issues of perspective – one man’s meat is another man’s flesh. In addition, meritocracy, or rather procedure, can get boring.

Consider: McKinsey & Co. has probably THE most rigorous selection procedure of all the companies coming to campus for placements. They put the candidates through a rigorous set of case studies and interviews built to highlight different characteristics they wish to evaluate. There is no question that it’s as fair as it gets – but my friend Peau posits that even here there are problems. Essentially, he raises the question of whether one can train oneself to ace the test even without possessing the actual qualities; can one fool the test? The answer seems to rest on whether the candidates know in advance what the procedure tries to test. If so, not only can one fool the test, but provided the carrot is large enough – a job with McKinsey, entrance into an IIT – everyone is encouraged and taught to follow the same patterns of thought. In short, it kills diversity in thought – and that, is very very very boooooooooooring.


At 12:07 AM, Blogger cricfreak said... tough read...let me rephrase the argument you seem to be making.
The system by which meritocracy is judged can be mastered and the one who masters it best, emerges victorious. This makes u believe that this system (and all others u have encountered) is killing creativity.

My views
It is not the job of the system to ensure creativity. It is entirely an upto an individual to make that choice. I for one cannot diffrentiate between a a fin or a manac quiz which was used to assess potential in PGP-1, and a CAPONE test (or McKinsey cases if u like). Do you think the following would be a fair statement to make? "ISChols used blackbooks to ace PGP - 1". I think not. Even if there were no blackbooks and we were all equally ignorant of the process, Ischols would remain Ischols. My personal opinion is that Mc consultanst would have become Mc consultants with or without mastering the system. It is just an irony that those with such potential are just as adept at mastering the system(at the cost of losing their creativity perhaps?)


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