Ah, meritocracy! The great solution to all of society’s problems, at least if the white, heterosexual, cis-male hacker is to be believed. If just we’d had meritocracy, then we could actually solve the important problems, and everyone would be happy!
I’m tired of hearing it, really. It gets brought up every time someone calls out issues in hacker or nerd communities, and it doesn’t get any less wrong with every repetition. The idea behind meritocracy is certainly a commendable one – that everyone be judged by their merit, not superficial other criteria. Even the hacker ethics of the CCC reflect this:
Hackers should be judged by their acting, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
The problem is that in practise, the ones who define merit are those already in power, and in both these communities as well as society at large, the ones in power are white, cisgendered, heterosexual men, and as long as these people get to define what merit is, meritocracy will merely reinforce existing power structures. It’s nothing radical, really. It’s the exact opposite, a reactionary, conservative rhetoric that’s used to subdue criticism.
One of the best examples for this is Linus Torvalds, idol and hero of hackers and nerds alike. He’s the “Benevolent Dictator For Life” of the Linux kernel, an unarguably brilliant engineer… and a massive, unapologetic dick. He’s been called out for his behavior for years, by many different people, and pretty much all that he has ever answered is “lol deal with it”. He’s a prime example for a toxic individual who’s tolerated a) because he is an (or rather, the most) important contributor to the Linux kernel, and b) because the abusive shit he constantly pulls is not just ignored by his peers, it’s basically applauded and espoused.
Just recently, when questioned about the lack of diversity in tech (the existence of which is inarguable), his response was basically “I don’t care, I’m an asshole”. And this is the person heading arguably the most well known FLOSS project in existence. If you look at the hashtag #IStandWithLinus on Twitter, you’ll see legions of rabid fanboys fanatically defending his right to be an abusive shitbag, people who look up to Torvalds and idolize his behavior. If you do not think this is fucked up, then please don’t bother talking to me, ever.
And it’s not just Torvalds. If that would be the case, it would be the least of our problems. The issue is that this kind of behavior is not just widespread, but also widely tolerated. You can be an abusive asshole as much as you want as long as you contribute technical things – provided you are a white, heterosexual cis-male, because otherwise, your behavior would be unacceptable.
I’ve seen this pan out before me several times already, and I still see it all the time. I’m part of several communities where assholes are tolerated as long as they do stuff, where people don’t see an issue with the fact the 98% of the people in the community are white cishet males, or if they do, they think that this will eventually fix itself as long as you tell yourself the lie that everyone will be respected as long as they have merit. Worse, if you call people out on their bullshit, instead of telling the abuser to stop, will start telling you to stop criticizing the abuser because they do stuff and how dare you imply that they are bad.
Also, as I have said above, the ones in power define what merit is. This leads to the phenomenon that everything which could potentially hurt this existing power structure is deemed as “not merit” and therefore dismissable. When people question this or call out people on their behavior, they’re questioned what they have contributed to the community and how dare they criticize someone who does more stuff than them. It’s a shaming tactic that works to constantly undermine the achievements of people, aimed at eventually getting them to question their own achievements.
Meritocracy fails because it fails to question existing power structures, it merely defines them away. This plain doesn’t work, it never has. No victory over oppressive structures has ever been achieved by saying “this structure no longer exits” and subsequently ignoring its existence, nor will this ever happen. Those victories have to be fought for, and meritocracy does not do this, because it’s a passive denial of existing hierarchies.
We seriously need to get rid of this poisonous concept for good. We need to tell the many Torvalds in our communities and spaces to either stop being assholes, or get the fuck out, no matter how valuable their technical contributions may be. We need to actively fight to end the lack of diversity instead of ignoring it. We need to stop tolerating douchebaggery, and stop being douchebags ourselves.