Subjective Meritocracies

Certificate of Merit

Alain de Botton, who is a legend, has much to say on the subject of meritocracies. Largely that they’re a nice idea but he doesn’t believe we live in one (no matter how much we would like to believe we do, or how frequently we’re told we are). There are just too many (seemingly random) variables to objectively rank merit. Fair call, I say.

Pluralistic Relativism

Ken Wilber (in A Theory of Everything) talks about pluralistic relativism whereby we (globally, but in an unbalanced manner) are evolving away from dogmatic, mythic forms of life; away from scientific one-upmanship to toward a plateau of evolution where individual differences are celebrated and we are each left to our own devices to find our own spirituality, our own politics, our own way of working and living which makes the most sense to us. I.e. we are no longer labouring under the oppressive yoke of values imposed on us by major (or minor) religions and are left to discover our own value systems.

Subjective Meritocracies

I’d like to suggest that Wilber’s discussion has something to say about the universal meritocracy conundrum: that we live within subjective meritocracies – every person you come across will award you merit based on their individual value systems. This is why sometimes you will “win” and sometimes you will “lose” when you’re doing exactly the same thing but with different people. Any universal meritocracy is merely a facade which represents a rough approximation of the average values of its citizens. Of course, given cultural differences we’re looking at a mesh of meritocracies where two people will (potentially) collectively award merit differently than they would individually. A third person changes the mix further. Scale up to a community or a nation and you start to see how the mesh plays out. And, like the rest of the universe, everything is in a constant state of flux so an act or omission that receives merit this minute may be condemned the next.

Applying Subjective Meritocracies

So what does this mean in practice? Well, I think it means that we should just live the life we want to live.

Tangential Sketch

A friend of mine – my best friend in my late teens (when the term “best friend” had sincere and powerful meaning); an awkward but close buddy through my early twenties (and the introduction of serious girlfriends for each of us); a closed and distant acquaintance the last 6 or 7 years as we moved in different directions – is getting married in a couple of months. A couple of months ago he indirectly hinted that he might be considering me to fill the privileged position of best man. These days I am getting better at really considering options and opportunities, so I stepped back and looked intently at our relationship. I realised that we hadn’t been close for a long time, that we were really just going through the motions. More, there was quite a bit of suppressed anger on my part as I felt he really ‘used’ me: for rides, as he has no car; to facilitate social functions, as he appears fairly socially inept; to help him move house, which he didn’t ask directly (allowing me the option of considering and turning him down) but rather trapped me with the old “if I tell you a secret will you do me a favour?” – I incorrectly presumed he was going to propose to his girlfriend and wanted my help so agreed. Then he told me he’d bought a house and needed help moving… Long story short I felt I needed to keep to my word and ended up slaving away until 1 or 2am on a weeknight.

With the question about being his best man looming (there was no open discussion, just the vagaries of his email attempting to preempt my response so he could be assured of a positive reply before he asked), I went deep into it all. I spoke to my therapist at length about him. After I related my long laundry list of complaints (from wanting rides through the house move to his hosting a BBQ for 6 people but only buying 4 sausages, 2 chicken kebabs and half a loaf of bread, then calling me asking if that would be enough, and my answer being “I have a kilogram of sausages in the fridge and a loaf of bread, I’ll bring it”), my therapist nodded knowingly, empathised emphatically, then said something that snapped my head back. “You enable his behaviour.” I enable his behaviour? “He calls you saying he’s bought four sausages and you feel sorry for him and bring a kg of sausages.” The rest fell into place. I wasn’t angry at him – he was simply another character who hooked into my old behaviours whereby I take pity and go out of my way to support him, thus perpetuating the situation. The whole mess unraveled and the anger ebbed out of me…

Back to the Point

So, last week, when he finally got around to asking me to be his best man (by email), I had to decline.

Not right or wrong, simply different. He is operating under a set of values that didn’t value friends or social interaction as heavily as I do.

Barmath 101

Really, really smokin’ hot chicks

I was in the Exchange Hotel (a bar) last night in Balmain, Sydney, NSW, Australia, and there was a decent ratio of women to men (probably higher than 1:1, though this may be distorted by my tendency, as a man, to remember women more prominently than men in a social situation and is part of the filtering bias I’m about to get into).

There was a woman at the bar who was simply stunning. I mean sell-your-own-grandmother gorgeous. A curious sensation overcame me: I felt obligated to talk to this girl. I simply had to do something. This, I realise now, has been a long-running pattern of behaviour of mine. Now that it’s 9:14am the next day and I am past the brain-addled fugue that beautiful women perpetrate on men, I can start to unpack the experience and look at it in the light of broader societal interaction.

First, although this is a grand and sweeping statement, I’d like to suggest that this pattern is common to many men. I’ve known plenty of blokes who simply can’t help themselves obsessing over women. One good-looking chick enters the area and they lose all interest in conversation (often a considerably-sized, coherently conversing, group of men will simultaneously stop talking if a good-enough-looking girl walks by, simply resuming their briefly paused sentence once she’s passed from view).

So why? Why are men like this? What’s the driver? The feminist movement would, back in the early days, have had us believe that all men are sex-crazed monsters who simply want to sleep with anything in a skirt. I, and my brethren who have cultivated enough mindfulness in their own actions (sorry, ‘enough’ is subjective: I know of no bar by which we can measure this – when you know, you know) to understand that our relationship overtones, although superficially sexual in design, are rarely sexual under the hood.

Speaking personally, I can identify two reasons why I felt compelled to act:

  1. The seemingly universal plague of emotional cancer in which I feel a partner can “fill the void” in me or “answer my questions” (coupled with my own subjective preferences around partner selection: i.e. she was freakin’ hot), or even the “merging with mother” argument
  2. A type of filtering bias, where I narrowed my awareness to the point where she was the only potential mate in the world (for the sake of this discussion and absence of a known term, I’ll call this obsessive blinker bias)

Finally, after not acting, I felt diminished. Like I’d failed (someone? anyone? her? myself? my brother(s)? my dad? all men? maybe my mum?).

Filling the void

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a slightly or wildly different story about why we seek partners. From the scientists you’ll hear about the biological impulse to perpetuate the species (one could argue this should have no emotional component – just primal urges – but biology does tamper with our emotions); through complex community effects where the sum of the relationship or family unit outstrips the value of its parts; to Lamurian theology where we used to be whole and contain both male and female halves but got divided in some great calamity, losing our ‘twin ray’ to the ages, never feeling entirely complete until we find them. Then there’s also the merging with mother idea I discussed in Life by proxy.

For me it’s probably all of those things, plus plenty more. Certainly one other attributable factor in my story is one which is plaguing most modern men: a loss of masculine identity, spawning a sense of crippling low self-worth, confusion, even, potentially, emotional retardation.

Steve Biddulph discusses the male dilemma and concordant snowballing Men’s Movement in his book Manhood. I read this a couple of weeks ago. In fact, that’s a lie. I consumed this book. It felt like coming home. His central thesis, in a nutshell, describes how industrialisation saw men leaving the family unit for long periods every day and the raising of the children (girls and boys) fell solely and squarely on the shoulders of the women. These absent fathers no longer initiated boys into manhood, no longer spent long hours with them teaching them the art and mastery of what it is to be a man. No woman, he suggests, no matter how fantastic (and make no mistake: women are utterly incredible), can ever sufficiently raise a boy into manhood.

What we’re left with is generation after generation of men who have modeled themselves on movie stars and table scraps of emotion from their emotionally or physically absent fathers. This has resulted in guys who, without learning first-hand from real men what it is to feel, to connect, with other men as men, are two-dimensional and rather awkward. Back in the day the uprising of the feminist movement led us to believe our sexual impulses are ‘creepy’, invasive, unwanted, even damaging. Take that guilt trip with you next time you go trawling for web porn. Hence the act in men, with little emotional connection: they play the stereotypical ‘tough guy’ or the SNAG, etc – 2D archetypes glorified in action movies or chick flicks. But how can anyone, especially a young, confused boy who is experiencing all sorts of weird shit as he grows, learn to master their gender through Richard Gere’s flamboyant portrayal of whatsisname in Pretty Woman, or Arnie blowing people to bits in Terminator 2 (or, God forbid, Kindergarten Cop)?

Anyway, Biddulph’s work aside, you either acknowledge that you feel some lack which you hope to fill with a partner or you kid yourself. Or, I guess, you’re in the 0.1% of the global population who are evolved to the point where you really are at peace with yourself (and are probably such a goddamned, well-adjusted catch you’ve got a partner anyway).

Obsessive blinker bias

Ok maybe I need to come up with a better name, as ‘obsessive’ already sounds creepy – but try to put aside the negative connotations as I think it’s the right word, in a scientific sense.

This single-minded obsession has caused the composition of innumerable sonnets, the construction of palaces so beautiful they rival some of nature’s grandest scenes, and suicides by the score. I’m talking, of course, of the fanatical obsession men can have for women. And, when reciprocated, in a healthy give-and-take, evolving relationship, who am I or anyone else to say it’s wrong?

What happened last night was a localised phenomenon, a cognitive distortion that I tend to exhibit around beautiful girls, where I focus so intently on this one person (I’ve talked before about the construction of crystal castles of thought) that the other 3 billion+ women on the planet simply cease to exist. Obsession at this point could go either way. Less well adjusted fellows with longer attention spans might well take up stalking at this juncture. Fortunately my attention span is short, my obsession more puppy-like, and the gorgeous female distractions in this city copious and distinguished.


The thing that, in hindsight, really shits me about this situation is the post-play diminishment. It’s actually closer to poor management than anything else: like how disillusioned you get when you have neither the tools nor the knowledge to execute your tasks correctly, and feel responsible for your job (though no one told you what the hell to do) so you just kind of smile and fake it until someone notices and you get fired, or you’ve hung around long enough to get promoted.

In the past, I’ve occasionally received promotions, but then I come out of it more confused than ever. What the hell did I do or not do that netted me such a good result?

Honestly, what a head trip.