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.
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.
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.
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.