OBAMA: The premise that we’re all created
equal is the opening line in the American story. And while we don’t promise equal
outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity — the idea that success doesn’t
depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit. And with every
chapter we’ve added to that story, we’ve worked hard to put those words into practice.
PETER: And the award for most simultaneously naive yet vaguely sinister statement regarding
economic mobility goes to… President Barack Obama! (Begins clapping) He did it!
He won, folks! We set forth criteria and we are happily recognizing that he fulfilled
it! Given the requirements of this award, which was something we, the award-givers,
set, he has put forward what we, us, yes us, define as excellence, come on down sir! Come on down! The cream will always rise to the top. The gifted, intelligent, and ambitious among us will make their presence known through their extraordinary acts. As they show us how amazing
they are, we surely must begin to recognize… their merit. Those with more merit should
be rewarded with positions of dominance in their field. It only makes sense, right? Handing
the reins over to those most competent? That’s what merit is. Recognition of competency.
Yes. That’s right. All is good. And the award for superior achievement in
defining merit in service of the power structure goes to… This! (Begins clapping) Well done!
Come down and get this award! We created a paradigm and you conformed to it best of
all. Deconstruction time!
Merit is defined as “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially as
to deserve praise or reward.” Now, good means “to be desired or approved
of.” I want to point out that we’re only one layer
in and we’re already hitting snags. If you have ever met a human, you know that desires
vary person-to-person just about as much as the things they approve of! So, “good”
means different things to different people; some folks think Beyonce is good and others
think Cannibal Corpse is good (or both, or neither). Next, worthy means “having or showing qualities
or abilities that deserve recognition in a specified way.” Note the phrase “in a specified
way.” As in, worthy typically needs to be defined specifically, otherwise no one knows
what behavior will get them considered “worthy.” Notice that both “merit” and “worth” have
the word “deserve” in their definitions. What does deserve mean? “To merit, be qualified
for, or have a claim to.” And the award for noticeably circular definitions
goes to the collaboration between merit, worth and deserve! What a team folks! Come on down,
together, and get your award! So, if merit depends on what is good and/or
worthy, what is good depends on what people desire or approve of, and what is worthy depends
on what people specify as deserving… then who’s making the decisions as to what’s desired,
deserving, and approved of? Who is defining the “specified way?” Well, in a monarchy, that’s a pretty easy
question to answer; merit is determined by what the monarch wants. In feudalism, it’s
the lord. But what about in today’s society… in capitalism?
LEGO MOVIE: Octan? They make good stuff! Music, dairy products, coffee, TV shows, surveillance
systems, all history books, voting machines… wait a minute.
And the award for thing the least amount of people want to talk about but that The Lego
Movie addresses goes to… that question! (Begins clapping) what an amazingly alienating
question that no one wants the answer to, people aren’t looking for an existential crisis!
They’re looking for comfort in or escape from a world we become less and less connected
with as we understand more about how it works, what a perfect example of the basis of the
contest we set up for this award! Great job Lego Movie!
In 1719, painter Jonathan Richardson published An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as
it Relates to Painting. In it, Richardson engages with the notion of art criticism and,
among other things, proposes a set of supposedly objective standards for what is “good.”
An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it Relates to Painting introduces seven categories
for which works of art were given numeric scores from 0-18. These categories were: composition,
coloring, handling, drawing, invention, expression, and “grace and greatness.” These categorical
scores were then averaged to give a work an overall score. Think of it as “basically
video game reviews, but for paintings.” Even when he was alive, Richardson was considered
to be one of the three most important painters of the time. His writings on art were also
extremely influential, and the upper class canonized his “practical system of critical
evaluation,” utilizing it in their own pursuits as collectors, ultimately influencing the
underclasses. The effects of this to range from good to
bad. The good includes spurring the middle-class, a significantly larger class than the upper
class, to purchase more art, which positively affected artists, people who, like everyone,
needed money. I mean, money proves that you’re worthy of food. And a house. And healthcare.
Well, that’s the doc, everyone. Thanks for watching. Give me a thumbs up and slam that
subscribe… It also generated more acceptance for the
significance of creativity. In no small part due to art criticism, more people took art
seriously than ever before. TOM GREEN: I’m being creative.
PETER: On the other hand, in categorizing elements of subjective expression and establishing
the norm that they can be objectively somewhere between “bad” and “good,” in an imposed
value hierarchy… sucks. Possession of art with a good score became a status symbol,
a mark of intelligence, access to resources, and good taste.
But there really isn’t a specific composition that is “objectively good.” There is composition
that other humans may consider good, for a wide variety of reasons, and therefore respond
more to it. But objectively good? Eh… The same goes for any of these categories;
people just have different taste – not just in consumption but also in creation. Someone
may intentionally do any of the specified criteria in a way they know would be considered
“bad” just to make a point. Doing it the “wrong” way is still artistic expression,
and also capable of being brilliant. “Good,” like the rest of the human experience,
is subject to perspective. And it requires a certain amount of authority and influence
to establish one perspective as “the good one” or “the real one.”
Therefore, in our system of wealth, commodities, and markets, who and what is supposedly deserving
and/or worthy is decided either directly by those who have accumulated wealth and capital
or by a coagulation of motives, factors and outcomes filtered through an imaginary Marketplace
of Ideas. An invisible hand we made up ultimately dictates what is good. As some began to reject
the idea of a singular, all-knowing, all-seeing being, they came up with another.
And the award for thing most like a god in modern society goes to… THE MARKET! Sorry,
Christian god, even the Christians voted for The Market. I know you were pulling for that.
In capitalism, merit is defined by a variety of people and things all melding together
making demands of the everyday people like how clients from clientsfromhell.net might
do. These come in the form of economic structures, social norms, filters that social and mass
media share, as well as influencers and brands with agendas of profit or specific points
of view. I’ll sum up those systems (and the class
of people that own and benefit from them) as “capital.” Capital determines what is merit worthy in
capitalism. There’s more to it, but it ultimately comes down to one question.
JAMESON: Who is Spider-Man? He’s a menace to society! Why is he on my front page?
Well, not exactly that, but “Can this generate profit?”
This is why instead of continually adapting our understanding of human rights, we wait
until, say, people start making money off of gay weddings…
JAMESON: Tomorrow morning, Spider-Man, page 1, with a decent picture this time!
That’s when we make marriage “equal.” Suddenly, gay marriage was “worthy.” If we approach merit considering that differing
perspectives modify all objects and concepts, we can see that what a rich person considers
“of merit” is very different from what a poor person does. And, to get ahead, you must emulate
the rich person’s interpretation. Not the poor one. Most rich people do not see the plight of
poor people. They are not around it, nor do they even detect it.
ZUCKERBERG: One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get
the feeling that you’re really in a place. It feels like we’re in the same place and
we’re making eye contact, we’re talking to each other. Yeah, there you go, high-five.
Um. I mean this street is completely flooded. I mean, this is… this…
PETER: Many among both rich and poor alike do not see that people of different racial
or gender identities have different start points, as do people who come from poverty.
Merit is, itself, the assumption of what things people must do to become “worthy,” and
that all people just have to do those things. It is a concession to those “with” that
they deserve what they have, and an admission that those of us “without” haven’t done
enough. It is framework that says “whatever you’re doing now, do more of it and you
will progress.” Which… I don’t want to say it works for no one. But it works for
almost no one. It’s much harder for a person to become
wealthy when they start in poverty. It’s even harder for a person with dark skin. Yet,
to those who have more power, a rich person is a rich person and a poor person is a poor
person. They don’t see that a black person is 4x more likely to be arrested for cannabis
possession or how that might affect their ability to to accumulate wealth. They don’t
see how a person without money cannot ~spend money to make money~. What they see is people
who are not rich, and look at them as faulty for it. Personal responsibility is a term that seems
like it concerns your obligation to pay rent or your culpability in a crime.
But its function in the Western world seems more specifically intended to reduce the responsibility
of parties and factors outside an individual’s control. When someone is rich, they must be
personally responsible for that. When someone is poor… samsies.
When this is adopted as a norm, a rich person may see someone who came from poverty as “lazy,
“parasitic,” or “deficient.” They also might see a black person and assume they came
from poverty and are therefore “lazy, “parasitic,” or “deficient.”
There’s obviously many forms of discrimination, but what we’re discussing is an expression
of merit, or, in a rich person’s eyes, a lack thereof.
America, a supposed meritocracy, has operated this way for a very long time and eventually
got here. Merit… is bullshit. TRUMP: Didn’t expect that reaction but that’s
okay. [LAUGHTER] PETER: There’s no award for this… I don’t
like it and neither does the academy. This is a meritless statement we can not and will
not award such blatant disregard for what we’ve established as merit-worthy. This is
not merit-worthy. Wait… and the award for least merit-worthy
statement goes to… “If you have to explain the joke, it’s not
good.” As someone who has uploaded a pretty fair amount of what’s intended to be comedy
to YouTube, I’ve heard this said more than a few times.
MATT: It’s because I have a giant penis. PETER: The phrase is accepted as true, and
therefore seen as an important part of the criteria for judging if something is funny.
You know, because you have to present a case for what is funny in Comedy Court. It’s not
just “if it makes people laugh,” it’s a complicated process where you must provide
specifics. If you can’t prove it’s funny with evidence, it’s not good.
Yeah, except comedy doesn’t really work like that, does it?
My perspective is that sometimes, explaining the joke is the funniest possible punchline.
In such an instance, the traditional punchline actually functions as part of the setup. It
may be too convoluted to understand and beg for that fast, single-breath, long-winded
explanation that demonstrates just how unrelatable the joke itself actually was – which is itself,
you know, a relatable sentiment. Or, perhaps the setup and traditional punchline may be
overly simple, not necessitating any further information to understand, but the speaker
is giving it anyways. Belaboring the point can be hilarious.
There’s plenty of people who don’t think I’m funny, though.
In 1958, Sociologist and Labour Politician Michael Young wrote a satire called The Rise
of the Meritocracy. Meritocracy is a word he came up with to describe England’s selective
education system, in which children were given a test. Based on the results of that test,
those with perceived better academic ability were put on a track to receive a better, more
extensive education. This meant that children who weren’t at the top of the class were given
a lesser education than their supposedly superior peers.
It also meant that if parents had the money to spend on tutors, learning materials, or
even just time to spend with their children, those students would have a better chance
at better placement. This meant the vast majority of the working
class parents had kids that weren’t at the top of the class, while upper class parents
spent time and money preparing their children to be ready for that test.
This system doesn’t account for the idea of a late bloomer, nor account for the disparities
of wealth and the effects that has on the educational foundation laid at home, and it
essentially guarantees people with disabilities will receive a bad education.
It’s, essentially, a sorting system to determine who can fulfill criteria set forth by the
educational institutions, which were often subject to the whims of both state and capital
alike. Not to mention that tests just tell you who can take a test.
The Rise of Meritocracy asks the question “what if all of society functioned like
this one thing” to explain how he thought it was bad.
Young intended for “meritocracy” to be a negative idea, but as many of us who have
dabbled in satire have found, People Often Think Satire Is Real™. It’s not because
people are “stupid,” though. We need context to understand sarcasm, irony and hyperbole
– and context is often something we’re kept away from. In fact, at the end of primary
school, why not have a test on it. You know, one to help sort out the poors!
In 2001, Michael Young, creator of the term “Meritocracy,” penned an article for The
Guardian entitled Down With Meritocracy. THOUGHT SLIME: [IN DRACULA VOICE] I have been
sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined- [IN REGULAR
VOICE] Nah, just kidding. I’m not going to read it as Dracula. That was just a joke
I did to make you think I ruined this, but I didn’t.
[CLEARS THROAT] I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958
book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation,
especially in the United States I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958
book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation,
especially in the United States The book was a satire meant to be a warning
(which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between
1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.
If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement
comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.
[However,] they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. […] The
new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces
itself. Michael Young had to explain his joke. It
wasn’t part of the final punchline, though; it was genuinely because the satire he put
out was not taken the way he wanted it to. Does that make it… a bad joke?
As you might guess, I don’t think so. I think that those it intended to inform did not have
the context by which to understand it. The left is often the keeper of that very
context. Many who have read and studied theories put forward by various leftist economists
and philosophers could read The Rise of the Meritocracy and easily understand everything
said. In fact, they might have a more in-depth perspective than Michel Young himself did.
While the philosophies of the left are often based in cooperation and even inclusivity,
it isn’t unusual to see a well-read or educated leftist baffled as to why the working class
is just so ignorant! If they would only read, surely they would begin to fight back. And
they should read! There are public libraries nearby, filled with the knowledge of the ages!
Yet, the same person might scoff at the implication we could be making information more accessible
in language and terminology, summarizing and making entertaining presentations of difficult
and time-consuming concepts – uploading it to the internet. It may even start an argument
over whether people who don’t read theory or philosophy are “stupid” or “lazy.”
Despite being experts on it, this minority of leftists won’t apply basic class analysis,
either generally or specific to information access, training in the processing of information,
or even just amount of free time, much less some semblance of intersection of hardships
that might prevent someone from reading three 800+ page volumes of mostly dry, dense categorization
of the relationships surrounding production, value, resources, and commodities, among many
other of LUKE SKYWALKER: THE SACRED JEDI TEXTS.
YODA: Oooh! Read them, have you? LUKE: [STAMMERS]
YODA: Page turners, they are not. PETER: It seems like, for some, there isn’t
much use in studying, learning, digesting, and putting in intellectual labor if it doesn’t
make them better than other people. If they can’t pull rank, they don’t have fun.
Fortunately, none of those people would be caught dead watching a video on YouTube that
attempts to not only to put forward an accessible leftist message but does it while making cringey
jokes… would they? No worries about any backlash coming from people who will absolutely
never watch this video, right? And the award for most intentionally naive
statement made for effect, then explained in the form of an award, deflecting criticism
about explaining the joke, which was itself about explaining jokes goes to…
Part 3: Why defining new merit-worthy activity is a trap.
On September 18th, 2018, Data & Society, a research outfit that looks into social and
cultural issues that emerge from automated technologies, published a report called Alternative
Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube. Among other things, the report
tracked guest appearances on various channels, ranging from Sargon of Akkad to Lauren Southern
to Steven Crowder to Ben Shapiro to Chris Ray Gun to Jordan Peterson to… Destiny?
Well… Destiny is probably here just for the sheer number of times he’s platformed
these people, as that is obviously what the graph is about. Destiny isn’t a reactionary,
but he is the only name here that isn’t – at least to my knowledge, and I recognize
most of them. The study says something many already knew:
reactionaries are promoting each other and taking advantage of how algorithms work on
YouTube to achieve some pretty serious saturation on the platform.
Now, people have been calling attention to this for a long time. In 2015, when it was
considered silly to take Donald Trump seriously as a presidential candidate. YouTube reactionaries
took up the cause and, well, contributed to the situation we exist in today. They certainly
weren’t the only ones, but their influence through new media wasn’t taken seriously.
That’s not even close to how early this problem has been tracked and highlighted by
people on an ongoing basis. Gamergate was an iteration of this. The Anita Sarkeesian
backlash was, as well. GAMER: Go home, gamer girl!
WOMAN: What the hell is your problem? PETER: I’ve talked about this for a very
long time now, and I am not even vaguely the most ardent or prominent person who has. Literally
thousands of people have been saying this stuff for years. And a lot of it was ignored
aside from the occasional article. OFFICER: Not like shooting in a video game,
eh? LOGAN PAUL: Actually, it’s exactly the same.
OFFICER: Right, you need to think really carefully about what you do right now.
LOGAN PAUL: Don’t talk, officer! The study itself is essentially data backing
something many have repeatedly asserted, and that this study has gotten real press attention
demonstrates how merit works. Thousands of regular people with no institutional connections,
continually repeating their own experiences as well as pointing to connections and providing
evidence of activity… don’t matter. One study, released by a specialized research
institution with funding and connections… does.
The idea that reactionaries are using a social network and gaming algorithms to push unsubstantiated
narratives that support their viewpoints and make them money… wasn’t considered “real”
– or at least “real enough to matter.” The point here isn’t to say the study shouldn’t
exist; we live in a world in which it is clearly necessary for institutional exploration and
reporting of this kind of data to get the current structure to act as if there is even
a problem. The point is… that is a huge problem. A
huge problem that repeats. Systemically.
And the award for outstanding profit by creation of uncritical environment that’s “friendly”
for advertisers or through the cultivation of identity and repeated validation of paying
customers’ worldviews goes to… the capitalist media!
McMansions are… trash. But like, as a house. I can’t recall anyone I’ve had a conversation
with who really loves these gaudy dick-measuring contests in the form of houses.
If I asked you why people hate these houses, you’d probably struggle to come up with a
specific reason outside the fact they are gaudy dick-measuring contests in the form
of houses, which they are. But if you asked architecture critic Kate
Wagner, she could give you specific criteria. In fact, that’s what her website, McMansion
Hell, is about. WAGNER: What separates a McMansion from a
regular house is 99% of times its size. It’s a house that’s usually over 3000 square
feet, which is 500 square feet above the highest national average. The designs are sloppy.
They don’t take into account things like scale and balance and the basic rules of architecture.
Wagner’s criticism of McMansions is precise. She knows what she dislikes about McMansions
– and, just to be clear, that’s good. In fact, I follow her on Twitter. And for some unknown
reason, she also follows me. If she’s watching this, Hi Kate! I like your site! I have enjoyed
reading it and personally agree with your assessments.
WAGNER: Like the big columns and the two-story entryway are like a direct metaphor for a
bank. Like, you think about how a bank looks, this is a like a stately, like, this is where
the money is kept. This is where my money is. This is my money. None of the columns
are load-bearing. It’s all decorative. A lot of them are hollow, and a lot of them
are just pasted on. PETER: As an individual, I do not have a mean
word to say about Kate Wagner, and that’s not a good way to go about real criticism
anyways. But… I do have some criticism… So, while I personally agree with pretty much
everything on McMansion Hell, I also can’t help but wonder if it establishes criteria
for what makes a “real” house. You know, a house that is… worthy of merit.
Wagner cites “the basic rules of architecture” when talking about the subject.
WAGNER: They are poorly designed. That means there’s no respect for form or scale or
other things that people in architecture call… the basic rules of architecture.
PETER: But are the basic rules of architecture actually that concerned with style and aesthetic?
Again, personally speaking, I certainly agree with the ideas expressed on McMansion Hell.
But if one looks at the various schools of architecture, there’s a lot of philosophical
variance. In fact, one could really say that the basic rules of architecture are really…
building codes. This is why McMansions get built; different
people with different sensibilities… build houses they like that don’t violate building
codes. Most of the time. I have very similar sensibilities to Kate
Wagner’s in regards to architecture. But why are we “right” while the people who
buy and build McMansions are “wrong?” More importantly, if someone creates a mansion
that appeases my sensibilities… is that a good mansion? Do good mansions exist? There
are a half million homeless people in America, while there are many millions of vacant homes.
So can it be good that someone is able to buy and live inside a very large house…
as long as the house doesn’t violate my taste? In criticizing this system, if we use framework
that modifies the aesthetics of the system but not the mechanics, then all we really
get is something that pleases our sensibilities but ultimately perpetuates the current circumstances.
To be fair, Wagner has acknowledged at least some of what I am saying here. However, I
do feel I need to point out that the context of her saying “I am not the gatekeeper of
what is and is not good aesthetics or architecture” is characterization of the aesthetics and
architecture as “fundamentally bad.” WAGNER: So basically they are fundamentally
bad architecture. Now, even though I’m dressed impeccably well, I am not the gatekeeper of
what is and is not good aesthetics and architecture. PETER: This is one of those things where you
say something and then immediately contradict it by saying “but.”
WAGNER: But we’ve been talking about these things in architectural history for thousands
of years, Starting with Vitruvius, the great great granddaddy of architecture. Vitruvius
said that architecture should be three things: it should be durable, it should be useful
or functional, and it should be beautiful. And McMansions are, well, none of those things.
I’m not going after Kate Wagner or her site. I feel it’s important to say, because I
really like what she does. I even recommend checking it out, it’s fun and if you’re
looking for descriptive language about the dwellings of people who want to boastfully
put their wealth on public display, look no further. The point is, even when we criticize
the right people, pointing at the right problems… We may still be feeding it. I hope that makes
the point slightly better than if I just found something I hated and shat all over it.
Like McMansions. Oh, shit. I just… And the award for unintentionally doing the
thing you said you weren’t doing and then realizing it and then realizing it made too
good of a point to change but feeling bad about it goes to… Me. Fuck.
There’s a cultural understanding that merit is bestowed on the most valid, best people
and ideas. But we find that our sole concept of what
actually is “best” or “real” is a set of criteria that trickled down to us from
an entity that wants something from us. Best, for the top, serves the top.
On top of that, not only is “best” a term loaded with perspective of who or whatever
is saying it, but recognition comes from somewhere. Or someone. Or some corporation. Or some state.
It’s just power recognizing that one person is serving it better than other people.
I’m not trying to tell you that “all ideas are good ideas” or that “people can’t
be better at a thing than other people are”… …Or whatever Jordan Peterson, a real *cheese
click* man of merit, says the left says… Our individual experiences, as well as our
collective, shared experiences, should make it obvious that this is, at best, silly. But
I am saying that forming a society with hierarchy built around “who is worthy” guarantees
a ruling class. It may not look like a traditional monarchy or aristocracy, and all the mechanisms
for enforcement may be significantly abstracted, but it’s there.
Imagine if I was the head of an empire in its heyday and I walked around putting swords
on people’s shoulders and telling them they were worthy of serving me. They might start
following me around and doing my bidding, because what an honor, right? I don’t think
I’ve ever heard of anything like that. Imagine if I was the head of a company, handing
out promotions to friends before hard workers, rewarding loyalty and feigned comradery, generating
a cabal of high-fiving sycophants who will gossip and snitch every chance they get. Nah,
I’ve never heard of anything like that, either.
Now imagine if I kept defining criteria to give my own words recognition in the form
of award, when I had something fundamental to do with all the words presented here today.
As long as I present an award, I won. I won!? I WON! This is amazing! How did this?
Me? Little old me? You like me, you really like me!