A central characteristic of many radical social movements today is their hostility toward hard work, merit, and determination. There seems to be a war against excellence.
In many progressive circles today, self-improvement has become taboo. It’s now considered fatphobic to lose weight and exercise, racist to work hard, maintain timeliness and think rationally, and symptomatic of “internalized racism” to reject victimhood and focus on personal development.
Rather than empowering others by encouraging self-improvement and rewarding excellence, many radical social justice movements are intent on dismantling social hierarchies and measures of competence. As a result, the West today is said to be in the midst of an insidious war against competence and assault on meritocracy.
The War on Competence
Across the West, quota systems are now being favored over standardized testing and the concept of rewarding merit is now considered problematic.
Take the recent lawsuit launched against the State of New York, demanding an end to the merit-based admissions to the city’s Gifted and Talented (GATE) programs. The programs were said to perpetuate an illegal “racial hierarchy,” “racism,” and “segregation,” as “black and Hispanic students qualify for them at a lower rate than white and Asian students.”
Rewarding merit is now considered to be problematic.
Several schools in the U.S. have also begun to question their own merit-based admissions policies. During a discussion as to whether a school in San Francisco should replace their selective admissions process with a lottery-based system, the concept of merit itself was described as “racist,” “Trumpian,” and the “antithesis of fair.”
Just a few days ago, it was announced in the UK that marking students’ spelling mistakes is now “elitist.” In order to “decolonize” the curriculum, professors and lecturers at Hull University have “been advised against insisting on good written English” as it would mean adopting a “homogenous North European, white, male, elite mode of expression.”
These examples may seem extreme, but the underlying idea — that to reward talent, merit, and skill is to be complicit in oppression — is becoming more and more common.
And it could have serious consequences on important scientific fields. For instance, the University of Connecticut School of Medicine recently stopped GPA-based admissions to its honor society in order to “address issues of social injustice.”
Health and Fitness Are Now Considered Racist
It’s not just academic ability that’s under fire either. From IQ to measures of health and fitness, anything deemed inequitable and unfair has to go.
For example, there have been calls to scrap the BMI scale as a “fatphobic” and “racist” measurement, and going to the gym has been labeled problematic as the fitness industry “thrives on a culture of whiteness.”
And these aren’t just fringe views. Scientific American writes that the “hierarchy of bodies is nothing new, with roots in racism, slavery and every other attempt to rank bodies.” Academic papers warn of “a social hierarchy of health, whereby thin bodies are privileged over overweight bodies and functions as a layer of social class.”
People not only want to disengage from hierarchies but to dismantle the very idea of hierarchy.
Granted, there is some truth buried deep within these ideas. Beauty and fitness standards can be taken to the extreme and become toxic, and hierarchies of competence can become corrupt and outdated.
But, this isn’t a reason to deconstruct social hierarchies entirely or to abolish all measures of talent, intelligence, or health. So why are these ideas gaining traction?
The Impact of Social Media
A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with social media. We all know that social media gives rise to constant and unhealthy comparisons. But while we mostly discuss the issue of teenage girls comparing themselves to photoshopped models, we rarely discuss how often we’re all ranking and comparing ourselves to others online, all the time.
Today, Gen Z is not just vaguely aware of their position in social hierarchies around them like their parents and grandparents used to be. In the past, people would compare their careers, looks, intelligence, and athleticism to those they knew in their close community. But, for Gen Z teens and pre-teens today, these rankings are quantified by likes, shares, followers, and views — and carried everywhere with them. We’re reminded of the talent, skill, and excellence of others wherever we go.
Of course, as humans, we instinctively compare ourselves to other people, and that can be a good thing. Often, the success of others can motivate us to do better and imitate positive behavior.
All of us are ranking and comparing ourselves to others online, all the time.
But now the algorithms are reminding us of it all the time. Consider a day in the life of a Gen Z teen: They wake up, open Instagram and subconsciously compare their bodies and appearance to thousands of people with more likes and better angles. Then, they switch to LinkedIn, where they’re bombarded with other people’s career promotions and opportunities. Then to Twitter, where they monitor who has the most followers, and best insights and engagement. The competition is immense, and the comparison constant.
When we spend all day on apps designed to profit from and commodify insecurity, is it any wonder we’re seeing a rise in movements demonizing the very idea of self-improvement, from hard work to exercise?
A War on Excellence Isn’t the Answer
Constant information about these social hierarchies creates intense pressure. The pressure is so large today that many of us not only want to disengage from these hierarchies but dismantle the very idea of the hierarchy in the first place.
For instance, body positivity is no longer enough — now we’re seeing the rise of movements claiming that we can’t encourage losing weight at all. For example, Bristol University in the UK recently banned “fatphobic” and “thin privilege” phrases in sports clubs like “let’s slim those waists.”
No doubt we should do all we can in society to reform rigid hierarchies and outdated social norms. But, discouraging self-improvement and framing any measure of competence as oppressive is not the answer.
It’s time for my generation to start working on ourselves independently of our screens.
The current push for diversity, inclusivity, and fairness may be well-intentioned, but when it gets to the point where we regard a strong work ethic and a desire to excel academically and physically as “problematic” — or as a toxic aspect of “whiteness” — then we have a problem.
Rather than trying to dismantle the system and discourage people from improving themselves, maybe it’s time for my generation to take some distance from the algorithms that constantly make us feel at the bottom of the social hierarchy — and start working on ourselves independently of our screens.
There are certainly problems with the current system, but merit still matters. We need societal measures of health, intelligence, and talent, as well as hierarchies of competence, so that society can function and progress.
Together, people of all backgrounds can work to improve the current merit-based system and enhance equality of opportunity, rather than abandoning all measures of merit, skill, and ability in the name of “progress.”
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