As our little boats continue rocking on the waves there’s a lot of rhetoric floating around about ‘getting back,’ ‘getting through,’ and ‘returning to normal.’ Though ubiquity has pretty much hollowed out what these phrases mean, the sentiments are intended to comfort. Unfortunately, they may also mislead.
Of the many things the pandemic is revealing, the inherent inequity of our society probably tops the list. This world’s clearly marked off between those that have and those that don’t. If you don’t, you suffer. Just about everyone gets that this is unjust but it’s nothing new. When journalists honed in on hospital teams developing policies to determine who would and wouldn’t receive treatment when facilities became overwhelmed we were aghast. Yet before all this, our society was functioning on these assumptions in scores of ways. The gates and switches that favour some over others are a large part of the ‘rational’ social apparatus we’ve constructed.
A mainstay of this system is a blind faith in meritocracy, the belief that merit governs paths to individual success. The facts show otherwise. All the evidence points to luck being the predominate factor in who succeeds and who doesn’t. This is a difficult conversation to have, especially with successful people who’ve developed their acumen and worked hard. But, that the element of luck first grants merit and then provides the circumstances where that merit can be leveraged for success is irrefutable by any measure.
Psychology and neuroscience are also telling us that those who believe that our society is meritocratic (and a lot of us do, almost 70% in the US and over 80% in the UK) tend to be more selfish, are less self-critical, and are prone to discriminatory behaviours. Our perception of merit has really got to change.
When the last Great Depression hit — that was in 2008 if you trust the expertise of economists who gauged the scale of the collapse — we had an opportunity to change how the whole creaking contraption churned. Instead, inequity grew and the powers that be consolidated. Things got back to normal.
The monstrous social and economic challenge facing us now is another opportunity for change, drastic and meaningful. This is high time to take a shot at building a sustainable society that provides for all of its citizens. A likely first step is resisting temptations to frantically get back to the way things used to be, as comforting as many of us might find sentimental thoughts about going to shows, hosting parties, playing sports, and enjoying the social activities we derive pleasure from. They’ll come back in time, but the old systems don’t have to be restored for that to happen. The more things change, the more we should change things.
It’s the 50th Earth Day today, been around as long as NAC! Maybe that’s why I’m tipping heavy on the keys. The image at the top from a project released today by Olafur Eliasson is a much more elegant way to change the way we look at the world. Check it here: https://www.olafureliasson.net