When we say we live in a merit-based society, it leads to the illusion that we are all equal. The belief this embodies is that people earn power, wealth, and respect individually on merit. That people can attain what they want through their own hard work and determination, normally via educational and professional routes or by good old fashioned hard work. However some have further to climb than others.
Most systems have flaws, and if you ignore them for long enough, they grow into contradictions.
Whilst we attribute the worth of a person based on their job title, car brand or house size, we are also condemning others that have not achieved these ‘successes’, even though they may not have had the same opportunities as others. By continuing to judge people on a set of material attributes, we are also judging others on what they lack. The higher your class the more opportunities you have. None of us are born into the same world. Often people will live in different areas and have variable access to education, money and social links amongst other things. They will also have certain things to deal with in the form of abusive parents, bullies, local gangs, crap public transport and lack of access to healthy food. We don’t all start the race from the same starting line.
In fact this has become so prevalent on social media that people are now paying lip service to ‘being real’, ‘appreciate what you have’ and ‘liking people for who they really are’. Yet, their actions go against their words when they continue to post pictures of their material wealth and sell you products to better yourself. This is the same with books on hygge, mindfulness and t-shirts that say be kind or loved. These sorts of things make it difficult to separate legitimate opinions from mere feel good statements.
Even the more inward-looking people in society form opinions of themselves from how they are viewed by others. From childhood when we are given teachers’ reports to later in life when we are given feedback from our friends, family, and bosses. These opinions affect how we judge ourselves and others. Our own standards are based upon the meritocratic-based values that surround us growing up in our modern countries. The ideology which we are thrown into reproduces itself by imprinting on us and our children. If authentic opinions are mixed in with false solidarity, then this will reinforce individualism and make a hyper image out of the act of solidarity. Class consciousness becomes a meme for likes.
Epidemiological studies have shown that the bigger the income gap in countries, the gap between the richest and poorest in society, the more competitive and judgemental it is. Countries with a smaller gap have higher levels of trust and cohesion within the community. Feelings like anxiety, jealousy and self-esteem are worsened by neoliberalism. It is easy to see that this ideology pushes the narrative of hyper-individualism and ego-centric thinking. It makes citizens living within these ideas more susceptible to mental health issues, social problems and have lower levels of empathy. This is not just for the poorer in society; it affects all people equally.
Furthermore, levels of depression and anxiety are higher in countries with higher material inequality. The bigger the gap between the rich and poor, the more people are likely to judge other people on how superior they are, or not, in comparison. This is also directed at us as individuals and can change how we see ourselves. It is no coincidence that the countries with higher inequalities are also the countries that are ready to die for the mantra of the free market (which is far from free). You may think ‘yeah well, if it is a richer country, surely it is nicer to live in than a poorer one? Well actually, the better countries are the ones in the middle. In fact the richer the country the more wealth just a few at the top have. Yes, trickle down economics doesn’t work. Countries where the wealth is more evenly distributed have a higher quality of life for their citizens of all classes (Wilkinson and Pickett 2019).
For me, moving to Spain showed how different it was to the UK. When I first met people here they asked me about my hobbies rather than what my job was. Spanish society, from my experience, tends to judge people more on their intrinsic worth rather than their materialistic value. Yet it is not perfect, this culture changes depending on whom you interact with. How many times have you asked someone, upon meeting them for the first time, what their job was, and based your opinion of them solely on that? I know I have been judged a number of times depending on what I tell them. (I have had more jobs than girlfriends!)
Hyper-meritocratic values at their core encourage competition, and society’s validation of this spurs on the search for profits and economic growth thus making capitalism appear natural. Overall, our communities will always suffer because of this and so will we. By putting individual achievements over common ones, it devalues our collective aims and achievements. It also makes it easier for people to individualize problems, such as climate change, that can never be tackled by the lone human being. This then reinforces the idea of it ‘not being my problem’ or there being ‘nothing I can do’. Our free market economies are centered around growth but we should base them around meeting the needs of citizens.The myth that the individual makes society progress, rather than it being a collective endeavor, gives the ruling classes the excuse to cut taxes, discourage collective action and privatise public services that are for all and are a form of collective wealth and are the results of our ancestors’ struggles.
Whilst there may be certain individuals at the front of projects or businesses, they do not do all the work. They are often supported by a team of people that have built up their knowledge from another group of people, oh and their father’s bank accounts. We would not be who we are, if it were not for the surrounding society. The midwives that bring us into the world; the teachers that educate us; the friends we grow up with and help us to learn about ourselves; the bosses that dismiss us and the partners that leave us. We are who we are because of them. Neil Armstrong never put himself on the moon; Jeff Bezos never built his own fortune and I never wrote this alone. Society makes progress possible, not individuals. For those individuals that are able to contribute something specific, we should thank them, but we should also thank the people that kept the world turning whilst they did their thing. During this pandemic we have seen those very people: the essential class. The very people often demonized the working class, women and immigrants. They are now the ones keeping the world spinning, and always have been, whilst the rest of us can moan about sitting in front of Zoom for a few hours a week. Their merit and hard work make it possible for the rest of us to stay inside during the pandemic. They also make it possible for us to go on about our lives so we don’t have to worry about sweeping our road, delivering a parcel or looking after relatives. Who really is the source of wealth on this planet? The eccentric CEO or the nursing assistant doing a double shift?
Social media has added an extra lens to our society, it has created a sphere of judgment and pillars for ideas to be born and also where they go to die. A number of people are now competing, sometimes with themselves, for likes, retweets and engagement stats. All as if it were an external bank account showing their worth. That said, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and now TiK Tok have allowed people to connect all over the world. It has enabled revolutions on a grand scale like the Arab Spring, and it has also allowed people in local communities to come together for various reasons. It can bridge the gaps between loved ones, friends and people who may not be able to leave the house. It allows us to vent our feelings, keep blogs, find out which Disney Princess we might be in another life, and of course its best function: reminding us of birthdays.
Yet, as with meritocracy, it has contradictions. Social media can damage our mental health; signal that it wants us to always be plugged in; make us envious of others and say things we might not say in real life. Drama becomes more instant and there are now thousands of ways that this technology can affect our relationships, work, addictions and how we view others. Fake news and groups that share our view of the world reinforce our beliefs. The comfort of our echo chamber gives us little reason to doubt that what we think of the world might not be true. When we are faced with something that challenges how we see things, it becomes much harder to shift from where we were standing.
Martin Heidegger in his later works spoke about our relationship with technology. Whilst part of his philosophy suffers from his reactionary ideology; I think there is some truth in his views on how we relate to the world through the prism of tech. For him, technology is a mode of being. To understand that we need to appreciate that it is not neutral or natural in its being. Indeed, Heidegger claims that we need to learn the essence of technology so that we can come to terms and live with it. He was writing in 1954; imagine what he would have thought of our selfie obsessed world today. He felt that we connected with the world via our relationship with technology but he was not anti-tech. He felt that it changed our relationship with the world from being one of cooperation to one of mastery over nature. When he talks about technology he is also referring to factories, tractors, radio and tools. He claimed that before these instruments humans worked with nature and respected it but in recent times we have changed this way of being-in-the-world, mainly because of technology. Whilst I don’t think that this is completely true for the simple reason that humans have always reproduced their conditions to allow them to continue to live. This in itself led to the development of technology to cultivate the land but it is certainly true that we don’t respect the environment enough. Whilst climate change is the obvious example you think of, try applying this to our relationships with others. They are, after all, part of this earth too. Is technology making us use others as beings in-themselves as pure objects rather than other subjects?
When Heidegger talks about technology and our relationship with the world via it; he is not talking about seeing everyone as a Twitter follower. He rather means seeing the world and people as a means to an end or a resource rather than another being. It is by being aware of technologies’ flaws that we can steer away from this mode of being (Heidegger 2013). This could play out dialectically and certainly if you look beyond the dreadful media stereotypes of children always on their phone; you can see that younger people have a better understanding of technology and how to moderate its use. But are we all aware of how it conditions us? Even when we take a step back and delete all social media, technology is all around. Do we still relate to the world as one of mastery?
Becoming an influencer can make or break a person depending upon their ability to document their lives in an aesthetically pleasing way. This aesthetic is often Eurocentric in what it considers beautiful, and it will always be trend led. All whilst the rest of us feel worse for not achieving what they have. It does neither party any good. The influencer is always competing to be relevant and keep their income stream going, and the audience will always suffer by trying to keep up with what we see on social media. But it isn’t just influencers, it’s friends, family and worst of all exes! Furthermore, companies are basing influencers’ value on the number of followers they have on their social media accounts. This encourages competition and damages the influencers’ and our mental health (Wagstaff 2019). It is a vicious cycle and it damages everything it touches. This cyber social capital has opened a new realm of possibilities. Yes, you can be an influencer when you grow up, find a dream job and so on, but you can also be held responsible for things you said when you were young, naïve, sick or drunk. The internet doesn’t forget or forgive. You can tourture yourself on a daily basis and even convince yourself to get plastic surgery. Low self-esteem; problems with body image; being anxious about your cyber-self; and not forgetting FOMO. The god-like celebrity status is available to all, but only if you are good enough.
British comedian Ricky Gervais recently summed this up by saying —
“There’s a new form of narcissism, there is an uber narcissism … You see these people (influencers) who have worked out, and they have their shirt off, and they are on a private plane that they have hired for a day… they make people think ‘I’m not achieving anything. I need to work out and get a plane.” (Jefferies 2020)
Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is famous for writing — “Hell is other people”.
After much speculation by the public, he elaborated on this theme from his play No Exit. He says that hell for us is judging our own lives based on the opinions of others. Hell continues if we persist in doing this, we become encrusted within the boundaries of others views of who we are. We become their opinion of us.
Sartre is famous for many famous ideas, but his idea of the gaze and the split subject went on to influence our old psychoanalytic friend Jaques Lacan. Sartre had been working through the existential work of Heidegger. His concept of thrown projection, the idea that we go through life by projecting ourselves forward in time, was highly influential on Sartre’s conception of the self. Sartre, also taking ideas from Freud, theorised that we project an image of ourselves outside into the world. We push our ego, the rational part of our psyche into the world whilst our self consciousness (Sartre never liked the word unconscious) is essentially empty on the inside. The gaze as he theorised was what would be looking at our outer-selves that we project. He tells the story of a man watching something through a keyhole in a hotel, then our peeping tom realises he has someone walking towards him. Here he gets all anxious and flustered. Why? He has become the object of the other. He has become fully self conscious that he is no longer the master watching the object, controlling the gaze. He is now an object for someone else in their gaze.
Lacan would take this idea further and theorise that it is our internal desire to be the object that we are projecting that causes us to do things like buy new clothes, have surgery or change something about us. It was the basis of our desires. To become the ideal object that we project into the world (Homer and Lacan 2005). This not only includes our image and hairstyle but also our personalities, achievements, relationships and more. However the sad truth is whenever we get what we desire: something else fills that space. In other words you will never take the perfect selfie.
What is more, the theory of the gaze has been expanded by various thinkers. Simone de Beauvoir developed the idea of the gendered gaze regarding how men look at women as an Object. That is, white men become the norm and anything different to them is classed as the other. This includes people of different race, class, ethnicity and disability. Furthermore she expresses that women internalise the male gaze and the myth of femininity. Thus aware of how they are viewed they try to live up to the ideal of the mythical creature that is created by their own objectification (O’Brian, Bergoffen, and Burke 2004).
Frantz Fanon would also formulate the colonial gaze which separates Us from the Others, and aims to maintain colonial relations by dehumanising black people and putting them into the zone of non-being. He also formulated that black subjects would have to act and speak white. He said that even if a black parisian learnt to speak perfect French as well as a white parisian, then they would be shocked that the black person could speak so well. This shock shows how they think of the black subject as of lower worth and show surprise at the idea that the black subject can do something as well as or if not better than them (Drabinski 2019).
Social media is based on and is a further manifestation of our world and societal values. It is meritocracy on acid. Apart from being run by large firms, social, economic and cultural capital are all on display. It is the gallery of achievement. Our lives become a spectacle lived on and offline. We all get caught in the competition whether we have the latest social media platform or not. Even wanting to be different, ‘get out the rat race’ or live ‘the simple life’ is still aiming for an ideal. We may not be in competition with others on the internet but your friends, partner, or family might be. Thus it is impossible to escape the gaze of the other. Even making yourself different is going against what others expect. The gaze is a fact of life but can the standards and judgements behind the gaze be altered? No wonder stoicism has been hijacked by those dickheads in silicon valley. Yet, the only way out of this cycle is to envision a world past our current horizon.
These meritocratic values have spread throughout the world since the fall of communism and the decline of religious principles, and the increase in our consumerist culture justifies these very values. First and foremost they don’t take into account inequality of all varieties. While on social media we can limit who we are exposed to, in real life we do not have this luxury. Living life online, as many have during this pandemic, can skew how you see the world and how we as a society react to things. But this was also true before social media and the internet. In his 1981 philosophical treatise, Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard describes hyperreality. In a world ever growing in imagery, it becomes difficult to tell what the difference is between what is real and fake (Neo has a copy of this book in the first Matrix film). Some things are so fake that they appear real and end up becoming reality for us. Even to the degree where some people are living more in a hyperreality than in the real world. Hyperreality is when the borders between what is real and what is not become indistinguishable; to the point our consciousness cannot tell the difference. That’s when people start to fulfill desires and needs in the arena of simulation, where it represents something from reality like the numbers in your bank account vs the money in your wallet, or later in pure simulacrum, the arena of pure signs that have no relationship to the real world– like brands and their worth in consumerist society or NFTs (Baudrillard 1994).
COVID is making us readjust the balance between hyperreality and the real world. Have we gone too far?
Obviously we have had this world for a long time, and social media whilst being another layer is also another lense. This obsession with self-worth, and the worth of others, along with the desperation of capital and growing distrust and individualism is all embodied in one commodity. The selfie stick.
I am not going to go on a Victor Meldrew style rant about how all people using selfie sticks should be banned from passing on their narcissistic genes or how they should be shot on sight at any world landmarks. What’s more whilst they are annoying and give off the desperate tourist vibe, they are also a lot of fun. They allow you to be in a photo with your friends on special occasions and at special times. You can catch cool angles on them and its like having a really long arm. Ok, so they aren’t that cool, but they do have a use.
The idea is to take a photo without having to ask someone to take a photo for you. Yes, smart phones are expensive these days, but do we really not trust our fellow human beings that much? When on holiday abroad it is great to immerse yourself in the local culture, yet the selfie stick signifies a larger move towards individualistic thinking in our society. Selfie sticks, Uber, Deliveroo, and Amazon are all tailored for the individual experience. Whilst the personalisation of life and introvert like behaviour is something normal, this focus on the individual is becoming more and more self-indulgent. Now this doesn’t mean the end of the world and we should enjoy the fruits of technology, but we also have to balance out our gains.
Hell might be other people, but we do need them. We need community, networks and knowledge. The internet has allowed us to build online networks to share information and to meet new people. But whilst we turn to one thing, we must not turn away from each other. Neoliberalism has decimated many communities in former industrial communities, it has made work more precarious and it has made us look more inwards. This also benefits reactionaries, racists and fascists. The far right knows that people are scared in times of crisis and they will use the lack of community bonds, the fear of the ‘others’ and any crisis to try and radicalise people to their cause. Thankfully during this pandemic, we have seen people turning to communities. Hopefully now people will think twice before pulling out their selfie stick and may ask a local. Do people even look at other people’s travel photos anymore? (I mean the non-beach wear ones). Social media and the meritocratic society still have a huge influence over us. However, if there is a will then there is a way forward, we can change our society.
Not all hope is lost. Here in Madrid, the nightly applause for essential workers during the pandemic has reinforced that it is not your salary that dictates your worth to others. In fact, it is the role you make for yourself in life and how you treat the people in your community that shows your value. Instagram is not real. We need to be kinder to ourselves and decide who we want to be. Our existence is not determined by the approval of others, but by us. We must change our economic system and society to be more humane. It should serve us; we should not be slaves to it. Capital of any sort should not determine the worth of a human and no human should judge their own worth in this way.
Gervais concluded that — “People have mistaken narcissism for worth. They have mistaken loving yourself for no reason, as being as good as loving yourself for a good reason.”
If you want to get updates from this blog, sign up here
- Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and simulation. Translated by Sheila F. Glaser. N.p.: University of Michigan Press.
- Drabinski, John. 2019. “Frantz Fanon (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frantz-fanon/.
- Heidegger, Martin. 2013. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Edited by William Lovitt. Translated by William Lovitt. N.p.: HarperCollins.
- Homer, Sean, and Jacques Lacan. 2005. Jacques Lacan. Edited by Robert Eaglestone. N.p.: Routledge.
- Jefferies, Mark. 2020. “Ricky Gervais slams ‘patronising’ social media influencers who lack substance.” The Mirror. https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/ricky-gervais-slams-patronising-social-21935572.
- O’Brian, Patrick, Debra Bergoffen, and Megan Burke. 2004. “Simone de Beauvoir (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/.
- Wagstaff, Danielle L. 2019. “How Instagram takes a toll on influencers’ brains.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/08/instagram-influencers-psychology-social-media-anxiety.
- Wilkinson, Richard, and Kate Pickett. 2019. The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being. N.p.: Penguin Books.