Merit in the Marketplace

doe in the forest, facing the cameraA phenomenal new wordal popped out of the dictionary this morning: the mer root within merit. Turns out it started as sale value, leading to the Latin meretrix (prostitute) and the English meretricious (attractive in a vulgar way). This surprise led to contemplation of merit badges, merit scholars, meritocracies, certificates of merit, earning merit in religious traditions, deciding on the merits, meritorious service, merits of the case, occasions that merit a response, people/ideas/artworks that have merit (or not), and school demerits.

A tiny explosion lit up my inner skies: merit is not essential value; it’s a price calculation in a defined system that offers payment – even in its most praised connotations of earning and deserving. A system functions as a marketplace of goods, services, cash, recognition, advantages and/or validation in exchange for compliance with a temporary standard, thereby strengthening the system, its interests, and its key participants. Arbiters within the system influence the fluctuating value of what does (not) have merit in that particular marketplace.

Then my imagination expanded the merit-market metaphor to include psyches juggling mismatched wishes, conditioning, resources, and environment: they make trade-offs for a moment in time – and might make different trade-offs tomorrow. So all these merit-markets are complex adaptive systems, not static values. I remembered a favorite novel interweaving all these elements: The Man Who Killed the Deer, a completely different book the second time I read it. No summary or excerpt can capture its subtle, graceful, universal insights, which evolve coherently through the whole book, so I hope people will read more than the thumbnail.

I realized how easy it is to operate as a meritocracy of one – assigning sale-or-trade value to human attributes (qualities, attainments, potential) – sometimes with good intentions (encouraging helpful qualities) and sometimes not (enforcing self-proclaimed standards to disadvantage others). The image of a judgmental meritocracy invoked memories of Dinosaur Brains and its cave-message: “If it’s like me, it’s good. Not like me, bad.” A free-associating stream of consciousness kicked in: like means feel good about, and also means similar to – analogous to kind meaning spiritually generous, and kind meaning of the same sort (as in kin, same word). So we are, as animals, instinctively generous to those we see as being like us, in our kinship group.

That led to the “context is everything” arena where Baryshnikov would be denied a slot in professional wrestling, Linda Ronstadt denied a role in Madama Butterfly, both on the merits of a specific marketplace where each genius was out of context. Then to survivalist markers: people who (are or aren’t, do or don’t) like us are considered more, or less, likely to help or harm us (sometimes by adding to, or subtracting from, the degree to which our views could be correct, powerful majority views); so self-protection might be conveyed as the other’s (de)merits. Free-associating reached its last gasp with Nietzsche’s designation of everybody in the marketplace as poisonous flies – highlighting the trap of assessing oneself and others by whatever the sale value might be..

The idea of merit as essential goodness melted quickly. Until now, it had felt more stable – accessible by becoming good enough.

That error – of misunderstanding merit as essential rather than circumstantial – may’ve been an artifact of the dinosauric instinct for conformity: local preferences experienced as absolutes, granting them authority, creating drives to fit into systems (survival of the fittest meaning the ones that fit the best). Defining and controlling systems that supposedly really matter – thus setting comparative values for everybody’s assets – are goals of the bigger games, which are still survivalist/dinosauric no matter how sophisticated (even before they become coercive, even with good intentions). These instincts are literally Natural, so it doesn’t help to scorn them, but it’s helpful to understand and account for them, in choosing which marketplaces to trade in, and what to trade, in return for what. This isn’t meant to imply that there are no essential values (Ken Wilber’s aperspectival madness), just that merit doesn’t signify them.

Liberating the word merit from its trap feels expansive. It’s liberating to the self, too, to notice when subtle systems create temptations to downgrade values to the tradable, systems that offer payment for compliance. The act of noticing makes participation less unconscious, even relaxing, transformative, since Truth Beauty Goodness can be discerned more clearly without the blinding labels of competitive calculation. Thus the temporarily tradable isn’t mistaken for the eternally valuable.

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