As a composition instructor, I like to tell my students that the best way they can build ethos is by using “for example” and “according to” when analyzing anything, even a single word.
Take “asshole,” for example, which Alex Balk discusses in his article at Slate, “The A-hole in the mirror.” According to Balk, we all “pretty much know what makes an asshole and asshole.” But, to be explicit, he uses a definition by Irvine philosophy professor Aaron James:
A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.
For a prime example of “asshole,” Balk points to himself—his subtitle is “On being that guy”—a confession that not only gives him instant ethos, but has the extra benefit of at once negating his confession, since, as he writes in his conclusion:
If you know you’ve been an asshole, you’re actually less of an asshole than you think you are. Whatever terrible torments you recall with fingers pressed fiercely to your face, the very act of acknowledgment means there’s more good in you than you really comprehend.
Ay, there’s the rub, as another famous asshole once declared. It’s a win/win situation, as long as you go all the way and perform the last act of the play. Otherwise, says Balk, “you’re a total dick, in which case no book is ever going to help.”
Which leads us straight to another fun word, quoted in an article on San Francisco’s BART strike at Marketplace:
Sarah Lacy, founder of tech news site Pando Daily, which is based in San Francisco, said “If I had more friends who were BART drivers, I would probably be very sympathetic to their cause…People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.”
Needless to say, this went over well.
Anyway, the Oxford Dictionary defines “meritocracy” as either “a society governed by people selected according to merit,” or, “a ruling or influential class of educated or able people.” According to my research, it was coined by English sociologist Michael Young, who used it facetiously in his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033.
The earliest suggestion of “meritocracy” may have come from Jonathan Swift, writing three centuries before the word even existed. (Although a similar phrase—”merit-monger”—was used by Luther in 1531.) This is from The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, D.D. … : with Notes …, Volume 5:
That true Merit, was the son of Virtue and Honour; but that there was likewise a spurious child who usurped the name, and whose parents were Vanity and Impudence. That, at a distance, there was a great resemblance between them, and they were often mistaken for each other. That the bastard issue had a loud shrill voice, which was perpetually employed in cravings and complaints; while the other never spoke louder than a whisper, and was often so bashful that he could not speak at all. That in all great assemblies, the false Merit would step before the true, and stand just in his way; was constantly at court, or great men’s levees, or whispering in some minister’s ear. That the more you fed him, the more hungry and importunate he grew. That he often passed for the true son of Virtue and Honour, and the genuine for an impostor. That he was born distorted and a dwarf, but by force of art appeared of a handsome shape, and taller than the usual size; and that none but those who were wise and good, as well as vigilant [Ed.: Ahem], could discover his littleness or deformity. That the true Merit had been often forced to the indignity of applying to the false, for his credit with those in power, and to keep himself from starving. That he filled the antechambers with a crew of his dependants and creatures, such as projectors, schematises, occasional converts to a party, prostitute flatterers, starveling writers, buffoons, shallow politicians, empty orators, and the like, who all owned him for their patron, and grew discontented if they were not immediately fed.
Ben Bernanke, in his 2013 speech to Princeton graduates, shrunk it down to this:
A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate—these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.
None of this has stopped tech writers like Sarah Lacy from adopting “meritocracy” to promote class warfare. Or even to respond to charges of racism, as happened when tech blogger Jason Calacanis kind of freaked out over an article by journalist Jason Bouie, entitled, “And Read All Over: An implicit network, not overt racism, keeps tech writing dominated by white men.” After Tweeting his outrage all day, Calacanis took to his blog to make the implicit explicit. Yes, he admits, racism still exists, but only among those who “haven’t made the leap” to a post-racial world, as he has done, always a pretty safe jump when one looks like this:
I didn’t know your race, just your excellent writing ability, when I got engaged. Now that I know you’re black you know what difference it makes?
It might make a difference to Bouie, but no matter. What’s important, according to Calacanis, is an innate something called “hustle,” which, had he not already made the post-racial leap, he would know is a quality that black Americans have long been accused of not having.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary and Google’s Ngram Viewer, use of the root word, “merit,” as something bestowed, and not demanded, peaked in 1803, and has declined steadily ever since. Now we have the “meritocracy,” a group of folks who systematically allow themselves to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes them against the complaints of other people. Are they also dicks? That is the question.