Sunday, August 15, 2021

Merit is Entitlement, not Privilege

In debates around reservation and merit, there is a recurring pattern.

First, someone will say "There is no level playing field. Someone starts from privilege, someone starts from lack of it. Therefore, merit is just privilege."

Then, the opponent will say "What makes you think I'm privileged? My parents struggled to make their ends meet. I burned the midnight oil."

The first person says "Do you know what inter-generational trauma that people from X background goes through?"

Then the opponent will say "Well, but the beneficiaries of reservation are from well off families"

This debate goes circularly with both sides saying they're being unreasonable.

That's when someone else will come in and say "Reservation is not a poverty alleviation measure, it is about representation"

That particular argument has a lot going on in it, which I'll try to unpack here.


Is merit a result of privilege?

This is complicated by two things - we don't know how to objectively define merit, and we don't know how to objectively measure privileges.

What is merit? Is merit the ability to score very high marks in an exam with multiple choice questions? Is merit the ability to use language very fluently? Is merit the ability to impress an interviewer? Is merit the ability to get a job done in real world? Merit could be defined as any of these. Who should define this? That's a tough question.

What about privilege? Is privilege one's economic status? Is privilege one's social capital? Gender? Caste? Ability? Skin-tone? Body shape? Which of the countless things that gives a person an advantage in the society should be counted towards one's total privilege? And how should their influence be added up? Which ones should be given more weight and which ones less? This is probably the subject of what is called Oppression Olympics.

Both of these questions can be answered definitively in very subjective ways. But, it is next to impossible to arrive at a public consensus on such answers. Nevertheless, the discussions around these are very educational and thought-provoking. And discussions can happen even if consensus cannot be reached.


What's the importance of the statement "Reservation is not a poverty alleviation measure, it is about representation"?

It shifts the perspective from the subjective field of defining merit and measuring privilege into the objective field of representative democracy and distributive justice.

Not that that comes without questions. The questions shift to "What is democracy?", "What is justice?"

What is democracy? The naive answer to this is that democracy is rule of the majority. But that's not democracy. That's an elective monarchy - where the majority elects a monarch and the monarch rules over the subjects in an authoritarian fashion. Democracies stand in contrast to such monarchies. Democracies are founded on values - equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, etc. That there are elections in democracies is just a side effect of these founding principles.

That's where the value "justice" comes in. What is justice? Justice is possibly a subjective matter as well. But it can be (circularly) defined as "fairness". What is fairness? It is easy to jump from here to the earlier point and say "Someone who has struggled should be rewarded - is fairness". But that's a very individualistic view of fairness. The questions around reservation are not about individuals. It is about the democracy. For a democracy to be fair, it has to distribute power and resources among its citizens in a way that is "fair". And at the level of the nation, that involves distributing power to socially marginalized sections of the society. That is justice.


See how switching from the discussion on individual privileges to that of democratic justice gives lesser loopholes for people to endlessly argue on?

In that perspective, when you look at merit, you don't see merit as privilege. You don't say that "What we call merit is just accumulated privilege." Instead, you see it as entitlement. You say "What entitles you to claim that your "merit" should be considered above the values of our democracy?"

That, arguably, is a stronger way to make the case for justice.

If you like what you're reading, subscribe!

Get posts via email:

No comments :

One more time, subscribe via email: