Tech culture idolises the idea of the meritocracy, the mythical organisational strategy where those of skill and capability rise to the top, and lead ”naturally”. Of course, being tech this means that those of great technical knowledge and coding skill are the most meritorious, deserving of our recognition and adulation.
But, meritocracy is just an unacknowledged bias. When you say “good at coding”, what you mean is that they have your background, value your values, prioritise like you prioritise. They have your ability to share on GitHub, your spare time to contribute, and make decisions that look like your decisions.
Unacknowledged bias looks like “The best devs spend their holidays coding”.
This bias devalues the idea of other perspectives being meritorious. It insists that other views can never be good enough.
How could they? They don’t fit what you know “good enough” looks like, so you don’t have to think, or question, or challenge.
You know, so you can remain ignorant, deny that questions need to be answered, let alone exist.
This bias means that people who can’t act like you can never be meritorious. How could they? They’re not spending their holidays coding like those with merit, they have other responsibilities and commitments.
There are no Questions
Thinking of the meritocracy in this way isn’t the normal way of considering it, as when we challenge what the underlying values are, what the implications and ramifications are, we are showing ignorance.
As we know, contempt culture bases itself on displays of contempt and reinforcing pre-existing group knowledge, and according status on adherence to that demonstration.
This has some side effects, like the bitter knife of impostor syndrome. Asking for knowledge or help is the domain of the lesser, those who are not elite. It works such that impostor syndrome is a natural result, as those who are able to answer questions so quickly are looked up to, lauded as the luminaries in the communities. This reinforces that because we don’t know, we aren’t looked up to, that we don’t belong here like they do.
They are the wizards, and we are not.
When we feel like we’re incompetent or don’t belong for asking questions, we don’t (can’t, even!) challenge the ideas within the culture. Asking what the side-effects of the meritocracy are just. isn’t. done.
There are no Answers
This attitude acts to suppress introspection and questions.
We are prevented from asking questions through the fear our culture instills of our own ignorance, through the backlash that arises when our culture is questioned. Instead, questions to the status quo cannot be heard, or even permitted to exist.
This attitude gets reinforced every day by tech culture. Hacker News suppresses social discussions and conversations where perspectives other than the ones we already have can be examined.
This is an ideology of contempt culture, of confidence being status, that we know enough about social issues already, we know enough about the impact of our actions already.
It is an attitude of continually reinforced ignorance that rewards participants for their complicity.
Here is your Reward
We’re rewarded for our complicity with a sense of belonging. As we know, this is how social norms and mores propagate at all, how we teach children what’s acceptable in society, how we tell each other what we should and shouldn’t do.
In tech culture, belonging is coupled to the rejection of introspection and questioning why we do what we do in the way we do it. When we behave this way, people offer us their support either through their silence and their overt support.
We get to belong, to feel the wonderful endorphin rush of being included.
We push it further because if we don’t then we’ll be seen for the fraud we are, as impostor syndrome whispers such believable lies in our ears.
The Glorious Temptation
A lot of why I initially participated in contempt culture was driven by wanting to belong. Like so many, I was bullied in school and didn’t have a supportive home life, resulting in my withdrawal into computers.
I belonged, there. Videogames never questioned whether I got to play too, they just ran, and I got to play. They never made fun of me for my body, or who I was or wasn’t. I was never judged.
Contempt culture was how I belonged to those communities early in my tech career. Showing that I knew the right things, to show that I was the Right Sort of person, not one of those horrible “lusers”.
That I hadn’t belonged or fit in for so long meant that now that I finally did it meant so much to me and I was so thrilled that I would have done anything to keep feeling it, to keep it being true.
There Are No Consequences
Asking me to have considered the consequences of my actions, if my behaviour made others feel like they weren’t welcome?
I would have felt like you weren’t just questioning my actions, that you were questioning my very ability to belong, because this is how I showed that I belong.
So, I parroted the lines. I said that you should be coding more, immersed in your work. I refused to consider the consequences of how that would exclude people, because I couldn’t focus beyond my own fear of exclusion.
I could not allow myself to accept the consequences.
It was all I knew. It is all we know.
I say that the meritocracy doesn’t exist, because it is a parroting of a culture that surrounds us with ideas that tell us that we are permitted to belong, because we fit the right pattern.
We don’t look at the consequences, because looking at them challenges that we deserve to belong at all, challenges our own ability to think of ourselves as good people.
It does not and cannot allow itself to be challenged, because it challenges our own self-worth, our own belonging.
It does not and cannot exist, because we use it to mean like me. Like me, which means nothing except is like me, not capability or intelligence or skill, just that someone does or does not have a history that looks like mine does.
No merit involved.
I experienced this, when I started to question my own ideas around the meritocracy and what being “good” meant. I remembered so many things I’d done, things that I cannot ever undo, or even apologise for, that now I am horrified to have done.
Where was the merit in my shouting out into a meetup to “get a real language”? I was pushing that those of skill and competence should ignore this person, this company, this technology.
In tech culture, be it on mailing lists, IRC, on everything else, my behaviour back then is the meritocracy of now. It is shouting into the dark that I know better, and that you do not belong,
you never will,
because you lack merit.