Meriting Attention

Way back in 2007 a national crisis was initiated by the press over the prevalence of nooses, a symbol of lynching in the Jim Crow South, throughout America terrorizing blacks–all prompted by a series of hoaxes of course.

I wrote a little satire (below) and thought I was being clever when I created, for a fictional black studies Professor Balder-Dash, a book called The Myth of Merit.

Then I found the left had already identified merit as a tool of oppression, and the joke was in no way ahead of reality Still, we had to reach the Current Year for Merit, spawn of Reason and Objectivity, to, er, merit being called out by name. Indeed, “merit” just reeks of white-shoe law firms and Anglo notions of fair play; it comes off a lot better than going right after objectivity and reason and makes a good “dog whistle” by which to attack them (soon enough, justice willing, we can abandon the ruse).

Linux’ open-source code of conduct for developers has been replaced by a “contributor covenant”,
apparently after Linus Torvalds lost a skirmish with its proponents (he taps out in a letter “I am going to take time off and get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately”) that opens:

Open Source has always been a foundation of the Internet, and with the advent of social open source networks this is more true than ever. But free, libre, and open source projects suffer from a startling lack of diversity, with dramatically low representation by women, people of color, and other marginalized populations. 

Part of this problem lies with the very structure of some projects: the use of insensitive language, thoughtless use of pronouns, assumptions of gender, and even sexualized or culturally insensitive names.

Marginalized people also suffer some of the unintended consequences of dogmatic insistence on meritocratic principles of governance. Studies have shown that organizational cultures that value meritocracy often result in greater inequality. People with “merit” are often excused for their bad behavior in public spaces based on the value of their technical contributions. 

Meritocracy also naively assumes a level playing field, in which everyone has access to the same resources, free time, and common life experiences to draw upon. These factors and more make contributing to open source a daunting prospect for many people, especially women and other underrepresented people.

(For more critical analysis of meritocracy, refer to this entry on the Geek Feminism wiki.)

Score one for social justice. Then, Torvalds’ daughter, a progressive activist based out of Portland Oregon (who insists Dad had “nothing” to do with her interest in computing, and may actually be honest because she seems more interested in politics), apparently signed on to something called the Post Meritocracy Manifesto that begins:

Meritocracy is a founding principle of the open source movement, and the ideal of meritocracy is perpetuated throughout our field in the way people are recruited, hired, retained, promoted, and valued. 

But meritocracy has consistently shown itself to mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology. The idea of merit is in fact never clearly defined; rather, it seems to be a form of recognition, an acknowledgement that “this person is valuable insofar as they are like me.” 

(If you are not familiar with criticisms of meritocracy, please refer to the resources on this page.) 

It is time that we as an industry abandon the notion that merit is something that can be measured, can be pursued on equal terms by every individual, and can ever be distributed fairly.

You can run but you can’t hide from social justice, Mr. M.

Ah, for the days when all this was a little farther out on the horizon.

OCT 27, 2007
POINT DEFERENCE, WA (UNS*) — Civil rights leaders in this Seattle suburb are up in arms over what they say is the latest incident in a nation-wide trend of hate crimes involving the public display of nooses, a symbol of lynching in the Jim Crow south.
A noose was discovered hanging from a tree in a remote corner of a wooded park early Friday morning by two children, ages twelve and fourteen. Doug Beedle, head of Seattle’s NAACP chapter, said he is considering seeking damages against the city for not moving more quickly to deal with the apparent hate-crime. 

“The city is engaged in a white-wash, treating this as a minor incident. If we hadn’t been notified by an alert citizen, the whole thing would’ve been swept under the rug and treated as something other than what it was.” Mr. Beedle did not rule out filing a complaint with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “We’re opening a dialogue with the city, but if they refuse to come around to our way of thinking, we’re prepared to take it to the next level. No justice, no peace.” 

The childrens’ mother, Misty Handringer, who is white, tearfully related that she initially didn’t realize the significance of the noose. “At first all I could think about was the other aspect of it. I’m not proud of this, but I was more concerned about the fact that the kids had found a dead body. I was mortified when the ugly reality of it was explained to me. I really thought we were above that sort of thing here. I’m not very proud of my community right now. I guess nowhere is safe.” 

Police say it appears the man, who is white, acted alone in stringing up the noose before using it to hang himself. Officials haven’t ruled out bringing posthumous charges.
“Allowing this to simply die with the perpetrator would be wrong. Suicide is just the sort of transgressive act that brings out the underlying racism inherent in our society.” 

Tanyika Balder-Dash, professor of Afro-American studies at Northwest College and author of The Myth of Merit, said, explaining why the man chose the inflammatory racial symbol for his apparent suicide. “People feel liberated to express their darkest impulses.”
The children who discovered the noose are receiving counseling. “First we have to make them aware of the trauma they’ve suffered, then we can begin to deal with it.” Professor Balder-Dash said. “Most distressing of all is that these kids have no idea about the profound image of hatred and oppression they encountered. People don’t realize that racism is in fact far worse now than it ever was, due to faltering awareness. I fear we are allowing this image of America’s racist past to slip into the past.” 

A march is planned for this Monday. The man remains unidentified. 

(*Untethered News Services; Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dennis Dale, who is white.) 

In related news, the U.S. Army has retroactively legalized lynching.

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