On meritocracy

Two posts critiquing the concept of ‘merit’.

Appointed on merit? Might as well believe in the tooth fairy

The idea that talent decides top jobs ignores not just gender or race, but all the social connections that successful candidates accrue
Of course appointments should be made purely on merit. But – especially in public life – they are frequently made on the basis of connections: social and cultural capital accrued via old-school ties, college dining societies, nepotism, networking, and biases subconscious or overt. Nevertheless, those at the top of politics, business, media and the arts hold fast – understandably – to the notion that they have got there through their own hard graft and dazzling talent: their “merit”.
To accept that society functions on a purely meritocratic basis requires the same blend of woolly optimism and wilful blindness that Reaganites invested in “trickle-down economics”. Curiously, champions of meritocracy are usually detractors of socialism, which gets dismissed as “a nice idea, sure, but it simply wouldn’t work in practice, what with human nature being just too venal, greedy and corrupt”. Yet the equally optimistic myth of meritocracy endures, even though in a country governed by an Etonian elite – the cream of society only in the sense that they’re rich, white and bad for your health – it seems as quaint as believing in the tooth fairy.
In theory, a meritocracy should be a good thing. It basically boils down to a society in which people reap the rewards of their skill and effort. But as countless advocates for women and minorities in the tech world have pointed out, meritocracies are a lot messier in real life. The tech industry isn’t still predominantly white and male because white men are better at their jobs than everyone else, it’s because many white men have had more opportunities to succeed than their minority and female counterparts.
The false idea that the tech industry is a meritocracy hurts everyone.
I’ve started to wonder: do white, middle-to-upper class men ever lie awake at night wondering whether they only got as far as they did because of who they are and what they look like? The thought of a true meritocracy must be somewhat terrifying – would they have succeeded if women, working class kids and people of colour got a fair go? Presumably some of them wouldn’t have done nearly as well. Maybe that’s why some of them try to plant the idea of the ‘token woman’ or the ‘token black’ – it makes them feel better.

Feeling ick about Amazon? Alternatives for a positive Christmas

From the Guardian’s Alternatives to Amazon: MPs spread seasonal boycott message:

Big high street/online retail names: Four were singled out for praise: Debenhams, John Lewis, Next and Lush.

“Bookshops: Researchers rated 22. The two top-scoring names were online charity bookstore Green Metropolis, and Oxfam. Close behind was Better World Books, which works in partnership with literacy charities, followed by eBooks.com, Books etc, our very own Guardian Bookshop and The Book People. Foyles scores pretty well, as does WH Smith, Waterstones and Blackwell’s.”

Amazon aren’t always the cheapest option anyway – you can compare prices for specific books + delivery on booko.co.uk.

And as for why people might be boycotting Amazon, check out Ethical cosmetics company Lush takes ‘bullying’ Amazon to court and My week as an Amazon insider:

“It’s taxes, of course, that pay for the roads on which Amazon’s delivery trucks drive, and the schools in which its employees are educated, and the hospitals in which their babies are born and their arteries are patched up, and in which, one day, they may be nursed in their dying days. Taxes that all its workers pay, and that, it emerged in 2012, it tends not to pay. On UK sales of £4.2bn in 2012, it paid £3.2m in corporation tax. In 2006, it transferred its UK business to Luxembourg and reclassified its UK operation as simply “order fulfilment” business. The Luxembourg office employs 380 people. The UK operation employs 21,000. You do the math.

Brad Stone tells me that tax avoidance is built into the company’s DNA. From the very beginning it has been “constitutionally oriented to securing every possible advantage for its customers, setting the lowest possible prices, taking advantage of every known tax loophole or creating new ones”. It’s something that Mark Constantine, the co-founder of Lush cosmetics, has spent time thinking about. He refuses to sell through Amazon, but it didn’t stop Amazon using the Lush name to direct buyers to its site, where it suggested alternative products they might like.”

UK clothes shops opposed to child labour

I never thought I’d agree with India Knight:

How do we think it became possible for a new dress to cost £6? If the finished garment, including the store’s mark-up, costs £6, what do we think the person who made it was paid? What kind of conditions do we imagine they were working under? And how old do we think they were? Now, I like clothes and I like a bargain. But really, who could wear these clothes and feel good about it? (Answer: millions of people. I find this insanely depressing. And they still look awful.)
The following stores have all explicitly stated their opposition to child labour: Marks & Spencer, American Apparel, H&M, Arcadia Group (includes Topshop, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Wallis, Dorothy Perkins), Gap, Adili.com and People Tree.

In Credit crunch chic: how to save pots of money.

It’s not about China, honest

Really, it’s not. Apparently.
I’m not sure what I think about this – I guess progress and an acknowledgement of the importance of human rights and online access to information is important, and it has to start somewhere.
Big three help online rights

Three of the biggest IT companies in the world have approached the US Congress with suggestions on how to bring human rights laws to the online world.
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have explained how to extend human rights to the internet and what they could do to help spread the laws.
They suggest a code which would be based around a set of principles to which companies would have to adhere, as well as guidelines on ensuring those rights and frameworks on how to enforce the rules and guarantee accountability.
The move follows up from a development in July, when Richard Durbin, a US senator, asked each of the companies to provide suggestions.

Ethical fashion directory

The Guardian have produced an ‘ethical fashion directory’. It’s a little tricksy – click on titles and random new windows open, and you have to click on an image to view different sorts of clothes (which opens new windows in the background, not always obvious), but it’s still useful: Ethical fashion directory.

Over the past few years I’ve frequently heard people say “Well I’d love to buy more ethical fashion, but I’ve no idea where to start …” Here is our solution. Our directory will provide, I hope, a means of navigating the sometimes confusing world of ethical fashion and make it easy for you, the consumer, to find exactly what you are looking for.

Guess who?

From today’s Observer:

‘They have amassed more information about people in 10 years than all the governments of the world put together. They make the Stasi and the KGB look like the innocent old granny next door. This is of immense significance. If someone evil took them over, they could easily become Big Brother.’

The clue is in the article title, Google, 10 years in: big, friendly giant or a greedy Goliath?

Chester, however, is an outspoken critic on a crusade. He continues: ‘Google have been very hypocritical. They try to place a digital halo around their activities. They should be at the forefront of acknowledging that these are the most powerful marketing tools around and there should be safeguards in place. Google claims it’s there to provide information but it’s really there to collect data and provide advertising, and they simply can’t own up to it.’

[Google CEO] Schmidt raised eyebrows on a trip to London last year when he declared: ‘We cannot even answer the most basic questions about you because we don’t know enough about you. The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as “What shall I do tomorrow?” and “What job should I take?” This is the most important aspect of Google’s expansion.’
A month later, the human rights watchdog Privacy International ranked the company bottom in a major survey of how securely the leading internet companies handle their users’ personal information. Liberty, the civil liberties organisation, and the National Consumer Council have also expressed concern.

See also Into the future: Pros and cons of a Google world:

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK
We have long-standing concerns about Google regarding the way it is betraying its own principles in going against established international norms around freedom of information. When you go on a Google search engine in London and look for a picture of Tiananmen Square, you get that iconic picture of a man standing in front of a tank. If you go to google.cn and do the same search you’ll get a picture of happy smiley tourists. Specific words such as Tibet, democracy, Tiananmen Square are heavily censored. We think that filtering process should be transparent. The rest of us who know that we’re using Google in an uncensored fashion have a duty to stand up for people who don’t have that access.

Celeb magazines in ‘evil’ shocker… also, real faces more beautiful…

The Guardian turns the tables for a CELEB MAG EDITOR SPECIAL!

Greetings, stardust consumers, and welcome to Lost in Showbiz’s first ever Circle of Shame feature – wherein we highlight the bits celebrity mag editors would rather you DIDN’T see!
Every week, this collection of ringable body parts heave themselves into their offices, where they churn out unsourced stories, BMI porn, blatant untruths, and endless quotes from anonymous “close pals” of celebrities. But as media influentials, they’re public figures too. How can I prove they are? Because a close pal just told me. So without further ado, let’s get all the juicy goss on their work.

In other news, last week the Sunday Times put a gorgeous, apparently un-airbrushed Naomi Watts on the front cover of their Style magazine. It was surprisingly lovely and touching to see a real face – tiny wrinkles and skin with pores. And she was all the hotter for it – so thank you, Sunday Times.

London under Boris – racism solved. Apparently.

The Rise music festival is today. But since there’s no racism in London anymore, it’s no longer an ‘anti-racism festival’. Who knew that electing Boris Johnson as Mayor would have such an immediate effect? Racism is gone. Thanks Boris! If only he was Mayor of Everything, racism would be a thing of the past. Wouldn’t it?
The Guardian, Mayor drops festival’s anti-racism message:

Rise has been held in London since 1996 and has become the biggest anti-racist music festival in Europe. It was supported by the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, as well as by trade unions and the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR).
But yesterday a spokeswoman for Johnson said this year’s event, on July 13, would no longer carry an anti-racist message: “Boris has made a commitment to go ahead with the Rise festival this year but wants to emphasise its cultural and community dimensions.” During his election campaign Johnson was forced to apologise for describing Africans as having “watermelon smiles” and writing of “piccaninnies”. He said his comments were taken out of context and he was committed to fighting racism.
But last night a spokesman for the NAAR called that claim into question. “The sincerity of Boris Johnson’s claimed commitment to opposing racism in his election campaign is shown to be false by the fact that one of his first decisions is to abandon Europe’s biggest anti-racist festival,” he said.

Why the Sunday Times is bad for you

Usually I’m just amused by the self-loathing articles and columns in the Sunday Times, but lately they’ve been pushing more pieces on plastic surgery (in no way a reflection of recent ad placements, I’m sure). Elective plastic surgery freaks me out – why risk death, permanent pain or disfigurement to ‘fix’ some imaginary flaw that doesn’t even bother anyone else?
An article today, The man who wants to reshape your private parts, is a step too far:

“My customers say, ‘You know what, I don’t like the length of my labia minora. I don’t want the small lips projecting outside the outer lips.’ We can take that excess skin away. They say, ‘I don’t want my labia majora. They’re too flat, I want them full.’ We can inject fat there. Or, ‘I’ve got too much fat in my mons pubis. It looks like I have a penis.’ And we can do that. Or, ‘I’ve had children, I’m too relaxed, I want intense sexual gratification’, so we tighten the muscle. Or, simply, ‘I just look too old.’ Because it’s all about youth, youth, youth.”

But is he really helping us out, or giving us one more area of our bodies to feel paranoid about?
“Look, demand for these treatments comes from women,” he says. “I didn’t create it, the market was there, and I discovered it because I listened to women. Every single one of the procedures has been developed because it has been requested. And it’s going international. There is demand.”

And why is an article like that giving him publicity? How many more women suddenly feel paranoid after reading this article?
The author does that lovely ‘women’s mag’ thing of pretending to be objective while undermining any position that offers a real alternative.

In fact, there are no studies to prove that the diameter of a woman’s vagina is the determining factor in her sexual pleasure.
Real-life testimonials, however, speak volumes.

Right – so scientific evidence doesn’t count, but a single anecdote does? Never mind that the outcome given in the anecdote offered could have come from a number of sources – a placebo effect, the general effect of positive action on self-esteem.
The article at least offers this, from another plastic surgeon:

To tell someone otherwise is to promote body dysmorphia. What is the mentality of this person? It’s not progressive, it’s entrepreneurial. It’s about money. And doctors should never be about the money.

And call me a hippie, but surely there’s a better use of medical resources? The money could be better spent on education and preventing female genital mutilation, or trying to help the ‘100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM’. [WHO figures, May 2008]