Meritocracy causing depression and killing people

In response to a blogpost by Taryn Fox. Unfortunately anonymous comments are disabled and OpenID just seems annoying.

In the blogpost it was said that the “the idea of “meritocracy” causes depression and kills people“. I see the reasoning behind it as unfamiliar and not related to what I see as meritocracy.

For one, blaming others for failures and punishing them? I don’t see that in GNOME at all. There should be an atmosphere where that is not acceptable. I think we already have it using the Code of Conduct, though lately I have not really been wanting to look at things due to the huge amount of discussion some of my actions have caused. So better do nothing than to get crap. I still believe we’re doing pretty ok in GNOME. Maybe in some other project meritocracy is used as an excuse to behave badly. If it happens in GNOME and it is more than a one-off, then raise it. Similar to having a Code of Conduct explaining the minimum we think anyone should behave, we can make an explanation on meritocracy.

There is another thing that people are somehow worthwhile and get rewarded. That is not the idea. The idea is that people put in effort. This is based upon work, not something vague like “worth”. Worth is difficult to measure. Having done X amount of triaging, X amount of translations or X amount of git commits is something you can measure. Then you also have things like helping out at conferences, or just plain attending. I find it pretty logical that the one putting in most effort can dictate more and is listened to more. It is very easy to have an opinion or think that something should work in some way. But unless anyone actually does something, all those ideas are just that, ideas.

The idea behind why I call something meritocracy is that everyone is treated in a similar way. In the blogpost it is even said that some people need help and not anyone is able to do the same thing. Which is why if someone is able to be a maintainer, the person should become one. You don’t make someone maintainer because you think they’re a cool person, you judge on measured effort. In any company it usually works in an arbitrary way. You can have people move “up”, while their work would suggest something entirely different. The promotion could have been done because of anything. E.g. being friends with the right person.

I don’t want to get personal, but do think the blogpost is very focused on a possible negative aspect of meritocracy. I don’t have too much experience with depressions, aside from e.g. after a breakup. At that time everything is negative and it is very easy to make conclusions which to yourself are entirely logical and reasoned. I think it is best to share your thoughts to anyone and notice the response it generates. Though it might make sense to not share your thoughts, it is actually not logical at all. One person does not know everything. For meritocracy for instance, of course it might have drawbacks. The reason I really promote meritocracy is because of the benefits it brings. But that does not mean that any drawbacks are acceptable. With promoting meritocracy people are promoting the good it brings. Anything will have drawbacks, promoting any idea does not imply you want the whole thing. One other example is those “light” drinks. Benefit is to be more healthy (less sugars), but you might get cancer from it. Promoting those drinks is not done to promote getting cancer.

10 thoughts on “Meritocracy causing depression and killing people”

  1. Of course, Taryn also failed to mention that people who do not share her point of view also get depressed. Making a point in such a way as to claim people who disagree with you would be complicit in your death is awful. Her statements in no way should influence how communities like GNOME function.

    1. Maybe she didn’t express it in the most perfect way, but she expressed what she had issues with. There is no bad intend, don’t see the need to argue to much about the way it was phrased.

  2. As she’s clarified in the comments of her own post, the issue isn’t with the abstract idea of meritocracy but with the way in which it’s used to justify problems in existing systems, and isn’t with any specific gnome action or policy but with the culture of free software in general.

    Basically: no system is a pure meritocracy. I don’t think there are any that even come close, and Jewel thinks it’s impossible. The issue is when the people on top decide that their system is a meritocracy, therefore they deserve to be on top. And so the people on the bottom presumable deserve to be there too. If we assume something is a meritocracy we get a free pass on the question ‘why are some people doing better than others’ — it’s obviously just because some people _are_ better. Rather than asking how you can provide opportunities for people you tend to shrug and say they must just not have the gift.

    The ideal is that everyone should be treated in a similar way. The problem is that everyone is _not_ treated in a similar way, because as you said promotions are often arbitrary and based on luck and relationships, not to mention the privileges attached to having the correct gender and skin colour and such — this is true in any hierarchy. So: a hierarchy based on achievement is practical and is not a problem in itself. The danger is believing that that makes the system truly fair and unbiased.

    conclusion: It’s not a matter of ‘meritocracy is a neat idea with some drawbacks’, it’s ‘meritocracy is a good ideal that’s been misused as justification for inequality” (As in “most hackers are white men and it’s a _meritocracy_ so that means white men must just be the best hackers.”) Gnome is honestly better about this than many free software communities but there’s always some elitism floating around.

    1. Ah. I always have a bit of a problem when people argue like A=>B, so B=>A. To me my thoughts don’t go much further than B. :P

      e.g. yeah we have a load of guys, probably all white (don’t know them all). Same for not many Asians. Cause: no clue. Assuming things such as a) the best were selected and b) white dudes are the best is just illogical. No evidence of either.

    2. Thanks for this comment. I hope some people who did not get jewelfox’ point will understand your explanation better.

      It is true that there are worse systems than meritocracy. And it might even be true that there are hardly any better ones. But having the “best of all bad systems” doest not mean that you can lean back and everything is great. You still have to find the weak spots and try to improve. And sometimes admitting that not everything’s perfect is already a good deal.

  3. I think Taryn has a huge problem with her perception of her own self-worth. Disclaimer: What follows is all IMO, so take it for what it’s worth. I don’t know Taryn, but I do know the problem space.

    I think Taryn’s main problem is that deep down she thinks that she is worthless (or at least not worth as much as others). This is unfortunately a struggle she has with herself and I don’t think there’s any convincing her that she’s wrong. The only useful thing other people can do for her is be there when she needs them (which is different from when she wants those people or thinks she needs them unfortunately, so getting that right is a hard job – and if you get it wrong, people die. Literally.)

    What she is currently doing – just like Matthew pointed out in his blog post – is trying to rationalize her feeling of worthlessness.
    So for her to be worthless, the world must find proof that she objectively is worthless. So she’s looking at everything she finds. She found meritocracy, which apparently applies a value to people in the form of “merit” (in particular if you read the Wikipedia article about it – not at all ho the term is used in the Open Source world *shudder*). And because she doesn’t have much say in Open Source, she must be pretty worthless.
    Or take the idea of “you get what you deserve”: If you look at what Taryn got (no job, living at home, no prospect of success in life), she obviously doesn’t deserve very much. Therefor she must be worthless.

    Of course, she doesn’t want to be worthless. She wants to be able to stand for herself and not be a burden. She doesn’t want food stamps or a psychologist, because that would prove even more that she is worthless. Or in short: She doesn’t want help.

    So yeah, it’s a fucked up situation. And I don’t really know how to get out of it. And even if I knew what worked for me, it doesn’t mean it’ll work for anyone else.

  4. The point of meritocracy is that you promote an individual based on the work they have achieved. There are ways in which the wider community can help steer the direction of contributions.

    They can crowd source to help put food on oss contributors tables or they could file a constructive bug.

    Any move away from meritocracy is in my view negative as you would fall into the same trap you say you are trying to avoid.
    Contributors would feel pressured into contributing things they have no interest or passion for and thus wouldn’t do as good a job as they would if they got to work on what actually did interest them.

    Using the term gift is inaccurate as it implies that people in oss get where they are at not due to their contributions but due to personality. If this is how you feel please provide some evidence to support your claim.

    Show me where a white guy became maintainer of a project when a black/female contributed more and vice versa. Meitocracy is supposed to prevent that from happening in an open and transparent way.

    I know of cases in propietary software world where people I knew who were the go to guy for an entire team and who contributed most of the code where ignored when it came to promotions because some other guy just so happened to play golf with the boss.

    This is not something you want to replicate in oss as its unfair. Its unfair to males/females, black or white who do the work and deserve to be promoted.


    Meritocrats hate such affirmative action programmes, but then, they also hate social welfare programmes, acceptance of alternative religions and lifestyles, and basically anything that makes for a world where people different from them exist and are given an equal standing.

    You’re either defending them or making points which are completely tangential to the main discussion. Either way, any further comments you leave will not be unscreened.

    What a horrible intellectually dishonest thing to say. What evidence does she have for such an offensive and absurd claim?

  5. Nothing other people do causes depression. Actual depression is a medical condition and not an occasional bad mood. Actual depression is nothing to be ashamed of because there are medical reasons for it which can be cured (it is no more a reason to be ashamed of oneself as is a cold). It is caused by hormonal imbalance – ie. the body does not produce enough serotonin or dopamine (and actual depressed people would feel bad no matter how they are treated).
    Modern medicine is pretty advanced and real depression can be treated rather well by A) taking the hormones as pill and B) get therapy.

  6. Basically what Markus S said here above. Been living with major depressive disorder for ~15 years, diagnosed ~5 years ago, so I’d say I have some real life perspective. This post is not necessarily a reply to any specific comment.

    When you’re clinically depressed, you cannot work it out by talk-about-your-life therapy sessions, introspection, yoga, acupuncture, whatnot. Everything is dark for no apparent reason, which in turn leads to or emphasizes the other kind of “common depression”, where you just feel bummed out about something, experience low self-worth and the such. The two obviously correlate, but they are different beasts entirely. The name collision is unfortunate, but understandable.

    The symptoms of clinical depression differ between patients. For many, nothing is simply enjoyable anymore. Nothing you know is interesting, much less yourself. Some can’t muster the will to do basic stuff such as get out of bed, shower, eat. Others get emotional swings and cry often for no apparent reason, and cannot take critique or face conflicts. Some can mask it all and go on by routine, but there is always (by definition) a suffering without origin. If they become suicidal then it’s all the more dangerous, since they’d seem like any other healthy normal person to their fellows.

    It’s wrong to conclude that such people “don’t want help”, because they’re in a state where you can’t expect them to have that kind of insight. It’s natural that they feel like they deserve it, because by now their world is drenched in suffering. And sadly there’s a big threshold to pass before admitting to having this illness, as disorders of the mind have a considerable stigma.

    I lived unmedicated in this state for eight years and it ruined me. I’m ruined. I’m a complete wreck. I had the fortune to have psychiatrists in the family to see the signs, but even so I could emualte normality for several years. The medicine — the *medicine* — is what keeps me stable. I’m “alive” in a sense now, but I’m a shell of what I could have been. I’ve passed up on relationships because I knew I couldn’t do the other part justice, and I have such grief from that that I tear up just writing this. The most painful one is with a girl is named Frida, and she’s long since married now; opportunity passed. I’m so very lovesick, but I cognitively know I’m too broken to go through with anything. That’s the harsh reality and it considerably limits me in everything. If I got an offer for a dream job tomorrow I would have to decline; it’s simply beyond me.

    So I can suddenly tear up over the simplest things, and sometimes I just feel such intense sorrow over nothing that I just want to disappear and be forgotten. I was never suicidal, but I have no difficulty whatsoever seeing why others can be. I have no “drive”, pathologically, so the dishes pile up and only get done by (unreproducible) spontaneous bursts of initiative. I can only spend so much time doing something (for instance, playing a game) before all enjoyment fades from it. I could spend a whole day being giddy with some project, only to the next day be completely baffled over how I could have wasted so much time on something so unbearably dumb. Left alone I degenerate into staying in bed for entire days. Last time I showered was a week ago. Yesterday I ate raisins for dinner because the amount of work to cook noodles was too much for me at the time.

    Looking at it objectively, I cannot for the life of me see myself being employed and doing normal work. I could maybe do it for a few days but then I’d need a week off to recouperate, or else I can’t get out of bed again. Being able to do even that is a serious victory for me, and necessitates that I employ all the tricks and tactics to manage myself that I’ve learned over the last few medicated years.

    If I could do it all over, I’d seek help when I first started suddenly losing interest in stuff. MEDICINE. It’s really the only thing that works — that, and electro-convulsive therapy for a short term reset (but one effective beyond words, despite its stigma).

    I know it all sounds like a cop-out to just say “well, he’s depressed and he can’t help it”, but there is no logic behind it all. You cannot unravel it, find the cause and then solve it at the core. Therapy certainly works to let you develop tools and tactics to cognitively keep yourself in check — but the disorder isn’t something you can reason away. It’s arguably possible to stave it off entirely if caught early enough, but I imagine I will have to live with this for the rest of my life.

    I’ve been lucky in many other areas of my life with no sudden deaths in the family, great parents and siblings, a good childhood and a healthy body. I’m certainly better off than most; I just ended up broken in a different sense that’s indistinguishable from just being a lazy loaf to the outside world. Being told “get your act together”, “just grind your teeth and do it” and “well work it out already” simply hurts.

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