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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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February 10, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 43

  Meritocracy: The argument without a definition
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

My mother kept files of recipes and family addresses. I keep files of magazine clippings. Most of them are simple research statistics: the latest polls, a study of trends, a few timelines, comparative data on national and international topics. But some things in the file fall into a category called "I never thought I'd live to see the day." This story is one of them.

The Council of Europe, the parliamentary body of the newly formed European Union, has suspended the voting rights of the entire Irish delegation. And why? Because historically neutral Ireland has started an unprovoked war? No. Because the Irish have failed to recognize European passports as their own? No. Because the Irish aren't paying their EU assessments? No.

The Irish delegation has lost all voting rights in the Council of Europe because all of the Irish delegates are men.

In September 2003, the council agreed that every delegation to the 2004 Assembly should include at least one woman. All of the delegations to the 45-member body complied with the criterion with two exceptions: Ireland and Malta. "It's difficult enough to get women interested in active politics," one of the delegates explained to the writer from The Irish Times. "The notion of going off on your own to these meetings for a woman," he went on, "would be quite unattractive."

Maybe, but the word is that Dublin will include a woman in time for the next EU Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg in April.

And that's where Part Two of the story starts.

In a letter to the editor, an Irish woman writing in response to the same situation proves her objectivity for all to see. The fact that delegations to international bodies would be required to include women on them, she calls "ridiculous." Doing something like that, she goes on, "may thwart the goal of having the best delegates present in the first place." Her reasons are clear. Having "the best delegates" in such situations, she assumes, will not be possible to guarantee with a quota system. She ends with a plea: "Can we please have a meritocracy in relation to public and private appointments?"

The reaction from a woman about the position of women in the world, incidentally, is not unusual. It's women who argued years ago that women could not be radio and TV announcers because their voices were "funny" or could not be presidents because they were "too emotional to lead" or could not be "doctors" because they were not "scientific" enough. Despite the fact that women's voices were simply different from men's voices, not "funny." Despite the fact that women had led the suffragette movement and the anti-war movement for decades. Despite the fact that women had been the first herbalists, midwives and family doctors for generations.

Social scientists tell us that oppressed people always internalize the expectations of the oppressor. That's why they stay oppressed for so long and so willingly. It makes oppression very easy. Minorities, whoever they are, learn from the dominant race that they are "too slow," "too emotional," "too lazy" or "too weak" to function at the highest levels of a society. They are never "the best candidates" for anything. And they always accept the meritocracy argument, the one by which they leave the public arena backward and bowing. And no wonder.

The meritocracy argument is both a seductive one and a popular one. It sounds right and it sounds humble. It also, I believe, sounds hollow. When we talk about "affirmative action" programs in the United States, we always fret about "getting the best candidates." But, like the letter-writing lady, we never define what constitutes "best."

We fail to wonder aloud whether only those who have experience, pedigree, connections, financial support and the benefit of the fine schools and breeding that go with them, really bring to the table what makes a decision good in the first place. We fail to go out and look for the people who see the world differently in order to make decisions that everyone can see as just.

In this case, as in the case with most minorities, women bring an entirely different worldview to subjects like education, budget priorities, war, wages, health care and the domestic economy that has been missing from the decision-making arena for centuries. And it shows. The fact is that without drawing from an entire pool of possible candidates -- black, white, female, male, Anglo-Saxon and others -- we can't possibly be sure we get the "best" candidates for anything because we leave out half the human race.

We have been using the meritocracy argument for generations and it has never worked. It didn't work for blacks. It didn't work for Catholics. It didn't work for the poor. It didn't work for Jews. And it didn't work for women.

We fail regularly to realize how much more quickly an entire body of people might have risen out of poverty, illiteracy, persecution and discrimination if discrimination had never been permitted in the first place.

You can't help but wonder if Irish Catholics might have gotten out of the slums faster if "Irish need not apply" had been illegal in the 19th-century United States.

You have to wonder if there would be more blacks in the U.S. Congress now if anti-discrimination laws had been instituted sooner for hiring practices and college admissions programs.

No -- one woman on a delegation, if the research on tokenism is correct, will not assure the world that the concerns of women as a class will necessarily be brought to the international arena. But at least the European Union will put 45 of them there at one time in order to try.

By the way, you also have to wonder whether men would make it onto the Irish delegation here at all if the Irish woman's meritocracy argument were rigidly applied. Another article in the same newspaper later in the week reports a "worrisome" situation. Irish boys, the department of education reports, are doing far worse in the Leaving Certs -- Irish high school tests, equivalent to SATs, that rigidly control admission to Irish higher education programs -- than Irish girls are. Pretty soon, at that rate, we'll need a quota program for boys.

I can't help but wonder what will happen to objectivity then.

From where I stand, the position taken by the European Union in its construction of an international parliament is an idea that has merit, an idea whose time has come. Late, yes. Slowly, indeed. Painfully, true. But finally. I never thought I'd live to see the day.

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