Let us now stop praising famous men (and women)

By David V Johnson – We live in an age of excessive praise for the wealthy and powerful. The upper echelons of society bathe in a sea of honors, awards and celebrity. We see it in the glossy magazines and at the so-called ideas festivals, where billionaires are fawned over for their bons mots. We applaud philanthropists for their largesse, even if their charity will do little ultimate good for society, and even if their conduct in acquiring their fortune was reprehensible. We commend them for dabbling in politics or pushing school reform, before we see any results, and even if we have reason to doubt the good that they will do.

To criticize our praise for the wealthy and powerful as excessive inevitably raises the question of meritocracy. To what extent do we live in a meritocracy, and is that a good or a bad thing? Meritocracy is a form of social organization that is founded on praise and blame. People signal who deserves power and status by praising them for their character, their talent, their productivity and their actions, and who merits demotion in status and power by blaming them for their vices, their ineptitude and their failings.

Insofar as people’s assessments of praise and blame are accurate, they will promote those deemed better up in the hierarchy of power and status, and demote those deemed worse down. Better people will do better things with their superior power and status. When the system works, we have an aristocracy – rule by the finest people. Or so thinkers from Aristotle onward have thought.

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This system doesn’t work and can’t work on its own terms. Assessments of praise and blame tend to reflect existing hierarchies of power and status, thereby reifying them. This is because praise and blame have as much to do with the person judging as the person being judged. If everyone in a meritocracy wants to get ahead, assessments of praise and blame will be influenced by whatever helps people to get ahead – namely heaping praise on the powerful and respected, and castigating those without power and status. more>

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