Dismantling Toxic Meritocracy

Corey Ponder
7 min readMar 28, 2020
The words ‘toxic meritocracy’ appear over a sign saying ‘radioactive’

It is time to dismantle the meritocracy.

At least when it is served up as an exemplar of a clear, transparent, and flawless system for weighing and defining value and worth. Because true meritocracy is a myth.

Sure, it feels good to say. We should reward merit — good and worthy efforts deserve praise or reward. As a system, it provides an incentive and motivation for people to do good work. It also gives us a system of evaluation that we can point to that feels clear and transparent, where we can establish some baseline for comparing what feels like “good work” across the board versus what feels like “bad work”.

But once we begin to define what is meritable, the system begins to break down.

Because, even if we agree on the characteristics deserving of merit — intelligence, wit, strength, adaptability — the criteria that we use to define them is a spectrum of gray both nuanced and complex. And then, even if we could somehow zero in on a narrow definition of criteria, the question that should arise next is, why does that automatically invalidate other criteria on the scale? Why is that definition of intelligence better than this definition?

Here’s the truth: merit is not without bias and meritocracies are not inherently fair, contrary to popular (or wishful) belief. A meritocratic approach only guarantees that someone will choose criteria that define what merit is. In a vacuum, and absent of bias, that criteria will be agreed on by 100% of people and everyone in the world will coalesce around one idea or one belief of how you define that criteria. Take the model out of a vacuum, and the purity of it becomes less clear.

a emoji person shaking their fist, with the caption “shakes fist”

To provide a tangential but related example, I want to talk about the Netflix show, “Love is Blind.” I may or may not have binged it all in one day and then eagerly waited on the Weddings episode like a package from Amazon Prime that took 3 days to get here instead of the guaranteed two.

In that show, we see the show hosts repeatedly ask the participants “is love truly blind?” When the participants all meet, with nothing to distract them —…

Corey Ponder

Tech policy professional by day, wannabe superhero by night. Passionate about building communities, spaces, and platforms focused on inclusion and empathy.