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How gratitude buttresses the myth of meritocracy
I for one of grateful for our capitalist overlords
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At her substack, the feminist philosopher Kate Manne posted this week about “the dark side of gratitude.” She identifies a couple of problems with expressions of gratitude
One, it can be insensitive to others when expressed, well, insensitively. I’m not saying you can’t quite appropriately be grateful for your health or your happiness, and even say it to friends and family, or proclaim it on social media. But saying you’re grateful not to be sick or disabled or unemployed or what-have-you errs into tricky territory in how that may read to those living with these challenges.
Two, gratitude can be an invitation to hierarchical thinking of a kind we ought to jettison. As someone who has learned a lot from both the body positivity movement, and the disability pride movement, this again gets delicate. “I’m grateful my body works!” is an understandable sentiment for those coming to grips with supposed aesthetic flaws that don’t undermine your use of your body one iota. But it’s important that the popular and in many ways promising idea that our bodies are not ornaments but instruments doesn’t veer into ableism—inadvertently writing off or downranking those whose bodies aren’t smoothly functioning instruments.
Manne (who’s forthcoming book is about fatphobia) relates this especially to expressions of gratitude about weight loss, and the way that white women in particular tend to bolster their own self-esteem by comparing themselves to others who they see as fatter or less fit.
I find Manne’s argument convincing (I generally find Manne’s arguments convincing!) And I think it can be expanded to other public expressions of gratitude. I was thinking particularly about book acknowledgements.
Most books include a more or less lengthy section at the beginning or end in which the author expresses their gratitude to those who helped them in the process of writing. These acknowledgements are virtually always heartfelt. Writing a book is a difficult, extended process; authors understandably want to take the opportunity to shout out those who helped them along the way, including family, friends, and professional contacts.
It's almost impossible to make those shout outs, though, without simultaneously boasting. That is, you can’t really thank your agent without pointing out that you have an agent—a major sign of prestige and success in the publishing world. You can’t thank grant commissions for funding your work without pointing out you won a bunch of grants. You can’t thank big name institutions for giving you a sabbatical without noting that you’ve been working at a big-name institution. You can’t talk about how wonderful the people are who supported you without also saying, “all these wonderful people think I’m wonderful too!” No matter how you contort yourself, when you pat other people on the back, you’re going to pat yourself on the back as well.
Patting yourself on the back isn’t a terrible crime or anything. But I think the fact that the acknowledgements page in most books also functions as a victory lap suggests how deeply gratitude is embedded in our ideas of success, and therefore in capitalist ideology.
Gratitude is often framed as an expression of unworthiness; “I don’t deserve all these good things I have received from God/my agent/my institution/the enthusiastic public.” But it’s also a contradictory expression of chosenness. “I must be pretty great to have received these gifts from God/my agent/whoever.” You forswear self-regard and cast it from you—and then big or small others catch it and reflect it back to you. Gratitude becomes a way to recognize the virtue of those who have recognized your virtue. You are ultimately grateful to yourself for having the brilliance others have recognized in you.
Gratitude, in other words, is often a kind of assertion of meritocracy. You are grateful that you deserve success—a deservingness validated by the fact that other deserving people (or divine presences) have helped you to success. You are boosted by the virtuous because you, too, are virtuous. To express gratitude in this context is to express gratitude for one’s own worthiness, the stellar qualifies that have attracted fate, friends, professional contacts, and the public to help you on your ascent.
The truth is that meritocracy is a myth; the factors that lead to success tend to have a lot more to do with who has been blessed with generational capital, white support networks, or simple good luck, than with anything else. For instance, my own (moderate) success with freelance writing is very much tied to the fact that I’m heterosexual and was able to get on my wife’s health insurance in the days before marriage equality to start my career.
I can’t exactly feel “grateful” for that without being kind of an asshole. And to the extent gratitude is tied to success, it’s designed to make us all into assholes.
In the 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You,” Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) discovers he has a gift for telemarketing; when he uses a “white voice” on the phone, the people he talks to throw money at him. His (mostly white) superiors are stunned by his gift and promote him quickly. Soon he’s partying with mega-billionaires who give him opportunities to sell weapons systems and other ethically horrific products.
Cassius is initially grateful to the billionaires and to his bosses for showering him with money. Eventually, though, he starts to slowly realize that they are all awful—and that his gratitude to them makes him awful too. His “success” is the result of a confluence of luck and his particular position within a structure of grotesque racist capitalism. It isn’t something to be grateful for; it’s a sign that the system he’s working in is evil and exploitive. He eventually joins the telemarketing union, essentially busting himself from management back to being a common grunt. He has to dispense with success, and with gratitude for that success, in order to embrace solidarity.
I don’t think gratitude and solidarity are always at odds; you can certainly be grateful for comrades in struggle, and for people (like Kate Manne!) who open your eyes to injustice and how to fight it.
But I think it’s important to recognize that being grateful for success is not a repudiation of the cult of success. It’s a validation of it. The myth of meritocracy is also a myth that we should be grateful for success, rather than working towards a world in which everyone is seen as valuable and worthy of celebration, whether they have “succeeded” or not.
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