Familiarity vs Merit
“The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk–
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.
The men of my own stock,
They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I am wanted to,
They are used to the lies I tell;
And we do not need interpreters
When we go to buy or sell.
The Stranger within my gates,
He may be evil or good,
But I cannot tell what powers control–
What reasons sway his mood;
Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
Shall repossess his blood.
The men of my own stock,
Bitter bad they may be,
But, at least, they hear the things I hear,
And see the things I see;”
And whatever I think of them and their likes
They think of the likes of me.
This was my father’s belief
And this is also mine:
Let the corn be all one sheaf–
And the grapes be all one vine,
Ere our children’s teeth are set on edge
By bitter bread and wine.”
I often hear outsiders complaining about how hard it is for them to fit in socially in the South. I know this true where I am from because I see people struggling with it year in and year out. With the exception of hipster meccas like Austin or Athens and major cities like Atlanta, I would say that this is probably also true of the South in general. Down here we love who we know. We love what is familiar to us and spurn all that is strange and foreign. Down here you could be beautiful, intelligent, talented, and a generally likeable person and still find there are certain circles of people that don’t want to have anything to do with you. The reason these people are having a hard time is because here, unlike the rest of the United States, social status is based on what I call familiarity rather than merit. It is about who knows you and who you know rather than your accomplishments or your stellar personality. If you are in New York City and you are an attractive interesting person with a good job, congratulations you are hot stuff. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case in the South. You could easily feel like a total outcast down here. Now this seems arbitrary, unfair, and backward to people looking in from the outside, but perhaps if we take a closer look we might find that this system isn’t as silly as it seems and we may even find that it is preferable.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Republic by Plato. In it Socrates outlines what would be necessary to create an ideal society. In describing what the guardians of that society ought to be like, he compares them to dogs. They ought to love what is familiar to them and to hate that which is unknown. Oddly enough, Socrates also says that a dog is like a philosopher because he is a lover of what is known (He is a provincial) and therefore, like the philosopher, is a lover of knowledge:
Socrates: “well-bred dogs are perfectly gentle to their familiars and acquaintances, and the reverse to strangers” . . .
Socrates: “Would not he who is fitted to be a guardian, besides the spirited nature, need to have the qualities of a philosopher?” . . .
Socrates: “Why, a dog, whenever he sees a stranger, is angry; when an acquaintance, he welcomes him, although the one has never done him any harm, nor the other any good. Did this never strike you as curious?”
Glaucon: “The matter never struck me before; but I quite recognise the truth of your remark.”
Socrates: “And surely this instinct of the dog is very charming;—your dog is a true philosopher.”
Socrates: “Why, because he distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. And must not an animal be a lover of learning who determines what he likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance?”
Glaucon: “Most assuredly.”
Socrates: “And is not the love of learning the love of wisdom, which is philosophy?”
It may seem counter-intuitive to compare a provincial hound to a lover of universal truth and knowledge, but I believe that Socrates was on to something here. I will leave it to you to ponder that mystery. The point I am trying to make is that Southerners are like dogs in the way of loving what is known and hating that which is unknown. While we are a supposedly hospitable people, and many of us are when we are trying to be, we must also admit that when we aren’t we may find ourselves growling at strangers and saving our most tender affections for those we know best. The stranger may be a better person than the one we know, but still we will stick with our own. The stranger may be a real stand-up guy. The stranger may even be acceptable to us, but the greatest advantage we always give to the one that we know.
Now how exactly is this system reasonable? Why do I find provincial bonds and affections preferable to merited ones? Before that is answered, know that any social hierarchy isn’t going to be purely merit based or familiarity based, but will be some mixture of the two. However, in order to find out which one should be dominant and which system is preferable, we need to take each element and isolate it. We need to examine each as if it were the only factor in determining a person’s social standing.
First of all, familiarity is more of an unconditional form of social recognition whereas merit is not. Imagine you move to a new city where people come and go on a regular basis. If you are young, outgoing, friendly, and just plain have it together, you may find yourself quickly meeting the approval of other people like yourself. Having a history with someone doesn’t count for anything because no one stays in the same place long enough for it to occur. You may be elated at all the new friends you are making and how sharply your social stock is trending upward. Who could possibly want to live in a backward place like the South? The people in this city don’t care about where I come from, what I’ve done in my past, or who I know. They are less judgmental, more accepting, and just better people when you get down to it. Are they though? If something is quickly gained, it can also be quickly lost. What if something were to happen to your career? What if you were injured or became seriously ill? Will those same people still care who you are when you no longer have anything to offer them? When you become a burden to them? Why would anyone trouble themselves about a person they only met a short time ago? Why would they care about a stranger? Down here people get sick, injured, or fall on hard times and the community will root for them, pray for them, and pull together. Why? It is because they are known. They are familiar and close to the heart. They have a history and they are a part of those who know them. The more you are known and the better you are known, the more people will still give a damn when your merit based value fails you.
Familiarity occurs in relation to other people over long periods of time. Merit assesses people as individuals and thus ignores human social value. We are social creatures and therefore a large part of our value to others is based on whether or not we are members of the same group. My value to another person immediately increases once he recognizes that we have a particular group identity in common. Now there are all kinds of groups to which we can belong. Some of these group identifications are trivial. These are memberships which can be obtained and disregarded rather easily, like identifying with people who dress in a certain manner, listen to a certain kind of music, or are a fan of a particular team. There are others which are innate and cannot be quickly taken up or discarded like nationality, race, family, or religion. In addition there are other unchangeable parts of our identity: where you went to high-school, the neighborhood in which you grew up, the children you played with when you were young, the children your parents played with when they were young and so forth. If we don’t put value on these parts of our identity and if we primarily associate with people, who by nature of not belonging to these groups, also put no value on them, this value will be lost. Not only will that value go unaccounted, if we ignore it thoroughly enough, eventually these parts of who we are will die and be forever lost. In choosing where to live, who to marry, and how to raise our children we are either perpetuating or ceasing certain identities in the next generation. Associating and giving social recognition based on merit rather than familiarity ignores these identifications.
With this in mind we must also take into consideration that, if everyone started to devalue these aspects of who they were, then eventually the groups themselves would disappear. The gate-keepers of our modern cultural and political atmosphere use Orwellian buzz-words like “Diversity” and “Multiculturalism” religiously, but how do you think the diversity of peoples and cultures in this world came about in the first place? It certainly wasn’t by being “Open” and “Tolerant” to anything and everything that came along. It was by being exclusive and by placing value on one’s own. Undiscriminating acceptance of the other is in reality just a form of adulteration and if it goes unchecked is extremely destructive. The great irony is that when politicians, bureaucrats, and media-figures, champion “Diversity” they are almost always bringing about something that will in fact lead to the opposite, uniformity and blandness. What we end up with is a godless, sexless, and deracinated modern consumer with no sense of home or identity. We have cities filled with millions of people who have no history in common, people who couldn’t possibly understand one another or feel at home with one another. They are, each of them, a modern day Babel. These cities are filled with those who have suppressed hostilities toward one another. We have nations coming together whose ancestors have warred against each another for centuries. Do you think that animosity just goes away? It can be suppressed and ignored, but it is still part of who we are. We carry the past inside us whether we realize it or not. No wonder modern man is isolated and depressed; he has been disconnected from that to which he belongs and thrown into a den of foreigners. This is the trend of the Western World and it is a trend that has always been at odds with the Southern mindset. We have been forced into Modernity against our will, but we will prevail by holding fast to what is known.
All this being said, merit does have its place in the context of familiarity and I do think there is a place here for outsiders. However, it takes both time and patience. The South is where you go when you are ready to settle in for the long haul and find a home. In the South, reputation and recognition are built by consistently displaying meritorious behavior over time and in the context of a community. Our reputations are not only tied with our own behavior but also the behavior of our family in generations past. Unlike the American ideal this system is far less individualistic, but it is also in keeping with more traditional and stable forms of social organization. Also, despite the cynical comments I often hear, having money does not necessarily ensure a high social standing in the South. A person must also be active in their church, treat others justly, and use their money tastefully. The members of the Southern upper-class, not unlike the British landed gentry or Dutch nobility, are among the finest, gentlest, and well-bred people that can be found the world over. As for those who might make their home here I would ask, are you tired of hustle and bustle of the metropolis? Are you tired of living without community? Are you tired of being surrounded by unfamiliar people, people who don’t know you? Are you tired of living in a lonely and rootless world? Then at heart you are a Southerner and I would like to extend my welcome to you. Just remember it may take time for everyone else to come around. It may take years, decades even but it will be worth it. It is the natural way to live. I would go so far to say that it is how we were created to live. Be patient and determined and you will prevail.