Saturday, December 10, 2005

On Merit

Markos on Daily Kos is selecting new guest bloggers for the next year. His post on the topic said this:

I made my decisions, like I have in the past, based on two factors -- the first is merit. I don't concern myself with sex, race, ethnicity, or any of that stuff.

The blogosphere is different from real world in that neither Markos nor anyone else really knows a person's sex, race or ethnicity. Even those who state that they are, say, white men, may be lying. There is no way of knowing. I might be a thirteen year old boy with spots, typing away in my mom's basement.

So the gentle way of interpreting Markos's comments is that he can be objective because there is no data to bias him. A less gentle interpretation is that Markos believes merit to be easily distinguishable from "any of that stuff", even in contexts other than the internet. Sadly, this is also the way most discriminatory acts are justified. No bigot is ever going to state that he or she decided to bypass a minority candidate or a woman even though they had greater merit. I am not calling Markos a bigot, of course, far from it. But it's useful to remember that the merit-defense doesn't have the squeaky clean history he seems to assume by using it.

Orchestras hardly ever hired women until auditions used a screen that hid the auditioner from the judges. I very much doubt that the judges in the pre-screen days thought themselves biased. Rather, they probably felt totally objective and neutral in their choices. But the screens made a difference. This is a salutary reminder of the fact that bias can be unconscious.

The interesting question is whether the anonymity of the internet serves as a screen. I'd call it a screen with holes, because there are ways in which a person can provide information on his or her gender or race, and these ways may influence those who are judging. Consider, for example, the handle you adopt. Someone calling themselves "Kute Kitten" is going to be seen as a young woman, someone calling themselves "Terminator" is going to be seen as a militant man. And so on. I doubt that many men select feminine names for their internet cruising. But quite a few women do, and this may have an impact on someone judging the person's output.

Likewise, the topics that someone writes on frequently can offer cues about gender and race, and so can the way that "someone" comments on topics written by others. Our life experiences inform the points we make. A man is unlikely to comment quite like a woman on topics such as abortion or sexual harassment. Anyone really adamant on finding whether some blogger is a man or a woman could probably succeed. It might be a little harder to establish a person's race but with enough available material even that should be feasible.

Add to this the fact that most bloggers and commenters are quite open about their gender and ethnicity, and the possibility of bias on the internet grows. Once again, I'm not implying any bias on Markos's part, just noting that merit is a tricky thing to judge, even in the blogosphere, and the judgement itself may not be wholly unrelated to gender, race, ethnicity and "any of that stuff".