We’ve all heard of antiquity’s most famous philosopher, Socrates (469-399 BCE) of ancient Greece—the first moral philosopher and father of Western philosophy. But few of us have probably heard of his teacher and a most influential female philosopher, rhetorician, and writer, Aspasia of Miletus (470-410 BCE). 

Aspasia operated a salon, which her critics claimed was a brothel. She also established a girl’s school, which they also branded a brothel.

But according to Plutarch (ca. 45–120 CE), the philosopher, historian, and priest at the Temple of Apollo, her salon was an intellectual centre—teaching philosophy and rhetoric—attracting prominent thinkers and writers, including Socrates, from all parts of the ancient world. 

The renowned writer of history and philosophy, Will Durant (1885-1981), wrote of Aspasia in his book The Life of Greece that “Socrates marvelled at her eloquence.” 

Aspasia would eventually become Pericles’s lover and, thus, “the uncrowned queen of Athens“. Pericles (495–429 BCE) was the brilliant general, orator, politician, and patron of the arts that governed at the time of the golden age of Athenian culture. 

According to the historian Thucydides, Pericles was” the first citizen” of a democratic Athens. Perhaps, then, it was only fitting that Aspasia and Pericles would become lovers.

But because of her intelligence and beauty and seemingly inappropriate influence over Pericles, Aspasia soon became the target of derogatory slurs. She was repeatedly attacked by Athens’s statesmen—as if the influence of a woman was bewitching and not to be tolerated. 

The famed comic poet Eupolis called Aspasia a “whore and mother to a bastard”. Another of the famous comic poets, Cratinus, referred to her as “a dog-eyed concubine”. 

Such was life for a strong-minded and intelligent woman in what was probably the most democratic and civilised city in the ancient world. It was far from a meritocracy.

Sexist slurs: from subtle to slut shaming

Meritocracy is the name given to the hiring method used by Australia’s finance, law, and tech companies, which aim to recruit the best graduates and turn them into multimillionaires. 

It’s also what we call the well-trodden path that connects private schools to Parliament House. Although this path is open to all, as a general rule, women must negotiate several more obstacles than men. 

Subtle slurs, and not-so-subtle slurs, usually dispensed by men and aimed at women, represent one of these obstacles and have been around since the time of Aspasia. 

The more subtle slurs by politicians, the church, and by some women include: “women should be kept barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen,” and “a woman’s place is in the home”. 

In religion and politics, the conservative class tells us that women should be deferential and docile—subservient to men. 

In the early 90s, even allowing women to become priests became a legal battle of whether they should be allowed to speak on behalf of God. The consensus being that women have no place in politics or at the pulpit.

There have also been attempts at humorous slurs by males. These include “life’s a bitch and then you marry one”, and you “run like a girl,” “fight like a girl,” or “hit like a girl”. And young males now use the term “female” as a derogatory directive, such as, “female, grab me a drink while you’re there”!

The ugly act of “slut shaming”, however, is an attack laced with the most acerbic slurs such as “slut”, “bitch,” “c***”, “slag”, and “whore”. Words designed to shame a young girl or woman into modifying their behaviour in line with some predetermined expectation. 

Author and journalist Julia Baird summed up the conformist-style of indoctrination succinctly when she wrote in her autobiography about growing up in a conservative Sydney. 

Under the doctrine of the Anglican church and gender inequality, she recalls the repressive dogma propagated by the clergy: “Young girls brimming with hormones were warned not to tempt men with the way we dressed. We were told to marry young and submit to our husbands. We were cautioned against the distraction of social justice, about the evils of ambition, the selfishness of career, the ugliness of feminism.”

But sexism isn’t always so in-your-face. The award-winning journalist and social critic Jessica Bennet, the author of Feminist Fight Club (2016), writes that “Recognising sexism is harder than it once was. Like the microaggressions that people of colour endure—today’s sexism is insidious, casual, politically correct, even friendly.” It’s hard to pinpoint and not particularly overt … the kind that makes you wonder if you only imagined it.

Meritocracy: the ideal by which we shall all be judged

In recent times, the word meritocracy has been bandied about like a lump of coal in Parliament House. It wasn’t invented until 1956 when it appeared in the British journal Socialist Commentary, in which it described a farcically unequal state that no one in their right mind would want to live in.

The social-democratic polymath Michael Dunlop Young further defined it in his 1958 dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy. A satire aimed at inspiring one to reflect upon the foolishness of meritocratic life. Young argued that meritocracy would only end up perpetuating life’s inequalities. 

As he wrote in Chapter Five: The Golden Age of Equality: “I have in the first part of this book reviewed the means by which our modern élite [politico-elite] has been established, and what a splendid result it is! No longer is it just the brilliant individual who shines forth; the world beholds for the first time the spectacle of a brilliant class, the five per cent of the nation who know what five per cent means…. Now I turn, in the second part, to consider from the same point of view, the consequences of progress for the lower class, and, as I have said, particularly for those born into it.”

Young goes on to declare that “… even when they have abandoned hope themselves, all parents have been solaced by the knowledge that, however low their IQ or their economic predicament, their child (or grandchild) will have the chance to enter the meritocracy.” 

That is, parents whose own aspirations have been thwarted are always hopeful that their children can achieve what they couldn’t achieve themselves. 

Thus, the meritocracy is painted as something separate and probably inaccessible for those born into the “lower class”—a dystopia. 

Needless to say, the meaning of meritocracy has become timeless—an abstract ideal against which all of us will be judged along with the imperfections of our society, as Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield, Ansgar Allen, wrote in his 2011 paper Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy: A Philosophical Critique.

Our promiscuous parliamentarians: to believe or not to believe

Politics is one place where the ignominies of a meritocracy have been laid bare. At the pointy end of politics, “victim shaming” is a common strategy to avert blame. The expectation of which acts as a passive oppressor against victims reporting an offence.

This brings us to the polemic diatribe of the last month aimed at our promiscuous parliamentarians. We have been inundated with a series of accounts of alleged sexual misconduct and sexist slurs—as opposed to the typical professional misconduct that our politico-elites perpetrate daily. 

The offenders are male politicians and staffers. The victims are female politicians and staffers—both current and past. 

Most of these claims have emanated from the Liberal Coalition Morrison Government. Labor has similar issues, but to a much lesser degree, it seems.

Claims of sexual abuse and misconduct are perhaps the most disbelieved and dismissed of all criminal and less serious offences. Conversely, studies indicate that about 95 percent of reported sexual assault allegations are true. Meaning, that in these instances, it is highly improbable that a victim’s claims are false. 

Which also means, that in cases of alleged sexual assault, although a presumption of innocence must hold precedence, evidence suggests that the alleged perpetrator is probably, but not unequivocally, guilty. 

But what has been most problematic for our PM Scott Morrison is his spectacular failure to adequately respond to, address, factualise, contextualise etc., these alleged claims. To take them seriously by instituting a meaningful action. Although he portends to do so, trust in our PM is also at a spectacular low.

Needless to say, the belated broadening of the Sex Discrimination Act to “finally” include politicians and judges is only a first step. 

Mindful that the claims of sexual misconduct and outright sexist slurs place Scott Morrison in one very conspicuous predicament: if he judges the alleged perpetrator’s testimony as credible, he automatically judges the victim’s testimony false. Hence the universal shouts of “you’re not listening”! 

His failure to adequately respond has also prompted the question: would men in high places even take the time to read the accounts of sexual abuse and harassment suffered by women at the hands of men?

Which prompts another question: is now the time for an honest discussion about who we value in society, along with our perceived notions of what work we value, not as consumers or as a meritocracy, but as a society?

In the true sense of the word, meritocracy is a myth

The fact is, meritocracy is a myth. Social or political systems that reward individuals with the wealth that these systems have played a central role in creating, only increase inequality. It doesn’t promote social mobility, and its privilege is passed down through generations.

Meritocracy works against altruism. Instead of everyone sharing in prosperity as per the traditional model of a civilised society, your merit, or individual worth as a commodity, is judged by your ability to get ahead of everyone else. 

Gender, of course, plays a part. As philosopher Miranda Fricker wrote in her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice, “power is a socially situated capacity to control others’ actions” and historically, males have more social power than females. That is, having one X and one Y chromosome is a distinct advantage.

This is the neoliberal meritocracy in which all aspects of life are designed around an entrepreneurial competition. It’s the system that brought us the 2007-08 global financial crisis, the 2020 to who-knows-when COVID-19 pandemic, a climate change crisis, critical biodiversity loss, obscene inequality, and other crises like death by domestic violence.

The renowned political philosopher and Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University Law School, Michael J. Sandel, argued in his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good: that the all-too-human factor of “hubris” further erodes our concept of a meritocracy. When those that rise to the top—defined by their income and social status—believe they got there via their own agency and merit, it also follows that those destined for the bottom are there because they deserve it.

That is, today’s society is firmly fixated on “you get what you deserve”. Exemplified by the kind of wisdom our PM freely dispenses: “a fair go for those who have a go”! 

This, in country where your performance at school, and life’s opportunities thereafter, is heavily reflective of the postcode you live in.

As the influential political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) wrote in her 1954 essay The Crisis in Education: “Meritocracy contradicts the principle of equality, of an equalitarian democracy, no less than any other oligarchy.” 

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.