We Must Be Competitive, Mustn’t We? (Part 2)

This subject has created some healthy debate, as I expected it would. Writing as one who has never been competitive, or seen the need for competition other than for purely recreational use – I enjoyed the occasional game of soccer as a lad, and raced sailing dinghies at my local yacht club – but never felt the ‘competitive edge’ to win, win, win……pushed as a vital factor for success, especially in the USA where it has been honed to a fine artform.

The problem with competition: it creates only one winner, but many losers. It is, in that sense, self-defeating as a social tool. Jo, in an excellent essay (see her comment to the previous post) writes of the demise of Sports Day in British schools and mourns the passing.

I don’t.

What purpose does it serve? As a day of fun? Never, as I remember. As a means of physical exercise? There are plenty of other ways to activate kids physically. To teach them ‘someone has to lose the race’? I think they learn that from a very young age without the need to be ostracized for lack of physical prowess.

The desire or need to compete is, I believe, an instinctive remnant from our reptilian brain. Compete to survive – for food, for mates – survival of the fittest. Our reptilian brain is tiny compared to the mass that has evolved around it, yet for much of our social interaction we turn more and more inwards to our basic instincts for survival. The human race still competes for food, leaving the weakest hungry and the most powerful fat-bellied. TV programs entertain by fostering hero worship of individuals prepared to play the dirtiest games to reach the top job or the most powerful position, scattering weaker mortals to the winds in the process.

Is this the way we wish to continue living? It’s unlikely to work for us much longer. Corporate competition between nations is causing such a lack of government action to avert global catastrophe, it is only a matter of time before the planet teaches us a severe lesson in how bad competition really is for the human soul.

Why do we need to be the best; the greatest; the most powerful? Would an individual’s life in America be worse if the US was just another nation among a similar group of nations, working and cooperating with each other to provide the best for everyone. I doubt it. In fact, I believe the quality of life would be much, much better for everyone.

Yes, I know that to some degree I’m preaching idealism, but if we are ever to evolve beyond our present status as self-opinionated apes with a technological bent, we have to define and begin to eliminate the fundamental, inherent instincts of our ancestors that are holding us back. I believe the distorted, competitive, survival instincts we nurture to weave our way through the social structures we’ve created, have a hugely negative effect on those structures, causing them to constantly tear and fall apart.

War is the ultimate example. War is no more than a competition of brute strength, yet it totally destroys whole sections of our societal fabric, both physically and psychologically.

To what end? So the victor can strut about like a farmyard cock, and see the loser humiliated and broken.

The very act of proving oneself better than another, by inference implies the inferiority of the loser. When this occurs on a national scale the trend is to view other nations as inferior. This was the case with Adolf Hitler’s Germany pre-WW2, and has shown itself to be a factor in the invasion of Iraq. The atrocities of Abu Ghraib and the more recent killing of innocent Iraqis by Blackwater employees are just two of many obvious examples.

Children in the US today are taught that being a ‘good’ American means being a winner. Good sportmanship; the pleasure of playing the game for its own sake, is well down the list of priorities. More and more American athletes are using drugs to enhance their performances. So many in fact, that even when the least likely, like Marion Jones, admit to such indiscretions, no-one is really shocked anymore.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not advocating the banning of all competitive games. Competition, properly harnessed, can be fun and have positive attributes, but when all that matters is winning, the fun vaporizes and the longterm effects can be disastrous.

In most areas of our lives cooperation, rather than competition, between communities and nations at all levels would produce a better world for every one of us.

So I’ll stick with my bumper sticker:

“Cooperation’s Cool, Competition’s for Clods.”

Unless, of course, you can persuade me otherwise.

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19 Replies to “We Must Be Competitive, Mustn’t We? (Part 2)”

  1. I’m late to the discussion, but found the previous post and comments very enlightening, RJ. I’m with you on almost everything you’ve written.

    The only competition I enjoy is with myself, to do the best I can, whatever I’m engaged in. I’ve always had a blind spot for sport of all kinds. I have to admit to entering a few writing competitions in my younger days, a poem for Children’s Hour, and a slogan to win a holiday – I won the latter ! But I had no idea with whom I was competing , so it’s a little different from straight-forward competition between individuals – and it was completely materialistic!

    I admire the way you’ve moved from discussing the “micro” aspect to the “macro” – war. The vilest competition ever devised by humans.

    The part of your essay relating specifically to America is interesting. I hadn’t looked on things in exactly that way, RJ. I’m a little wary of jumping to conclusions about it. The USA is so vast and varied, as are its people.
    I don’t think we can tar ’em all with the same brush. I suspect there are as many non-competitive individuals as competitive ones. I’m married to a very non-competitive type, and have not yet detected any intense competitive streaks in any of his family.

    Rather than the competitive instinct, I put most of the blame for all of the ills of the USA on the brain-washing of ordinary people by media, religion and politicians.

  2. I continue to feel that what you have struck here is a false dichotomy.

    In the previous thread, I omitted elaborating on the Boy Scouts of America. BSA is a non-competitive route for boys to mature through “COOPERATION”, and yet that is an organization that is rotten with supra-patriotism and homophobia.

    I am not impressed with your argument. Not at all.

    BTW, I still compete in yachting! What a marvelous feat of combining competition and cooperation. Each boat’s crew depends on its own, finely tuned internal chemistry. And the skippers of each boat, while competing, depends on their confidence of the seamanship and Corinthian sportsmanship of the others. Because, it is – really – a question of life and death out there, in the ocean. And then you add in tje element of nature, the ultimate competitor in yacht racing, and you have a superb day of competition and cooperation. The fun is in competition on the water and companionship in the bar.

    A purely cooperative experience would be day-sailing or cruising which I find mind-numbingly boring. Yucchhhh!

  3. This is my pet peeve. The “spirit of competition” is sacred to Americans and sports analogies and cliches are everywhere because it fits into the free market thinking that competition breeds excellence ie. Walmart. I just thank our priorities are wacko when schools are supposed to make kids able to earn a living and sports (recreation) gets the money and the prestige. Schools are continually cutting programs to save money, but they never touch sports. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that everyone should exercise and that pushing kids to get out of the house is neglected. Competitive sports are selective and the majority of kids are not included. Because these athletic kids are made to be the school heroes rather than the ones who excell academically, we can only assume school exists to give sports a venue. Just last night, our TV news had a piece on steroid use in schools as boys are so desperate to make the team.

    On the same subject, forgive me for pasting this old entry of mine:

    I have a small bookselling business and I am struck by the huge supply of romance books. Just out of curiousity (I swear it was just that) I read a couple. They are all slight variations of the same storyline. Girl meets bad boy, girl is separated from bad boy, girl rejoins bad boy(who is really misunderstood) and lives happily ever after. It struck me that romance books and sports share a lot in common. Now first let me admit my bias. I think both are goofy and a waste of time and money. Like romance books, sports have the same story over and over – boys (usually) chase some ball or puck around for about an hour in an arena costing an average of $188 million (I’m not sure what a golf course costs).

    Both sports and romance books fulfill fantasies – the sports fan (who often played – or wished they could- in their youth) and the reader (who often had – or wished they had – romance in their youth) relive the excitement of participation and both sports and romance audiences are insatiable. Both neglect to enrich the fan in any way as no one is any smarter, stronger, or richer for having read or watched the same event repeatedly.

    According to Wikipedia, In North America in 2002, sales of romance novels generated $1.63 billion and comprised 34.6% of all popular fiction sold. Over 2000 romance novels were published, and there were 51.1 million romance novel readers. I could not find the total cost of sports but when you factor in school gymnasiums, coach salaries at the school level, sports injuries, costs of city stadiums and player salaries, gambling on the outcome, newspaper sports pages and their reporters, and the number of fans buying tickets to watch the ball chasing, I am sure you would be impressed.

    The $185 million cost of renovating the New Orleans Superdome was mostly covered by refinancing existing bonds and FEMA money while the city has hardly been touched. The priorities of this country are really screwed up when fantasy has a higher priority than reality.

  4. Recently, during an increasingly heated discussion elsewhere online, I pointed out to a middle aged American that had it not been for Russia’s WW2 cooperation (and incredible sacrifice), then America along with the UK would have been ‘on the losing side’.

    The American lady’s reaction was first one of outrage and disbelief. But two days later she contacted me to tell me that I had promted her to do some simple online research, and was amazed (to say the least) with the results.

    Further conversation soon convinced me that as well educated as she was, she (honestly), had absolutely no idea of the reality of those times. But that wasn’t her fault – it was the fault of her supposed elders and betters. Moreover, she immediately determined to share her recently aquired enlightenment – as far & wide as possible.

    To coin a phrase, that made my day. If I achieved nothing else even remotely worwhile that day, it was, I firmly believe, a very good day. Yep, that day I had truly had the poverbial ‘nice one’ – and I loved it.

    Right now, there are almost certainly well over two hundred million more Americans like her.

    Moral of my story? Worldwide, ‘we the people”s worst common enemy is ‘ignorance’. That’s always the botton line no matter how it’s dressed up. But the saddest thing of all is that it’s always our own respective politicians who work hardest at trying to ensure that their own particular ‘munchkins’ remain in the state of bliss that is ignorance.

    In my own (not so) humble, fairly well informed opinion, of course.

  5. Me Again, the pest. Cooperation gave us the internet (and yes most of the funding came from bills Gore sponsored). Competition gave us the end of manufacturing (and a great deal of the demise of the middle class) in America.

  6. Any one who knows me, knows I do not feel uncomfortable among a circle of American bashers. I just don’t like to get too comfortable. But I am not a ‘Hate-America-First dude. I am a Despise-Busheney-First-Last-and-Forever type of dude. That said, let me say a couple of things before I wear out my ‘flimsy’ welcome:

    1. I think a problem with Liberals (American and European) is that they are too tolerant, too open to all ideas, uncritically accepting of everything that comes their way. They are too COOPERATIVE, and they are cooperating in the demise of their open society as we speak. Progressives, however, tend to be more disciplined, have a long-term agenda (disagreements are at least focused), set priorities and exercise discipline as to what they will not allow to distract them in the near term. They are COMPETITIVE. They warm to the competition.

    2. I would argue that what is wrong with America, (one of the things) is the lack of competition. Actually, the lack of a competitive or level playing field. This has to do with the absolutely fucking (excuse me!) destruction of the middle class, among other things, too many to detail here.

    Competitive Progressives will have to get a handle on this and soon. Cooperative Liberals are like herded cats.

    End of sermon.

    (BTW, I like all of the comments in this thread.)

  7. I think Vigilante is quite right about Liberals in the USA. They do need to be more assertive (competitive if you like). I can see, from comments at Common Dreams and elsewhere, that there IS an upcoming Progressive surge of younger left-leaners though. Whether they’ll gain enough momentum to make a difference in time is questionable though.

    More need to follow the tracks of Dennis Kucinich.

  8. Once again, a fascinating selection of comments and views on this subject.

    Twilight – generalizations (tarring with a broad brush) can prove too all-embracing, I agree, but I believe the sum of individual psyches make up the psyche of the nation, so while agreeing that many Americans resist the temptation to turn inwards to their competitive survival instincts, an urge that is certainly propagated by the media, religion, and politicians, a majority see a strong competitive urge as the only way of winning, and winning as the ultimate goal to be achieved at all costs. One example is that of political commentators who, despite all the criticism of the Iraq war, stubbornly insist “losing is not an option”, even though none can accurately define what either ‘losing’ or ‘winning’ actually entails.

    Anan – how on earth do you find all these excellent websites?

    Flimsy – never a pest! Your comments are very relevant. Schools do seem prepared to sacrifice academic education in favor of sport and it’s a policy destined only to induce decline. I believe it is all part of the overall political doctrine that “America is the best and must continually prove itself the best” even when so obviously it is not, and never was – at least, not in every sense. Unfortunately, the doctrine of competitiveness has led to ‘best’ becoming synonymous with ‘all-powerful’.

    TOB – aha! That’s history not taught in US schools. Similarly, many Americans will tell you that after they saved Britain from becoming a Nazi state(!), the Marshall Plan was an act of unrivaled benevolence and unselfish generosity. No mention of the desperate need for a strong foundation in Europe to repel the Red Commie Menace, or that the Plan (as Chomski states) “…set the stage for large amounts of private U.S. investment in Europe, establishing the basis for the modern Transnational Corporations.”

    Vigilante – you express controversial comments occasionally, but you’ll not wear out your welcome here by doing so.

    Regarding the BSA, whenever a group of people cooperate the effects can be positive or negative, dependent on the purpose. The Hitler Youth were a prime example of the latter. Cooperation of itself has neither a positive nor negative quality. However, when I write of cooperation, it is with a view to achieving a more positive world, rather than a negative one. The destruction of the American middle class is due to extremes of competitiveness, rather than any lack of it. Class structure is shaped as a pyramid, with the (relatively) few ‘winners’ crowded into the narrow, top-most point, where they maintain their exalted position by parasitically feeding from the lower levels (i.e. Sam Walton’s stinking rich because individual Americans spend a relatively few dollars in Walmart each week). I’m not suggesting the principle’s necessarily wrong, only that with less competition for wealth and more cooperation, Sam Walton could get by with a little less, and some of his wealth could be redirected back down the pyramid to assist those most in need at the bottom. I can remember a time in Britain when many factory owners took pride in caring for their workers, providing them cheap housing and many other benefits. Some built whole villages for their employees. Greed and competition has wiped them all away. In the US, workers rights are being eroded continuously to feed more profit to the top of the pyramid. A change of president, even a change of political party in power is unlikely to drastically reverse that situation.

    Finally, I would suggest that making a move away from political pigeonholing would be a cooperative improvement in this nation. In my book, a Liberal is someone more likely to embrace change than a rigid Conservative, who remains glued to outdated values even when they are defunct and no longer serve any purpose other than to hold back societies from evolving into less rigid structures. Incidentally, you’ll find the definition of a Liberal in Europe far different than that of America, where the term is still viewed by many as a dirty word. There are extremist Liberal views, just as there are extreme right-wing stances. In my opinion, most reasonable people are happy to sit somewhere in the middle.

  9. Twilight – aha, you slipped that one in while I was writing. It could be argued that the left in America lacks competitiveness, but might that be because much of the left (excluding the extremists) is more free-thinking and less effected by the indoctrinations of educational policies, a right-leaning media, and the mind-deadening doctrines of the religiots? Why is support for Dennis Kucinich so low? Because the inherent desire to applaud competitiveness in this country, even among the bulk of Democrat supporters, draws them to the ultra-competitive Hillary Clinton. There surely can be no doubt that of the two, Kucinich would make the better leader, more able to bring peace to this world by cooperation with other nations rather than aggressively competing to be the most powerful among them? Yet still, they prefer combative Hillary.

  10. RJ – yes you’re exactly right about the reason Clinton is so far ahead of Kucinich – I can see that now. Thanks for the insight. I think the media has a lot to answer for in that respect, too. So many people here just will NOT think for themselves. Americans like to see themselves as rugged individuals (a la John Wayne), but they act like a lot of sheep. Now I’m generalising. It’s tempting, especially when one feels so frustrated with it all.

  11. Me Again. The reason competition is so attractive is that it strokes the ego. It seems to me that people are more interested in singing their name than in getting a task done, that is why research is often stolen or falsified in even in science (see book, Case of the Midwife Toad). When people can band together (say religion) is when we get things like the pyramids and huge cathedrals. They can cooperate for an imaginary being, but they cannot cooperate for ideas, they want credit for those.

  12. Twilight – Eee, by ‘eck, lass, it’d be reet bad ter leave out ole Titus!

    Glad you got my point, and yes, it is tempting to generalize. Thankfully, I’m kept from doing it too much by the many wise, deep-thinking Americans who read this blog. They remind me not all are sheep.

    Flimsy – yes, Flimsy, I mean folk like you – never short of a few words of wisdom.

  13. Competition was vital to civilisation for thousands of years, while the technology still kept the vast majority in a state of perpetual manual labour.
    But for generations now, technology has made drudgery irrelevant, and universal security possible.
    So the driving force of any future sustainable civilisation must be co-operation, rather than competition. The prosportions need to be reversed to harness the natural genetic predisposition to social altruism, which made us human in the first place.

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