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Chris Wallace: The Winner-Takes-All Society

March 25, 2014

Competition drives our sports, our arts, and our lives. It doesn't need to be that way.

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Image from Flickr via streetwalker

By Chris Wallace

It’s from Vince Lombardi, the Dorothy Parker of quotable coaches, that we have the sort of anti-maxim, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And, as if that weren’t trenchant, and tautological enough, he went on to say, “if winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”

They’re rather wonderful lines, especially because we recognize the thinking behind them; we readily accept the idea that, of course, winning is the point… of football, basketball, and maybe everything else. To the winner go the spoils. Winner takes all.

It is implicit, at the very least, and seemingly self-evident within our proudly roughhouse capitalist system, that #winning is the best—and, indeed that capitalism itself is in place because of its supreme merit, that in the free market of political systems it won. But, circular reasoning aside, athletic contests do keep score to determine a winner, and our televised broadcasts of these sports themselves then compete for ratings with “reality” shows, which make the game of life expressly competitive for its contestants, so as to better differentiate the Winners from the Losers. These shows compete with challenges, elections, sweeps, and award ceremonies—which declare winners among artistic artifacts, the better to market them (to win at the box office). There is nothing, it seems, not even the battle to beat cancer, that isn’t framed in the language and philosophy of competition.

What we compete for cannot be shared—that’s why we compete for it.

This madness is with us year round, of course, not just in March. But there is nothing like the NCAA tournament that dominates this month to remind us of the hysterical commitment to competition in our country—to reinforce the seeming necessity of declaring a victor, whether in sports or, as in the recently ended Oscar craze, the arts.

It is a mad proposition, of course, to declare the historical epic 12 Years a Slave Best Picture over the SciFi thriller Gravity, or over any of the other wildly disparate contenders for this year’s trophy. How is this grading different than declaring a best sunset, best mustache, top tickle, greatest daydream, or most exquisite meal? Except for the fact that the winning sunset/mustache/tickle/daydream wouldn’t be the beneficiary of a surge in DVD and VOD revenue, or any other fungible and finite reward.

And this is the crux of competition; it delivers a desired prize, even if only in the form of bragging rights over fellow racers. What we compete for cannot be shared, will not be shared, so dictateth the doctrine of competition—that’s why we compete for it. Oscar winners, it is assumed, drink the revenue milkshake, to borrow the phrasing from one such winner of other movies. And the reserves of success in this pessimistic worldview are half empty—rewards are rarified, and dwindling. What I win in our competition, you cannot have. Every sport is a zero sum game.

For Oscar competitors, for the teams in the March Madness tourney, winning is a binary proposition: You are successful, or not (“there are no prizes for second place”).

But, thankfully, for the rest of us, it needn’t be so.

In one of Ray Carney’s great books about John Cassavetes the director is quoted making a point that creatives of any stripe—filmmakers, writers, visual artists, actors (he’s speaking broadly about the theatre)—ought to support others working within their field. As opposed to the Daniel Plainview philosophy of the finite and vulnerable milkshake, it was Cassavetes’s view that supporting a friend’s play increases the success of all plays, improves the culture of play-going in general, ultimately benefitting your own off-off Cherry Orchard. He believed that enthusiasm and support in themselves could grow the pot, could marshal relevance and success for their subjects.

The pursuits of art, and, frankly, most of the good stuff in life, are like the candle in the Buddha’s story, capable of lighting thousands of other candles at no expense to itself.

To put it another way, “in the ‘live arts,’ participatory investment, as it accumulates, increases the monetary value of the product. You increase the value of an artwork just by buying it,” or buying a ticket to see it, thus “increasing the social value of the things you love.” That’s art critic and theorist Dave Hickey.

So, rather than the Either/Or dynamic proposed by competition, success in an artistic endeavor, for Hickey or for Cassavetes, is infinitely available. Your theatrical depiction of a marital spat, say, or of the quicksilver of adolescence, the intoxication of lust, or desolation of addiction, may be true and wondrous without diminishing the truth and wondrousness of another’s story. Beauty and wisdom and lots of other lovely things are not zero-sum quantities. Nor are they relative, cast in contrast to their lack, like sunny days to rain. The pursuits of art, and, frankly, most of the good stuff in life, are like the candle in the Buddha’s story, capable of lighting thousands of other candles at no expense to itself.

***

At its core, the cult of competition believes that, in the new Thunderdome-style agora, the best will win out. It reveres dominance qua dominance, because competition, at its root, is motivated by fear and greed—which are really two versions of a perversion of the survival instinct. But, if it is painfully optimistic, imbuing a thuggish pit fight with the purity of an alchemical process turning the winner into gold, the cult is also guilty of the worst kind of cynicism. It assumes the world is out to get us, demanding that we harden ourselves against one another and everything else to survive.

But does competition make us, our ideas, our selves better? Does it separate the wheat from the chaff? Does the best team win the NCAA tournament, or does one of the better-funded, coached and trained squads merely survive through favorable match-ups, bounces of the ball, and sheer luck? And, is that survival the point to which we should be aspiring?

This culture becomes, over the ages, as generations inspired by their ancestors build upon their work, a staircase spiraling upward toward higher planes of being for our species.

Some would argue, of course, that we have no choice in the matter, that competition, like lust and hunger, is an inalienable part of our nature. I mean, aren’t we all just animals anyway? Well, yeah, wrote Carl Sagan, in Cosmos. But, we’re evolving beyond it. “Capping the brain stem,” Sagan wrote, “is the R-Complex, the seat of aggression, ritual, territoriality and social hierarchy, which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago in our reptilian ancestors. On the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex… It is the distinction of our species, the seat of our humanity. Civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.”

Sagan, the old crank, also strangely believed that the boons of our culture, our art, our exploration and expressions of our nature, came from what he called “collaborative work.” Not only that, but that this culture becomes, over the ages, as generations inspired by their ancestors build upon their work, a staircase spiraling upward toward higher planes of being for our species.

***

It very well may be that not all competition is war of attrition toward some sad, Pyrrhic victory—Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, for example, might have crossed quills to their mutual benefit. But let’s be cynical for a second: When triumph is the sole goal of endeavor, when all of the spoils go to the winner—when the totality of the grant, the funding, the contract, the Lombardi trophy or the White House, goes to the king of the hill—what corners won’t be cut, what research will be left un-tampered-with, what information not corrupted, what ecosystem not debilitated? Never mind the internecine damage done to the competitors—whether Jim McMahon or Joe Mortgage Middle Management—in the process.

Think of the poet’s happy accident, or the philosopher’s discursive trip to discovery. Stranger, in those woods of pure wonder and creativity you ought not tarry; here our highest good is winning.

Think, too, of the opportunity cost of those efforts, the explorations and wanderings of thought, experimentation and art, that didn’t happen, the roads not taken, for fear of failure. If her motivation were only to win the prize for best thought, or be rewarded for out-thinking another, would the philosopher have conceived her cosmology, or the mathematician the theorem? And what of the accidental discoveries, happened upon while wandering in the darkened woods of apparent or egregious failure? Think of the poet’s happy accident, or the philosopher’s discursive trip to discovery. Motivated by laurels, or triumph in competition, would Donne have taken such voluptuous labor in making his metaphors, would Epicurus have described hedonism? Stranger, in those woods of pure wonder and creativity you ought not tarry; here our highest good is winning.

Indeed, if we are to infer anything from the popular dystopias of our day, the queues outside showings of The Hunger Games might lead us to believe that there is something in the Battle Royale ethic of that series that reflects, closely, our own win-or-die climate. Even the “Games” in the title is telling—though, notice how that word has changed. Instead of the sense of play it once had, “games” now seems to imply a hustle, the ploy by some app provider to make itself more enticing (i.e. “gamification”), or a contest with grave stakes on the line (a sport, as in “bloodsport”).

The highest praise for an athlete these days seems to be, “he’s a great competitor.” Which means, what, exactly? He’s willing to do everything it takes to win? And… that’s a good thing? Every time I listen to some locker room testimonial about how great a competitor so-and-so is, what I really hear is, “He is willing to step on the face of his fellow man for a better medal.” Not that jocks can’t be nice people; I’m sure James Harrison is lovely. That’s just the way I hear it.

I was never a great competitor, it should be said, even as a college football player. When a close game had its shit-just-got-real moment, I invariably wanted to pack up my gear and go eat some orange wedges. As a kid, I always wondered why I couldn’t team up with my chess opponent. I wanted to play together, on the same team. I wanted it to be play, not competition.

I still do, and still think the great candle-lighter Prometheus got a raw deal. After all, what is more important than spreading the light?

Chris Wallace is Senior Editor at Interview Magazine. He contributes regularly to The Paris Review Daily and the New York Times among others.

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