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Sunday, 4 September 2016

Competition and Those Small People Other People Sometimes Produce

I think I should get a trophy for cropping the penis out of this picture of Agon

When I was five years old, I was a bit of a klutz. I wasn't very good at catching, couldn't run very fast and was basically a bit of a disaster waiting to happen. As I recall, my major talents were limited to walking into doors and falling flat on my face from a standing start.

On my fifth birthday, I remember being in a park with a bunch of children (I don't know where my parents sourced them from, but they seemed friendly enough) when somebody came up with the idea of having a running race. I believe I came second or third last, which made me very unhappy. My parents then organised a re-run of the race in which I was allowed to win. While I knew very well that this was a hollow victory, I was very pleased to accept it. This is because winning matters.

I was reminded of this when, against my better judgement, I agreed to catch up with an old friend at their male offspring's primary school athletics carnival. Despite there being nothing to eat, drink or set fire to at this event, I was still managing to have a fairly good time until I happened to notice that a race had just ended. It appears to have been a multi-directional dash over about thirty metres, ending at a forlorn tape line which only one intrepid mini-me had actually managed to hit.

I wasn't all that concerned at first, until I noticed that every single one of the eight children who had participated was placed on a specially built podium, and each given a ribbon and medal proclaiming them 'winners'. My friend just shrugged, telling me that this kind of thing was pretty well ubiquitous in Australian schools right now.

As you might expect, I have a serious problem with this.

Being unwilling to photograph other people's children,
I have sourced some random ones from Google.
Credit goes to Huff Post.
Let's leave aside the fact that the 'thinking' behind this kind of thing is often tea-candle, crystal-healing nonsense. Let's also leave aside the question of how beneficial it is to teach our precious proto-people that winning is meaningless and that therefore no effort to do so is really worthwhile...

Actually, let's not leave that aside.

I remember, years ago, stumbling across two Classical Greek ideas that have to do with this: 'agon' and 'arete'. These are probably best translated as 'competition' and 'excellence'. Central to the Greek conception of moral living was the idea that a citizen was required to strive for excellence, and to test this excellence in competition with others. This, more than anything else, was activity which would further the development of the individual and the polis. Now, these ideas aren't perfect. For a start, their foundation was breathtakingly sexist, and the idea of agon seems to have fuelled several centuries of incessant internecine warfare, but they have nevertheless been absorbed into the Western psyche.

This absorption has led to a great dichotomy in Western cultures - the conflict between the often self-effacing Judaeo-Christian tradition, and the brash, fame-seeking competitiveness of the Classical mentality. I've always been quite comfortable with this as I feel that, properly managed, one can nicely balance the other. In our rush to construct a more inclusive world on post-modern lines, I think we may have forgotten the 'properly managed' part.

I should point out that I'm not one of the weirdly angry brigade of people who seem to want children to suffer as much humiliation and disappointment as possible. But I do think that this kind of 'inclusion' is just flat-out lazy. It is eminently possible to inculcate a culture of healthy competition, where winners are reminded that their status is temporary, and losers that they could very well be winners tomorrow. This does, however, require a lot more work than just printing out a bunch of participation ribbons.

Here is your reward. May you find it fulfilling.

I can hear voices off telling me to just calm my tits down - that it's just kids running in more or less the same direction for no reason, which brings me back to my Kim Jong Un moment on my fifth birthday. It's not 'just' anything. Moments and memories like these inform our view of the world - lessons learnt from experiences like this are formative. The lesson I learnt was to never again allow myself to be in a position where I needed to be humoured in order to win. That what was required was maximum effort, and that this was by far the best way to improve my relationship with myself. God only knows what lessons are being derived from these non-competitive competitions, but I doubt they're particularly positive.

I guess it's not that big a deal. I suppose that it doesn't matter that we seem to be bent on creating a culture where we stroke ourselves for imagined victories, while simultaneously convincing ourselves that our various failures were in fact triumphs of the spirit. Sitting here in the West with our enormous piles of ill-gotten, disproportionate wealth, and our ludicrously high standards of living, it occurs to me that remaining competitive isn't really all that important. I'm sure that the rest of the world will ignore our self-indulgent non-competitiveness and allow us, out of similar generosity, to simply keep all that we have. Ideas of service, of striving for greatness, of competition - these are probably not the keystone or foundation of our civilisation. It's probably high time we dropped them in favour of a pathological unwillingness to hurt anyone's feelings for any reason at any given time.

I'm sure I'm just blowing things out of proportion, and that the values we inculcate in the very short are not at all performative when it comes to the shape of our future.

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