By Troy Headrick
After I’d posted “Practicing Patience,” Betul Erbasi and I had a really interesting exchange. (By the way, Betul is one of Pointless Overthinking’s regular contributors and a Turk who is working on her PhD at the University of Southern California.) The topic of this conversation was anger and American culture. I pointed out that I have felt really angry since returning to my home country four years ago. I then went further and said that Americans, in general, seem very short-tempered and frustrated.
Betul responded by commenting that “America is driven by a desire to be at the top all the time, including the individuals. That probably makes people angrier. You have to do things otherwise you fall behind. A lot of competition. We don’t really have that much of it in Turkey, not to this extent.”
From that moment forward, I knew what my next PO blog post would be about. I’d examine the role that competition plays in shaping the American worldview and culture. And I’d argue that such an obsession with winning does real damage to the nation and the mental health of its citizenry.
It’s currently American football season. That means millions of Americans will be spending large chunks of their Saturdays and Sundays cheering on their favorite football teams as they “do battle” on the gridiron. If you Google “sports and American culture,” you’ll find page after page of links to articles that demonstrate how profoundly American culture is shaped by competitive sports. Anyone who’s lived in the United States for any length of time knows that the country is really sports crazy. In fact, on George Mason University’s Sport and American Culture website, the author argues that “Sports matter in American history and in modern American culture. Our interest in sport reaches across dividing lines of age, income, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Wherever we go and whoever we meet, the world of sport gives us something in common—a shared language. It’s no surprise, then, that the study of sport gives us unique insights into American life.”
In a country where sports are incredibly important, elections are referred to as “races” and “contests,” and rich people are thought of as “winners” with the poor being viewed as “losers.” American capitalism is viewed as the gold standard as far as economic systems are concerned because it reenacts what takes places on the athletic pitch, field, or court. The “fittest” survive and thrive because they are able to crush their adversaries. The big swallow up the little. The most powerful and the fastest beat their opponents to the punch. Few rise, many fall. Those who rise are treated like heroes and are often richly rewarded for their prowess.
In a world where all are at war with all, most will lose if we define winning as beating others. The stakes couldn’t be higher in such a situation. If one doesn’t win, one runs the risk of going hungry, being unemployed, losing the “deal,” not making the sale (and thus the commission), being looked upon as an economic failure (or loser), and so on and so forth.
But what would happen if we began to focus more on cooperation rather than competition? What if the winner was the one who was able to establish the most allies and friends, to build the biggest network, create the kind of conditions that nurtured the value of a “common good” rather than individual achievement?
In such a case, would there be fewer “losers”? What if we got rid of the whole notion that the world is made up of those who “win” and those who “lose”? How would life be different? Would humans be less stressed? Would they be happier? Would there be more peace and prosperity? Would prosperity even matter anymore?
All questions worth pondering and discussing.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.