Imagine a couple of people, all right, two blokes (just for the sake of simplicity), racing each other. Both of them are average-looking, not athletic but not on the pudgy side either, healthy and able-bodied. They are roughly the same age. Their race is a straightforward one: they must run as fast as they can for about fifty or sixty metres. Off they go. They both cross the finish line almost at the same time, give or take a second or two.
Now for the second part of the experiment, one of the men has his right hand tied behind his back. His left one is still free but his right hand is suddenly immobile. The other fella keeps both his hands free. They are asked to race each other again. You know what happens. The man with free hands beats the bloke whose right hand is tied behind his back. Not by a large margin, mind you, but still, he wins.
Now for the third part of the experiment. This time, the same man whose right hand we tied before will have his left one bound, too. Meanwhile his opponent still gets to keep both his hands free. They race each other. You know the outcome. This time the gap between both men as they cross the finish line is bigger.
Repeat the experiment adding layers of movement limitation to the first man, whilst still keeping the second one impediment-free. At some point, bind both hands and feet and tell the first bloke to believe that he can still run. He will probably look at himself and think that he can’t, but you must insist that he come up with a strategy to run, because, guess what, he can! Get him to visualise the finish line, all the time believing that he has the same opportunity as his fellow racer. Introduce another change while you’re at it. As soon as the contest starts, and taking advantage of the slow pace that the bound man will have to adopt due to his physical restrictions, walk as close as possible to him and whisper in his ear. Not words of encouragement, on the contrary, tell him how lazy he is, what a good-for-nothing he is, compare him to the other runner who is faster, more agile and more efficient.
To wit, convince him that he only has himself to blame for failing to win this competition.
With slight variations (but just ever so slight!) this is the scenario that has been playing out in front of our eyes for many years now. If the way to judge a society is the way it treats its more vulnerable citizens, what are we to make of modern polities in which ruthless competition wins over looking after the elderly and the disabled? Over those who, for whatever reason, cannot compete at the same level as the rest of us?
Is competition ever beneficial? Like most abstract questions, the answer is also of an abstract nature. It is beneficial, in my opinion, if the goal is for the common good. It is also productive is the process does not lead to an erosion of our human values. Rivalry between two science faculties can be a catalyst for the discovery of a new drug that could save lives. Competition between two drugs companies to see which one gets a larger chunk of the market puts those same lives at risk and renders human life cheap and expendable.
In education, the field in which I work, competition has often been discussed as a tool to spur students on to excel. Whilst the motive is a noble one, the reality is different. If like the second man in my example, your hands are free and there is no limitation to your movements, it is likely that you will succeed in life. If, on the other hand, your hands and feet are tied, you will fall at the first obstacle. To me the question here is: what do I, as a society, do to pick you up and make sure that, not only you have an input in how we run our affairs, but also that your contribution is equally acknowledged?
There are several ways to answer that question, but not one of them is simple. They all have their own complexities, supporters and detractors. Solution number one is to tie at least one of the hands of the second man. However why should you do that, he could fairly protest, when he had nothing to do with the predicament of his adversary in the first place? You could cut the ropes of the first fella and have him back as he was at the beginning of the race at the same level playing field. Again, there’s the question that maybe the physical restrictions that slowed down his movements were not caused, as in manually caused, by anyone, they just appeared.
As someone who believes in evolution I’m aware of the Darwinian theory and how competition plays a vital part in it. Competition is in our DNA, it is the driving force behind the nice car, nice house and nice family many people strive to have. The desiderata of our modern times. But what makes us humans, too, is the realisation that we are not alone in this world and that racing ahead whilst leaving someone behind crawling on the ground towards the finish line might have the kind of long-term side effects that could jeopardise our well-being in the future.
|But, what if you tied his hands to his back?|
Competition without a back-up plan is a race towards disaster. The examples speak for themselves: the sweatshop that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, the many cases of doping in sport in recent years and the banking crisis in 2008. The leitmotif running through them is the same, cut corners and you will pull ahead, pull ahead and you will succeed, succeed and you will be respected. And so on, forever and ever.
As I wrote before, there are no easy answers to the questions I posed before and the examples I used. In an ideal world (and you probably know by now how much I dislike utopias), the second runner would stop and, on seeing his opponent with both hands and feet tied, would help him get to the finish line. Not caring one jot who was first or second. Sadly, that world looks further and further away.
Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 24th September at 11:59pm (GMT)