Sunday 21 September 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Here’s an experiment for you, lovely, deep-thinking people:

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.

© 2014

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 24th September at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Very true, like everything competition can be good and bad. Once money becomes involved though, it is never good. Always cut those corners to win and ruin lives in the process.

  2. This post really resonated with me, CiL.
    We see it every day, don't we...those people who strive to succeed at any cost? Who never give a thought to whom they step on in their race for supremacy...and, sadly, it is there in all walks of life, from the factory floor worker to the highest government official.
    But in fairness to human frailty, we are taught to be competitive from our first day in the school environment.

    Perhaps it is time for fundamental change at every stage of life...lessons in Humanity coming before all other subjects would be a good start in my opinion.
    Well...I guess we can live in hope!

    An extremely thought-provoking post, as ever...many thanks!

    Happy Sunday :)

  3. I listened to the music video Cubano, and enjoyed it, but wondered what language it was

  4. Oh yes. One of my daughters has dreadful eyesight, and the teachers took off her glasses (for safety) and then said she had to do the high jump - when she couldn't even see it - one of the many occasions I came into school to bat for her!

    Competition maybe a fact of life. But surely one day we'll grow out of the worst of its excesses and understand that we must care for the 'losers' - those who can never compete because they are frail or disabled or simply poor. Instead we have a government which insists they are responsible for their own poverty/disability and only a bit of a kicking will get them heading in the "right direction".

  5. I echo Pat Hatt's comment. Sending you a hug from Montreal.

  6. I have missed your quips and insights. Welcome back.

  7. Thanks for your comments.

    The language is Celtic, Lisa, and the singer is Scottish. I love her voice.

    Gretings from London.

  8. Ouch. Sadly our politicians are not only whispering in the ear of the bound runner, they are telling the assembled crowd how lazy that runner is. And it makes my heart hurt.

  9. I am not sure if it is idealism emerging from you, CiL, hope or "faith" (whoops) that the best in us will rise to the surface, or simply an optimistic nature. Some of each, probably, but I think you are attempting to remedy an external condition of life which has been/is/will be created through a fundamentally internal process: If and until mankind begins complex genetic engineering of itself, the situation you describe probably will continue on pretty much unchanged ad infinitum. Such a fundamental characteristic of the human psyche cannot be altered by either church or state.

    I would also argue that without this competitive (or survival of the fittest) drive, we, as a species, would not have survived even to this point. Besides being a dialectician by instinct, a pragmatist from experience and a fan of "writers" like Will Durant and Joseph Campbell by education, I think freedom and equality are opposing forces and the societal battle for one over the other will rise and fall like the waves of an ocean.

    Compassion, mercy, empathy and helping hands are fine, but I tend to fall on the side of the freedom group and think situations such as you describe are best determined by individuals individually. To add sort of an antithesis to your thesis, CiL, if a lion were chasing your two runners, for instance, and the stronger stopped to assist the weaker .... well, there ends the story of the march of civilization.

    Ah, here comes the sun (afternoon now for me) .... time to go outdoors. Thank you, CiL, for an enjoyable, interesting, thoughtful post.

  10. Society in general, often thinks differently (better) than it behaves (poorly). It's intensified in politics and media. Sad, but true.

  11. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, and super interesting example. I think part of the problem is that the rewards of "winning" as opposed to losing have become so extreme. There could be some competition--and honestly, it is somewhat a part of human nature--but to reward, let's say, a CEO with a pay package that is thousands times what a worker pays is just ridiculous and unfair. The value added by the CEO is not truly that much greater, and even if it were, the satisfaction that he or she would get from the job is itself a compensation--the person does not need to be paid so many time more to strive for the more powerful jobs. At any rate, this is, at least, part of my view. But I really enjoyed your example--of course, there is much truth in the impediments people face, and they are worse in our culture. To some degree they must transcend them--sometimes just impossible--so difficult--thanks. k.

  12. There's a lot of truth in your article, Cuban. As an oldie I beginning to dread the future!

    I'm having trouble reading the text on your new style blog (too wide) ... so forgive me if sometimes I don't comment.

  13. Fram, like you I am a pragmatist (well, I have to, I was born and raised in Cuba. It doesn't get more idealistic and utopian than that) but I disgree on the freedom vs equality.

    Bearing in mind that both are relative (we will never be totally free, nor will we ever totally equal) in the same way that human beings do nto fornicate with the person they come across, no matter how attractive, there are other impulses that can be suppressed. Competition can be manipulated, it can be regulated and it can be harnessed under special conditions. That's wha makes us humans, that despite our survival instinct (and I agree with you that maybe competition was key to our survival as a species) we can be rational enough to either work on the causes that bind the first man (including the self-inflicted ones) or talk the second fellow into giving his partner (not opponent anymore) an oportunity to catch up. That's not idealism or wishful thinking but a reality that has happpened, although in small settings.

    Thanks to everyone for your response. I'm glad my post has generated such a healthy debate.

    Valerie, apolgoies, I will a solution this week.

    Greetings from London.

  14. In an ideal world, your solution would be the perfect and most compassionate one!

    Wonderful metaphor about so much in life.

  15. I wish you (and everyone) would read Will and Ariel Durant's, "The Lessons of History," some sunny Sunday, CiL. I think it might influence you in some areas .... maybe even "convert" you in a few. In the meanwhile, take care and have fun.

  16. Reading my reply to you, Fram, I now realise that I made all kinds of errors. I apologise, my only excuse is that I was half-asleep, having just come back from a dance class I went to at The Place. The writing was erratic but the rationale is the same. We are still human and can work on our differences. Whatever we did in the past out of instinct (running away from a lion and letting the weaker person become the feline's meal), can be reworked now.

    "Convert" me? Man, many have tried and none has succeeded! Fidel almost did but he, too, failed. :-)

    Greetings from London.

  17. you know...most races between people, companies, nations...whathever in this world are unequal and unfair... i too wished the stronger one would help the other to reach their goals as well instead of just having the own advantage in mind..some do..that is good news..if everyone would the world would look different

  18. Lovely Celtic music! I prefer competitions that are with myself because to improve I need only do better than the last time rather than push someone down to get ahead.

  19. interesting thoughts...i guess darwinian is one thing...but when we make alterations to better ourselves that is not evolution...its playing our own god...and then we are surprised when it blows up...ha



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