Competition Imagination: Destroyer of Worlds

When the terms of a contest are sufficiently narrow and the participants treat the stakes as low, games can be a lovely mechanism for creating camaraderie and stimulating learning. However, when competing rises to the level of a life or death imperative, something has gone terribly wrong. Competition is a heuristic that powerful countries have used to motivate soldiers, voters, and other decisions makers; it has been the de facto foreign policy ideology of the United States since World War II. From the infinite arm wrestling match with international communism to the afterglow of the nineties to the war on terror to today’s power lifting against China, American leaders have framed the world as a place for Americans to be at the top by divine right and Protestant work ethic.

For the most part, the Soviet Union had this heuristic in mind as well in the middle of the 20th century: winning the ideological and political game by any means was necessary and proper, and the US was more than willing to tango. It was then and remains now a failure of imagination and values to make winning into a country’s raison d’être. How else can a quagmire like Vietnam proliferate over so many presidents and years? What else causes an absurd stockpile of world-ending weapons to gather dust (hopefully) forever? While behavioral economists are just competition wolves in sunglasses, they do talk about the cognitive biases that cause everything to be interpreted through the same lens: “Are we winning? I’m not sure, check the Olympic medal count or the local team’s score; or check to see if the sworn enemies of our way of life are still breathing.”

This is what children are trained for: class rank, youth sports, social media heart button valuations. If you’re not winning, you’re losing, and if you lose, you become irrelevant, impoverished, and hated. So it ought to come as no surprise that the only thing both political parties agree on in America is the need to “beat China”. One black eye or two? Their moral failings and weird semi-authoritarian pseudo-communist, possibly sort of socialist government with that cult of personality, what’s not to fear? Everyone knows that international relations is a thunder dome, and only one country could possibly be left at the end of history. Or did that already happen? Did you blink and miss it?

There are other options. Maybe American competition energy could be redirected toward reasonable opponents, like COVID-19 or climate change. Or maybe a national project to re-narrate history in terms other than “we won, they lost, here’s how”; humans are capable of ingesting concepts more complicated than a baseball game and they deserve some credit for that capacity in history and politics. There’s a way of seeing for any issue that doesn’t rank the players. Setting the humans involved in any situation toward each other rather than against has consistently been achieved in families, within some religions sometimes, and in some political units from time to time. These are the lessons we should use to think about and operate our world; no more football metaphors about killing people.