On Competition

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Winning by cheating isn’t the same as simply winning. They may look the same. They may be rewarded with the same sets of prizes and glory. But they are not equal indicators of ability, even though prizes and glory might obscure that.

Winning matters. Merging into rapidly moving traffic from a short on-ramp can feel like a tense competition with other drivers or it can feel like a hasty moment of friendly cooperation. Either way, lives are on the line. Winning “my” spot in the flow of traffic matters – to me and to the flow of traffic. Whether the moment feels friendly or hostile is less important than simply surviving it.

However, from the perspective of civil engineering or public health or common decency, it matters a lot whether people play by the rules. Fewer people die in crashes when more people follow the traffic laws. Fewer die of a given disease when more are immunized against it. Fewer die from exposure when we provide more people with safe places to sleep. I might feel better off as an individual if I drive faster than everyone else, spurn immunizations, and stay as far away as possible from people who are freezing. But those behaviors increase the level of risk that surrounds me generally. It matters that people play by rules that protect the common good.

At the same time, in some games, the goal is to be the best cheater. Rules of incorporation, for example, typically require corporate agents to maximize the earnings of shareholders and little else. Players in the game of profit-making also include workers, consumers, and Mother Nature, but the only score that matters is the profit that’s tallied up for the shareholders. Rules of incorporation typically reward “cost externalization,” essentially rewarding the active players for dumping costs anywhere they can find except on the shareholders. That is, the best cheater wins. There’s no good reason why a democratic people couldn’t change those rules. Other measures of success, besides quarterly earnings, could be included by states as additional requirements for incorporation.

So it doesn’t just matter if we win, it also matters who we are winning for. And it matters which games we’re willing to play.

Certainly all people share a common humanity and a common love of life, no matter their political persuasions. But to say, “We all want the same things,” is not to say that we all want all the same things equally. For example, firmness and flexibility are both good things in their places, but different individuals tend to default to one or the other fairly consistently. In the game of good ideas, nobody besides Quakers can play the Quaker hand – a hand that holds a deep respect for authority (but authority drawn from the Light, not the individual mind), a deep respect for the downtrodden, a high tolerance for ambiguity, and a practice that treats our corporate decision-making as a sacred act (at our best). Other communities share with us various of these characteristics, but the combination is peculiarly ours.

In 1943, the year that Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin agreed to open a second front against Hitler, London Yearly Meeting proclaimed to the world, “All thoughtful men and women are torn at heart by the present situation. . . We desire a righteous peace. . . yet before us we see months of increasing terror. . . True peace involves freedom from tyranny and a generous tolerance . . . But true Peace cannot be dictated; it can only be built in co-operation between all peoples. None of us, no nation, no citizen, is free from some responsibility for this situation . . . The way of peace is not to be found in any policy of ‘unconditional surrender’ . . . It requires that men and nations should recognize their common brotherhood, using weapons of integrity, reason, patience and love, never acquiescing in the ways of the oppressor, always ready to suffer with the oppressed. . . Now is the time to issue an open invitation to co-operate in creative peacemaking, to declare our willingness to make sacrifices of national prestige, wealth, and standards of living for the common good . . .”

The abilities of the Religious Society of Friends will be tested in the years ahead. We can play the hand that we hold as Friends – our deference to the Light, our care for the stranger, our flexibility, our unity – or we can fold. The prospect of folding, though, looks a lot like cheating.  ~~~~

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