Once upon a time, I was an extremely competitive person. I still can be when it comes to games, as I’ve repeatedly demonstrated with my pathological unwillingness to give up on a Rock Band song before someone else does, but for the most part, I’ve actually come to hate competition. I don’t mean sports or games or challenges, really, I mean the competitiveness that seems to characterize everyday interactions with others. I think for a long time that this was one of those flaws I almost tried to cultivate in myself, because obviously, there are plenty of cultural forces that are really pushing competition as a value that is necessary for success. Capitalist individualism pretty much depends on it, and the academic environment is obviously no exception. Since it’s also one of those traits that’s frequently coded as masculine when it’s seen as a positive, powerful thing, I felt justified in embracing it in myself, because it could be used to make a point. And to be clear, whatever ‘natural’ biological drive to become alpha seed-spreader supposedly emerges from the evolution of male psychology has definitely been a major motivating factor in my life, and I do still recognize the need to get away from the gender essentialist bullshit that keeps emphasizing how women don’t really push themselves to compete for the top positions because we’re too busy engaging our biologically rooted nurturing sides to become the CEO/president/provost/whatever. Existing social structures pretty much require competition, and the white patriarchal rules of the game have acted to continue to ensure that certain types of people almost inevitably win and can therefore assume that somehow they are inherently better.
The imbalance in victories is an obvious problem, but the frequently observed ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ phenomenon that characterizes the white feminist movement (and blogosphere) point to a quieter, deeper problem. It’s one thing to work towards changing the rules in order to create some kind of ‘level playing field’ that offers equal opportunity for victory, and another thing entirely to suggest that the game is stupid. The thing is, the game is everywhere. When I was applying for PhD programs, I applied to three different schools, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t get in anywhere and wanted to be on the safe side. I was convinced for a long time that two of the three were basically fallback options, and that if I were accepted at my top choice, I wouldn’t even think about the other two. When I ended up getting accepted at all three, a few things happened to change my thinking, one of which was a recognition of the atmosphere in the department I would be entering into. It became really clear to me that the originally-favoured school (the one that’s actually pretty well known around here as a lefty-type school with a decent social justice focus) encourages students to see each other as competition that needs to be taken out and defeated, because this will encourage each of them to do the best work they possibly can as they try to prove their inherent superiority to others. Honestly, while I recognize that getting myself into academia at this level and hypothetically assuming that a career in the university might be my long-term path implies the acceptance of a certain degree of fighting for positions and research money and name recognition as simply ‘the way things are’, I think both my sanity and the quality of work I can do will be vastly improved by avoiding that as much as possible. Another reason I’ve felt so fortunate in the program I’ve been in now has been that this battle just doesn’t happen, and we’re encouraged to see other students as people we can collaborate with and learn from rather than as barriers to our own success. I’m hopeful about the department I have chosen for next year, but this is another of those ‘not rocket science’ points that frequently makes people respond with verbal ‘oh you’re one of those idealists’ eyerolls and ‘yes dear’ pats on the head.
It’s not just in the area of personal career paths and life trajectories and actual individual ‘high stakes’ patterns that I’m finding myself moving away from competition. I was out the other night and ended up chatting with this guy I don’t know very well, but run into every so often, and we got to talking about activism, social justice, what’s wrong with the world in general and what can be done about it – you know, just the basics. We had essentially zero common ground in our thinking and attitudes, but I had all this time to kill before my night shift, so I kept talking anyway. Now, conversations like that used to frustrate the hell out of me – sometimes I enjoyed that competitive rush from the ‘debate’ or the challenge of convincing someone, but more often, I just found myself feeling heated and angry. And what frustrated me most wasn’t the sense of being right or being wrong or learning or teaching – it was the feeling that one of us was going to win and one of us was going to lose, because it wasn’t really about conversing or exchanging or discussing, it was about competing. I could justify it with high-minded excuses about the need to change minds, but so much of it was wrapped up in pride, and frankly, it didn’t really work anyway. It was during this particular conversation the other night that I realized how strange it feels to watch someone else engaging in a competition that I’m not even having.
I hate this idea that all human interaction can be reduced to competition, that in every encounter there must be a winner and a loser. It depresses me that collaboration and cooperation are so frequently seen as childish idealism and actually require some degree of imagination to employ. It’s not a matter of losing, it’s a matter of recognizing that it’s not actually a fight until we make it one, and as we make it one, we’re imposing so much destruction onto the relationship in question.