“Don’t be a sore loser, don’t be a sore winner.”—That’s what my mom always said. That’s what she taught us. And to the extent that I’ve heeded this advice, it’s served me well.
“I’m going to fucking kill you next year.”—That’s what Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic told Montréal Canadiens forward Dale Weise last year, at the end of the game, during the beautiful (and richly symbolic) post-game handshake ritual.
“Don’t be a sore loser, don’t be a sore winner.”—That’s what my mom always said. That’s what she taught us. And to the extent that I’ve heeded this advice, it’s served me well; when I’ve failed to heed it, I’ve almost always regretted it later on. But only now, at 40, do I realize that what she was teaching me was actually a rather sophisticated solution to the problem of competition.
So far as I can tell, there are three main ways to deal with competition:
- the KINDERGARTEN STRATEGY: wherein you try to eliminate it altogether;
- the NEOLIBERAL STRATEGY: wherein you give it free rein;
- the CIVILIZED STRATEGY: wherein you harness the power of human competitiveness whilst reining in its nasty side.
Well-functioning stable societies are invariably good at the CIVILIZED STRATEGY. In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell maintains that one of the keys to Roseta’s extraordinary success as a community was the way in which it dealt with inequality. Society’s winners were, on the one hand, regularly reminded of their obligations to those less fortunate and strongly encouraged to refrain from showing off. Society’s losers were, on the other hand, treated with a great deal of dignity. The wealthy in Roseta were, writes Gladwell, discouraged “from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”
Milan Lucic’s gracelessness is reprehensible. No doubt about that. But it’s really just a symptom of a much larger cultural problem. We’re raising kids with remarkably mixed messages these days. First we tell them (usually in kindergarten) that we’re all special, that competition is bad, and that everyone should get a medal. Later on (usually in high school) we tell them they have to be the best of the best, that they better get into a good school and be prepared to compete in a global marketplace. WTF? No wonder they’re confused! Am I supposed to be ruthless? Or am I supposed to be a selfless saint?
Neither of these strategies is particularly realistic or conducive to the kind of civil society we wish to live in. The KINDERGARTEN STRATEGY rarely works in practice. And when it does it invariably leads to dead, boring, stultified societies (like most of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War Era). The NEOLIBERAL STRATEGY is more realistic, yet still deeply problematic. As we’ve seen again and again throughout history, competition that’s allowed to run wild invariably leads to barbarism. So I propose that we return to my mom’s simple British wisdom, with its much-maligned focus on fairness and good sportsmanship. Anything else would be, well, uncivilized.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
Photo courtesy of author.