The Cruelty of Winning and Losing

October 31, 2018

In just a few days, the United States will receive the results of a highly charged mid-term election that has been awash in accusations, vitriol, and the hateful spin-doctoring of every fact. The outcome of the election is still uncertain. It might end up a blue wave or blue ripple. Or, perhaps a red tide or serious red low tide. Either way, we will have victory laps and pity parties on November 6, and analysts will spend weeks explaining why it happened the way it did and what it means for the future. But, I’m not sure thinking about this election in terms of winning and losing is going to help any of us. A win-loss mythology has gripped both parties, mixed with elements of cruelty, and we will make no substantive move forward as a nation and culture unless we figure out how to break the spell of this obsession.

In a 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama offered a noble sentiment: “When they go low, we go high.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder recently demonstrated the level of disintegration in our discourse at a Democratic rally in Georgia almost exactly two years later: “When they go low,” he corrected, “we kick them.” Holder, like many Democrats, learned in the past two years that politicians running on high-minded values, like civility and kindness, lose elections. Mainstream Republicans were taught the same lesson in the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump ignored the political tradition of balancing rhetoric with measured speech and thoughtfulness.

In the process, we became fixated on images and concepts related to winning. It is an inaccuracy to say that President Donald Trump only likes to win. It is one of his 20 most frequently used words:

  • “My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.”
  • “Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!”
  • “Work hard, be smart and always remember, winning takes care of everything!”

Winning doesn’t take care of everything and it does get boring, in large part because it is a complicated concept.

The desire to win and avoid loss is woven deeply into our psyche. Developmental psychologist Susan Harter found that small children, especially boys, have a “fantasied self” that grossly overestimates their talents, abilities, and virtues. They often brag to prop up a fragile ego, while they learn one of life’s most difficult lessons: how to process failure, shame, and envy. A great project of growing up is learning how to win with humility and to lose with grace, and not interiorize either one. Of course, some of us never develop the resilience to happily accept a second-place ribbon, or God forbid, no ribbon at all.

If you are a politician, professional athlete, gambler, salesperson or trial lawyer, winning and losing is a common experience. But, many of the people most deeply impacting the healthy, daily operation of our world do not regularly think about life in the binaries of winning and losing. People dedicating themselves to humble professions that bind up the wounds of a broken humanity, specialize in providing hope and security to others, and commit themselves to on-going reform of the institutions that employ health care workers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, community developers, teachers, journalists, counselors, and ministers think in terms of caring, flourishing and meaning rather than winning and losing. Unfortunately, the hottest theories about creating a better world over the past two decades have come from people who bit the win-loss apple, and ironically their influence has, in part, inadvertently created many of our political problems.

According to Anand Giridharadas, the great “winners” in the 21st-century economy – technology gurus, masters of the start-up and the mobile app, and the venture capitalists that support them, as well as a handful of charities, universities, media personalities, activists, entertainers, nonprofit executives and specially formed thinktanks – have created a global subculture that mixes the mythology of winning with an unquestioning trust in free market capitalism. And, the mixture created a new philosophy on doing good and trying to create a better world.

In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Giridharadas describes how wildly successful companies, such as Uber, Lyft, Even, Airbnb and many tech companies, have convinced a significant number of intelligent and influential humans that the secret to resolving issues like poverty, inadequate education, equal rights, and even malaria, is not found in the transformation of the governmental and private institutions that govern our common life and are charged to serve as agents of promoting and protecting social justice. Rather, the key to solving our biggest problems comes through the initiatives of socially responsible business. One of the appeals of this new creative force for finding solutions is its simplicity and grandiosity: solutions to humanity’s biggest problems will not occur one person or village at a time, but “to scale,” at a dramatic global level that will bend the arc of human history toward prosperity and peace.

“These (are) elites,” Giridharadas says, “(who) believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of systems that people share in common.” And, the message is attractive to some of the nation’s brightest young people, who are aggressively recruited by some of these companies at America’s most prestigious universities.

Giridharadas summarizes what he calls the MarketWorld belief system as faith in the power of the individual to crusade for justice, get super-rich, save the lives of the poor and innocent, and become culturally and politically powerful, and then using this influence to make further positive contributions to the world, as well. A corollary to this position, sometimes mentioned, often just implied, is that there is no longer a need to devote one’s life to education, social work, criminal justice, unions or ministry to change the political, social or economic systems that create so much of the world’s suffering. Many in MarketWorld believe that those institutional structures are part of the swamp, beyond regeneration, and in need of draining. So, when Uber and Lyft talk about their corporate mission, they speak of providing new freedom and participation in the economy by drivers and giving riders cheaper services than offered by the taxi “cartels.” (Note: they speak of cartels instead of taxi unions, which developed to protect worker salaries and rights.) Ironically, these large successful companies often portray themselves as the underdog and outsider, the rebel overturning older institutions that stifle creativity in order to usher in an era of prosperity and peace.

The MarketWorlders re-evangelize themselves through an unending chain of “tent revivals around the world.” Some of these conferences are known as the Davos World Economic ForumSun ValleyTechCrunch DisruptBilderberg, and the Summit at Sea, a cruise ship that is booked as a floating retreat for entrepreneurs wanting to change the world. One of the most impactful revivals for this gospel has occurred during UN Week at gatherings of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), the charity Bill Clinton began with his wife after he left the White House. Questions about the CGI’s intersection of money, power, and influence created a major distraction in Hillary Clinton’s own bid for the presidency and contributed to her losing the election. If you hear people on conservative talk radio and television complaining about the globalists and out of touch elites, they are really talking about the true believers of MarketWorld.

Giridharadas suggests that the resurrection of the populism in the United States under Donald Trump is a reaction to these well-educated, uberwealthy, politically connected and technologically savvy “MarketWorlders” who have tried to change what it means to “do good in the world,” while “doing well for themselves.” It is more than a coincidence that Giridharadas’s book begins with an anecdote about an idealistic Georgetown student, Hilary Cohen, who wrestled with becoming a rabbi or buying into the promises of the MarketWorld “movement.” She decided not to go to seminary, but she remained haunted about whether she was actually changing the world in the right way, and whether MarketWorld faith could deliver on its promises.

We have had a massive abandonment of the very institutions that have knit our society together and the well-intentioned desire to improve and eliminate suffering in our world by the religion of MarketWorld helped to create the situation. To make it all more complicated, the push away from our institutional infrastructures has become mixed with the nation’s deep cultural strains of cruelty. During times of stress and change, Americans have always lowered their inhibitions for crass, boorish and even hateful behaviors, like most cultures. In the U.S., however, we have often celebrated such conduct, a product of our forces of racism and xenophobia. Umair Haque, one of the world’s most respected management thinkers, believes the U.S. has harbored these negative behaviors for so long that we have become a “uniquely cruel” society.

Why America is the World’s Most Uniquely Cruel Society 
Or, How Punching Down Became a Way of Life 

In our best times, we like to believe we are a welcoming nation, a haven for the poor, tired and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But, in reality, Haque maintains, xenophobic dog whistles like the caravan of refugees walking through Mexico or fear-baiting about immigrants who want to steal or destroy our way of life, has been a staple in American culture. Life for immigrants in this nation has been so harsh, says Haque, that former immigrants learn quickly to suspect new immigrants. Each wave of immigration to reach the shores of the U.S. has had to struggle against the dominance of the previous wave of immigrants, who have learned to “punch down,” diminish and marginalize the new “other.” America has practiced its exclusionary ways for so long that it has become a subterranean national characteristic, surfacing with greater fury at times of anxiety, uncertainty, and societal changes.

What can we do about this moment in our history? We can encourage the young seeking to do good in the world to look seriously at the traditional professions that have knit together our common life, and to do so with not only a desire to serve but also an intent to reform those institutions. If they choose to do so, we also need to pledge our support to them. Institutions are mixed blessings. They do great, important work in the world, but they also disappoint us. They lean toward inertia and complicate their structures so that it becomes difficult to do the work they exist to provide. At their worst, they break our hearts. Every generation has to reform them and that takes the dedication of not several months or years, but a lifetime. People working in these institutions of service and government have to make enormous sacrifices, including making a much smaller salary, a clear violation of a central dogma of the faith of MarketWorld. If you want to do good in the world, you will personally do less well. Most of us cannot have our cake and eat it, too. That’s just part of the gig.

Dealing with our cruelty is both easier and more complicated. While I believe we can and must address it through education and political change, American cruelty lives in our own families and neighborhoods, and eradicating it is first a family affair. In a few weeks, many Americans will bring the destructive attitudes and behaviors of our nation’s cruelty to the Thanksgiving table. Don’t gloat if your values won in the mid-term elections, or sulk if they lost. Commit yourself to serve as an example of someone who does not look to winning and losing as a meaning system.

Instead, try to listen deeply enough to hear the fear and confusion that lies beneath the pernicious and destructive thoughts and comments made by an obsessive uncle or a borderline paranoid cousin. Don’t challenge their public policy preferences. Challenge their humanity through the stories and traditions of the exemplars of your own family system and history. Surface the nobility, courage, sacrifices, and compassion that motivated ancestors in their day and time. In other words, create cognitive dissonance for them by using story to force fear and confusion of the “other” into dialogue with the real human faces they know.

The United States will not get beyond this dysfunctional time easily or quickly. But we can rise above this cruel period of thinking in the categories of winning and losing. Only then can we re-discover the unum in our national motto: e pluribus unum.

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