Competitiveness has both positive and negative qualities. Competitiveness is not negative in essence. It is an important natural part of human behaviour and is necessary for progress. But on the negative side, it can be warped into aggression and repugnant behaviour.
How does competitiveness play out in a war situation? If we define competitiveness as the impulse, the urge and attempt to beat the other guy, then we begin to see how useful it would be in war. The military wants its men to win, to show that they are better than the enemy. In this way competitiveness becomes linked to patriotism.
But the downside is that winning – defeating the enemy – has become more important than abiding by the legally-established rules of war. The military stretches the acceptable limits of aggression and torture in the quest for dominance. Brutality becomes acceptable in the fight for victory. A clear example of this is Bush’s acceptance that torture such as water-boarding was perfectly acceptable in North America’s so-called ‘war against terrorism’. This extreme form of brutal competitiveness dehumanises both aggressor and victim. It also increases resistance and rejection of the aggressive military and the country it serves – in this case, the USA.
Why does the military – or a country – choose to ‘win’ no matter how illegal, how brutal and inhumane the means? The explanations mirror the underlying reasons an individual wants to win – ‘no matter what’. These include a fear of being seen as weaker; the shame of being seen as afraid; the desperate need to show masculine traits of strength and dominance. (The USA’s urge to prove itself was magnified by its defeat in Vietnam)
From boyhood, males are coached to win at all costs, even if harmful or immoral behaviour is necessary to do so. Competitiveness is validated above other values. We make everything competitive nowadays. Most parents, teachers and organisations accept without thinking that competitiveness is totally positive. We aim to make competitiveness second nature in our sons. We don’t balance competitiveness with other values. The unethical misuse of power, or the resorting to violence, wipes out more important principles. The result is that our lives generally suffer from an absence of enjoyment, mutual support, fairness, co-operation, and ethical values – all principles that should have been encouraged in the home and at school.
No longer is sport fun, physical enjoyment and the stretching of our talents. It is now a fight to win. It is racked with jealousy and boasting. Even at an early age, sport means playing rough and competitively, ignoring the rules of the game. Losing has become linked to shame and disgrace. Competitiveness has overwhelmed other elements to the detriment of all. Sportsmen become idolised sport-stars, often by being brutally competitive and aggressive.
Competitiveness and winning have become inherent affirmations of masculinity. The negative consequence is that not being competitive enough has come to mean not being man enough. Losing threatens, and is seen as the opposite, of masculinity. But competitiveness defines the winners, as well as the losers. To win, another must lose, and all men lose at one time or another, whether it is a sports game, a promotion or through ageing and retirement. So, if we follow the logic, all men are ‘unmanly’ at some point in their lives.
Competitiveness permeates every aspect of life. In the work place, competitiveness is covert but often ranked higher than ethical behaviour, co-operation, individual enterprise, research, team functioning or job satisfaction. It also interferes with communication and friendship. Below the façade of concern, even friends look down on anyone in their group who is unemployed or failing at work. Built into competitiveness is a reluctance to both help others and seek help from others.
In a competitive situation, especially a work hierarchy, it is useful not to help a colleague, even if it is obvious that help is needed. Covertly aggressive competition interferes in productivity by preventing co-operation as well as individual enterprise. The system is manipulated to gain status. Even ingratiating behaviour is part of a destructive, political, cut-throat competitiveness.
Because we link competitiveness to masculine identity, many men feel threatened around competitive women or a female partner who is more successful, earns more or is independent and strong. Women can be as competitive as men, but luckily their female identity does not rely on it, probably because competitiveness has never been associated directly as a feminine trait. Their sense of being a ‘real’ woman is independent of whether they are a professor or junior lecturer, a hospital manager or a nurse. In reality, this negative form of competitiveness can be seen a symbol or symptom of the instability of masculinity.
But the military and those who benefit from war – both politicians and merchants – don’t care. The insecurities of men are useful to them, producing a constant stream of masculine bodies to fight their fights and ‘prove their superiority’ – all under the fallacy of patriotism.
Competitive men become competitive soldiers and those are the ones the military want – soldiers who will not consider other principles and values but will do their aggressive bidding or die in order to prove that they are ‘real’ men.
In my next post, I look at the way boys are disciplined to be unquestioning of war. *