How often do we stop and think why is there so much competition in our society? We live in a society that assumes competition is the best way to advance individual and collective well being. However, is this really true, or just something that has been normalized? I argue that the culture of competition we live in – with its manifestations in political, social and economic spaces, and even in our recreation – is not something that is normal, but rather learned, and is deeply embedded in our conception of human nature.
All the messages we receive about human nature is that individuals are self-interested, and that this self-interested drive is intertwined with our genetic makeup through thousands of years of evolution. Prevalent statements such as “survival of the fittest” or “it’s a dog eat dog world” help reinforce this notion of the self before others. It is further reinforced through other cultural expressions such as competitive sports, which aim to have one individual or team dominate the other; the grading system at school, which inevitably creates a culture of competition amongst students; and in politics, which creates a system where various political parties compete for power. The list could go on.
However there are many fields of study that are demonstrating that humans have the capacity to be both competitive, and cooperative; for both egoism and altruism. Other forms of motivation beyond competition and self interest – such as the desire to find meaning in our lives, the desire to work with others to contribute to the betterment of society, the desire for excellence and perfection, the desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves and our lived reality – are subdued by the culture of competition, which is a merely constructed.
What is most disheartening is that even individuals and organizations whose aim is to bring about social and environmental justice, to build community and other noble aims are acting, however consciously, within a culture of competition. For example, organizations in the non-profit sector compete for resources (both human and monetary funding), and in order to acquire these resources they need to demonstrate that there is a need for their services, thus, competition follows for clients and participants in their organization. This may not be the reality that every organizations faces, however most, if not all, are affected by it to some degree.
I believe we need to begin rethinking and reconstructing our culture of competition, and create a culture of cooperation.
In our age of interdependence at both the local and global state, social change and collective prosperity can only be achieved through creating systems, environments, and communities that cultivate often neglected capacities, such as cooperation and mutuality. Those who are committed to social action must strive to create and uphold relationships that are characterized by harmony, mutual benefits, honesty and integrity, and selfless motive. For in the end, all are striving to achieve the same end: for the construction of a just and equitable world.