Friday, 3 August 2012

Winners and Losers

A bit of an apt title, given that the Olympic Games are currently taking place in London - and what a spectacle of incredible achievement it has been!  (And I use the word "spectacle" as tongue-in-cheek as any other viewer limited to the cattle-truck type tour of the games that has been offered by the local free-to-air television network...and no, I'm not ungrateful for what I'm given, for free, by said network, in case anyone wants to pounce on me as some sort of non-pay-per-view whinging bludger...but when event after event is cut-off mid-competition, with no results ever displayed, or hell, not even shown at starts to grate.)

But I digress.  To me, anyone and everyone who competes at the Olympics is a winner.  Except those caught cheating (or not caught, for that matter).  But what an incredible achievement even to make it to the Games and represent one's country at such an elite level!  The dedication and fortitude that goes into such an effort is, frankly, beyond my couch-potato level of comprehension (though if they do ever have a couch-potato event, I'm there!).

And yet, the question keeps arising in my mind - why do some people "win" silver, and others "lose" gold??

I don't think it's just semantics.  I can certainly empathise with the heart-ache that must come with missing out on 1st place by 10000000000ths of a second (or so time-keeping these days seems to be!) be so close, and to miss out by an atom of a whisker...!  Yes.  It must hurt like hell.  And in that awful moment, it probably does feel like one's world has ended.  To then have cameras shoved into one's face and to be asked questions along the lines of, "Where did you go wrong?" can only cement a moment of devastation which surely must rock an athlete to their core.  Small wonder some of them find it hard to speak positively about themselves and their experience of competition and their expectations to come!

But as a lay-person questioning this...I have only one thing to ask.  And it is thus:

How in the all the holy frigging mother-loving fires of hellish gall can someone, often themselves a non-athlete (or perhaps even a very successful, yet retired one), be so ignorant as to imply in that moment of questioning after a race that anyone who achieves the incredible honour of a SILVER MEDAL at an Olympic Games has somehow lost???  Lost what??!  2nd place out of 7 billion people on the planet aint a bad thing!  That's, what...better placed than 99.9999999999999999999999999999% of the population??

I did hear a sporting commentator try to explain the difference between someone winning silver and losing the gold - and his explanation made infinite sense to me: That to lose by an inch when you expect (or are expected) to win can only feel like failure, but to achieve second place when you expect (or are expected) to win nothing at all feels like a huge achievement.  I can agree with that sentiment.  I can even understand it, though personally I have never been in a position to compete at such a level.

But the distinction between "winning" and "losing" - notably at the Olympics, but one can extend the concept much, much further - concerns me, regardless of any attempt to rationalise it.  And here is my hypoethesis as to why.  I think we are conditioned, as a society, and in no small part, to see pretty much the whole of life as something in which we either win, or lose.  And moreso, I think we are conditioned to see ourselves as either winners, or losers.  And when I say "we" here, I am talking specifically about those of us living in a Western-style society, or similar.  But where does this very evil and ultimately limiting belief come from?  Why should we view life in such bitter terms?

I am going to pose two socially controversial answers to this.  Firstly, I believe conventional parenting practices are to blame.  And secondly, possibly most at fault - the conventional school system.  Well - now that I look at it, I guess I would have to say that perhaps a social system which not only accepts but encourages the concept of people who must then be categorised, by external and often arbritrary means, as either winners or losers (and nothing in between) is the godfather of all evil.  Each beast both feeds the others, which in turn feeds itself, sort of like the proverbial snake eating its own tail.

Now before you feel all defensive...I'm not blaming parents by any means, conventional or otherwise.  After all, they were, for the most part, themselves conventionally parented, and conventionally schooled, and as such are doing the best they can with the best of intentions, and the highest degree of love, based on what they have been taught to believe is the right and only way.  Nor do I blame individual schools, most of which - at least in this country - I believe to be striving continuously to improve the situation for the students in their care and absolutely genuine in their belief that the level - and type - of education they offer their students will benefit them.  It is the system of constant grading, of evaluating and punishing and praising and rewarding and failing that is evil...and more so yet, it is the unquestioned assumption that without these things being inflicted upon our children and our students, they cannot possibly become better human beings.  It is the system that perpetuates the myth that this sort of treatment creates better human beings!  It is the system which offers nothing but confusion - brilliant at maths, but keep failing science, and only got a C in history?  It is the system that believes that children are somehow born lesser creatures, incapable of intelligence or kindness or self-motivation, which must then be moulded and failed and graded and in some cases beaten into some ideal of socially-perfected adulthood.  (And at what age that mythical version of adulthood is meant to be attained, who knows?)  It is the system that creates arbritrary winners and losers every day - you get an A, you get an F; you must clean your room now because [insert reason why child must lose and parent must win here]; because I'm the mum, that's why!  You didn't win the silver - you lost the gold.

We are, almost all of us, creatures of this system.  For those of us who went through conventional schooling, and who were conventionally parented, our belief in ourselves has been forever changed.  Children today, however, seem to have it worse than we did.  The pressure is being heaped on them at a much earlier age - and the belief that they can only be either winners or losers is absolute.  Perpetuated in every corner of society, and hammered into us every minute by a media who fully subscribes to and participates in the moral demise of its consumers.  Didn't get exposed to a baby reading programme while in infancy?  Loser.  Didn't participate in an accelarated pre-school programme?  Loser.  Didn't know how to use scissors in kindergarten?  Loser.  Wasn't toilet-trained by 12 months of age?  Loser.

The weight of the word itself - loser - is enough to terrify parents!  And why wouldn't it?  The awful certainty that their child will end up a loser - and worse, that they could have prevented this from happening by subjecting their baby to flash cards for hours a day from birth - is a terror not worth contemplating.  I'm not being flippant.  It's the shocking and very sad truth.  I have even felt it myself, in my less lucid moments.  Fear and terror as only a loving parent can experience.  Unfortunately, the impact of all this parental terror lands squarely on those we want most to protect...our children, who are now learning almost from birth than they must win at all costs, or will be relegated to loserdom for all time.

Didn't win the silver but lost the gold.  What have we done to our children?  What have we done to our society?  It is wrong.  And yet why we are so socially conditioned to this way of thinking, so blindly accepting of this injustice?  Because we have been conditioned to believe that we are all, somehow, losers.  Whether through a teacher's ill-timed or undeserved judgement of our performance at school, or the constant reminders from our parents that we really aren't trying hard enough (to be winners, ergo, we must therefore already BE a loser), most of us don't even try to buck the system, because we know we have already lost.  And the system needs it to be this way - because god forbid we ended up with a society full of people who truly believed they could achieve anything they put themselves to.  Who would do all the menial jobs?  Not the winners, that's for sure.  (Incidentally, apparently the number one growing job in the USA is...wait for it...Walmart clerk, closely followed by well-known food chain burger flipper.)

School is the mechanism by which society keeps the overwhelming majority in our place...never winning the silver, always losing the gold.

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