Successive Approximations

Healthy Societies Are Built on Competiton

Healthy Societies Are Built on Competiton

Eric Hoffer's The True Believer was published in 1951, six years after the end of World War II and two years before Stalin's death. Yet it presaged the current moment of identitarian tribalism (both on the woke left and the MAGA right) better than anything else I've read. Pardon the extensive quotes, but properly setting the stage of the problem to be solved is necessary to understand the solution below (emphasis mine):

For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap. [Section 6]

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business.

This minding of other people's business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor's shoulder or fly at his throat. [Section 10]

The reason that the [failures, misfits, outcasts, criminals, and all those who have lost their footing, or never had one] can exert a marked influence on [a nation's] course is that they are wholly without reverence toward the present. They see their lives and the present as spoiled beyond remedy and they are ready to waste and wreck both: hence their recklessness and their will to chaos and anarchy. They also crave to dissolve their spoiled, meaningless selves in some soul-stirring spectacular communal undertaking--hence their proclivity for united action. [Section 18]

[A mass movement] appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

People who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find worth-while purpose in self-advancement. The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, nor can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication. They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be good and noble. Their innermost craving is for a new life--a rebirth--or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause. [Section 7]

The book is a compact 165 pages, yet it thorougly maps the joiners of mass movements, the mechanisms the movements use, their life cycles, and so on. It reads like it was written yesterday.

Yet reading the book, there is no attempt offer solutions or strategies. It grimly details reality and does not even broach the question of what the reader is to do with this knowledge.

But thinking more about it, some of the sections contain within them, by negation, an antidote. In particular, I was considering section 9 recently:

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

In a world of participation trophies and children's soccer matches where no score is kept, no child can claim excellence. When playgrounds are constantly monitored for unfairness, and conflict is immediately remedied by ending the game, not by adjudicating a resolution, why play competitive games? In a world where mediocre biological males can compete in womens sports and take first place, why invest blood, sweat, and tears in claming excellence for yourself?

If we want a strong society, Hoffer points the way. We need individuals who each have a legitimate claim to excellence for their own self. Of course, not everybody in a society needs to play the same game, but everybody needs to play at least a few games, and by excelling in at least one domain thereby gain the sense of self-worth that makes joining a mass movement implausible.

Social media makes this harder. Jonathan Haidt points out that you may have once been been considered attractive among your high school class, but now Instagram compels you to compare yourself to the most attractive people on Earth, enhanced beyond reality by filters and selective editing. The internet has, for all of its benefits, collapsed a great collection of small, regional games in one, global mega-game, and in so doing made claiming excellence without self-deception harder.

Personally, my claim to excellence is practical shooting. IDPA and USPSA, timed competitions to balance speed and accuracy on constantly-changing courses. I've managed to achive the highest skill classification in both sports, roughly comparable to a black belt--although like a black belt, achieving the rank is just the beginning of the path of true mastery. I too compare myself via YouTube to be the best in the world, but the sport is small enough that high-end competitors are a fairly close-knit community. And when I go to local and regional matches, I usually lose, but I do so to people I find admirable because I trust their sportsmanship and the fairness of the rules under which the contest is fought.

I try to promote the sport by my videos, podcasts, and blog posts to help others who themselves want to learn and grow.

There have been dark times in my personal life and difficult chapters in my career where I had a lot of doubt about my self-worth. Because writing software is almost never a solo endeavor, it's impossible to determine an objective score of your quality as an engineer. You may think the code you write is the best it can be, but if it's a part of an otherwise unreliable system, how do you distinguish the quality of your work from that of the entire project? Obviously trying to objectively judge self-worth based on your career is a fraught endeavor; everyone thinks they are good at their job.

So it gives me a real bedrock on which to base my personal strength and independence when I have this sport as a fair refuge, a place where nobody has an incentive to flatter or expel me, where I can see with my own eyes if my performance is being judged fairly, where I can feel a sense of accomplishment when things go well, and a sense of motivation to improve when I know I could do better.

But in some ways I only ended up practical shooting competition by luck. I never played a single sport growing up, and it wasn't until I was 20 that a friend invited me to come check out IDPA--and I had never seen a gun shot in real life much less owned or shot one myself at that time. But at some level I knew deep down competing in this meant something. It wasn't just horsing around on the weekends. Around 2014, I basically stopped playing video games which had been my main hobby (including a 20+ hour/week schedule in a World of Warcraft raiding guild for months or years at a stretch). And looking back that decision, I wouldn't change it for anything.

So how do we get back to people being able to claim excellence for their own self, and thereby being more resistant to joining mobs calling for the cancellation or persecution of someone on the right or the left? How do we build people who identify more with their own name than by which groups they list in their Twitter bio?

We do it through competition, with fair rules and scores and winners, where participants compete as individuals or as members of small teams where individual contributions are relatively easy to distinguish. Practical shooting, CrossFit, jiu-jitsu, ultimate frisbee, bowling, ping pong, billiards, basketball, skateboarding, you name it.

It should be something with a consistent community, where you can make friends and build social bonds before and afterward; the scenario of a video game where you are matched against strangers you've never met and will never meet again is to be avoided.

It also needs to be something that exists in the real world, not a video game where some newly released patch can change the whole game, or where simply playing for longer (or worse, paying money or getting lucky) unlocks better weapons and abilities. Something that involves interacting face to face with other humans, sweating to improve, travelling to other cities and regions to compete if you choose, and above all, fair rules and fair scoring.

Every individual needs to know that if they work hard, they can improve. People who have never done this are easily taken in by the idea that the only way to improve the society is mass action, subsuming the self behind a hashtag or a slogan. For whatever reason academic achievement does not fill this role; ideas of why that is could be an entire separate post. But the healthy person requires the confidence that comes from being excellent, the pride of achievement by individual hard work. If every member of a society experienced that, and in so doing became less susceptible to mass movements, then the society as a whole would flourish.

Ben Berry

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