Reading Response: Rhetoric and Competition by Linda Hutcheon

Competition is a zero-sum game, where any gains that are obtained by one party in obtaining a resource are discounted by the loss sustained by the party who missed out on that same resource. It is easy to see examples across modern day society. Competition is seen as the driving force in any free-market economy — companies that create the same product are competing for customers. This idea can also be seen in other aspects of the world; in nature, for example, animals often must compete in order to reproduce, which has led to the development of the theories of evolution and survival of the fittest.

In today’s world, competition is regarded as beneficial. According to the definition of competition, however, this doesn’t exactly make sense. Despite competition always having a winner, competition also always has a loser; it is mathematically impossible for growth to occur under real competition — one minus one is, of course, zero.

This fact has not gone unnoticed by many academics. Mary Catherine Bateson and Linda Hutcheon, for example, have pointed out the flaws in our modern day acclamation of competition in their works, respectively titled “The Myths of Independence and Competition” and “Rhetoric and Competition”.

In Bateson’s article, Bateson discuses competition on a global scale, using it to illustrate a society that leans towards independence instead of interdependence. Bateson asserts that “there is no such thing as independence, but it is a very powerful illusion that drives people’s behavior” (2016). Our focus on independence, in Bateson’s view, is counterproductive to society’s best interests. Instead of emphasizing independence, Bateson states that humanity should begin to think “systemically, not as separate and competitive organisms” (2016). This, in her opinion, will allow us to function in a more sustainable and productive way.

Hutcheon’s article, on the other hand, examines competition in a much narrower scope: the world of academics. Hutcheon uses the example of a philosophy classroom to illustrate an academic arena that had become caught up with “a business model of competition” where “profits must be maximized by minimizing the profits of others” (2003). Hutcheon believes that the academic world should not have such a focus on discrediting the works of others; instead, academics should focus on building on these works.

While these articles are discussing competition through different scopes, the root of their messages remain the same: society would benefit from humans cooperating instead of competing. As stated in Diogenes article, “global cooperation has the potential to take our species to heights previously unimaginable” (2018). Both Bateson and Hutcheon see competition as a zero-sum game that inhibits the potential of modern day society; in order to move forward, gains for one should not be at the expense of another.

The arguments put forward by Hutcheon and Bateson are compelling, but is what they are describing a realistic proposition? In Bateson’s case, there is (to a degree) historical precedent that would say that global cooperation, or even statewide cooperation, is infeasible. Bateson’s ideas, for example, can easily be compared to Marxist ideologies; in essence, both describe a world where people work for the common good instead of individual benefit. In the cases where Marxist ideologies have been attempted, such as in Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, the population did not work for the common good and society became more counter-productive than under competitive systems. Human nature, it seems, inevitably ends in individuals working for themselves instead of everybody.

Hutcheon’s proposition, on the other hand, seems to already have some traction in the academic world. Schools and universities, for example, are moving more towards cooperative learning, such as group discussions and projects. While individualistic and adversarial tendencies continue to exist in the academic world, they are becoming gradually replaced with more constructive habits.

It seems then, that beginning with a small scale development of cooperation is far more realistic than a worldwide shift in societal norms. While cooperation is beneficial, it is not always easily attained, as any human’s primary focus is themselves. Despite our innate sense of self, humans are still social beings (as Bateson asserts). Small scale developments of independence, such as in the academic setting, could eventually lead to the idealistic society that Bateson is discussing.  

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