Reading Response : Competition

Benedikt R.

Credit:  BrainQuote.com ( https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/margaret_heffernan_556959 )

In this reading response I will be discussing Rethoric and Competition, a journal article by Linda Hutcheon’s, a professor in the department of linguistics and the speech Myths of independence and competition, by M.C. Bateson, a well reputed anthropologist. While Hutcheon’s article provides profoundly more detail, both texts provide good evidence for their arguments, are written in first person point of view and use similar literary devices, such as metaphors, analogies and jargon.

Linda Hutcheon’s Rethoric and Competition, is about her belief that higher education and academia in general has become a war-zone, in which scholars fight or compete with each other instead of collaborating and combining knowledge profiting one another, not only oneself. Similar to Bateson’s Myths of independence and competition, competition is depicted as the trouble-maker. Bateson argues that the emphasis on individualism and competition, especially in Western societies, is leading to conflict and malfunctioning of society. She believes that only if people work together, as a collective, could the most challenging global issues facing humanity be solved. Hutcheon too, believes that competition is the problem. However, she focuses her writing specifically on the competitive nature of higher education and academia, created through the individualistic struggle for success.

Hutcheon argues that higher education has become hierarchical institute in which academics follow a model of “corporate capitalism”, driven by the individual through the agon (Which in her opinion is strongly associated with ‘fierce competition’). She explains that critical thinking is rightfully valued, but that nowadays people tend to rather try to demolish the opposing position instead of constructively questioning it. Bateson on the other hand talks about how the world becomes increasingly individualistic and how lack of communication and collectivism  is ultimately leading to conflict.  The competition Hutcheon and Bateson are talking about seem to be quite different. Hutcheon speaks about solo-driven, success hungry individuals, who try to not only become the best, but also try to push down one another. Bateson on the other hand talks about a competition that can be substituted with individualistic focus- not a real competition, involving the loss for the opposition, but rather a lack of communication and interdependence. 

Hutcheon provides counter arguments to some of her ideas – e.g. includes the idea of Peter Elbow : “Without contraries is no progression”. She agrees to an extend, but challenges this idea. She is writing about constructive critique and exemplifies such herself in this text.  Bateson doesn’t do that. She does not provide any counter arguments and takes a very clear and strong opposing position, entirely focussing on the negative outcomes of competition. She ignores the usefulness of competition, which in my opinion, weakens her overall argument.  

Personally I don’t quite agree with some of the arguments in Hutcheon’s article – more so than in Bateson’s. The first one is exactly what I’m doing right now – challenging ideas. In her opinion modern scholars seem to not just challenge arguments or compete fairly but rather follow a model in which “the opposition must be destroyed”. I disagree with that statement. While I agree that competition usually involves winners and losers, I don’t believe that this individual struggle for success in academics ( with cultured, knowledgeable individuals ) is as evil-spirited as depicted. 

Bateson says ‘collectivism over individualism’ and Hutcheon says ’cooperation over competition’. Although agreeing to an extend, I think it’s very important to note that competition and individualism are an integral and useful part of life. As far as I’m concerned, competition and individualism in academia is especially useful for filtering out the experts in fields. Without favouring groups of people with the greatest potential for success in their discipline, society wouldn’t advance.  However, once at the top of their discipline, these individuals should indeed take notice of Bateson’s and Hutcheon’s arguments, since cooperation of the brightest minds instead of fierce competition could lead to even more enhanced development of societies.  

I agree with what Linda said in her reading response to competition : “ It would be great if as a whole we could all work together but at some level competition will always be present and always be needed.“ ( https://mschandorf.ca/author/garlandbr/ )

Hutcheon discuses a feminists perspective in which Helene Cixous argues that the increasing aggressiveness and competition in the academy, as well as the hierarchical and bureaucratic nature of institutions is the result of a patriarchal history and a “time governed by phallocentric values”. Hutcheon challenges this idea to a small extent. She says the “ubiquity of the agonistic struggle” shows that this issue “is not entirely one of gender”. I disagree with Helene and find such ideological views rather dangerous. By blaming groups instead of encouraging positive change society becomes increasingly segregated. ( And as a result more individualistic and competitive. ) No evidence at all is provided to support her argument. Contrary so, Bateson and Hutcheon actually provide evidence supporting the opposition. Bateson discusses the increasing focus on individualism and independence in North America in the post-modernity and Hutcheon discusses the increasingly competitive nature of  higher education. As such increased, the percentage of females enrolled in higher education greatly trumped the one of males. The correlation between increased levels of competition and individualism in times of women’s empowerment and higher enrolment in academia is in no way good evidence for a causal relationship between the two. It is, however good evidence for the falsification of Helene’s statement. In addition hierarchical systems have existed for millions of years. As I just recently read in a book by the psychologist Jordan B. Peterson, hierarchical structures have existed for more than 350 millions years. A hierarchy, therefore, seems to be an integral part of nature and not a consequence of a “patriarchal” society.

Overall, I do agree with Hutcheon’s and Bateson’s main ideas.

 A harmonic, collective cooperation indeed seems better than individualistically driven solo success, in which the academy is more of a war-zone than “a place of learning together” and a world in which everyone works together, preventing conflict and disaster and potentially solving the most challenging global issues facing humanity, seems better than the individualistically and conflict driven society of the present.

However, I find it extremely important to challenge such utopian ideas to realistically change the world for the better.


5 Comments

  1. Hey! I also read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life recently, I thought it was a helpful book if a bit eccentric at times! So what steps do you think we can realistically take in our society to encourage more cooperative values? It occurred to me when I was reading Bateson’s paper that extreme individualism is, as she says, a pretty Western and modern problem. Are there other cultures we could learn from, or could we look to history to teach us how to be more cooperative?

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  2. Hi Benedick!
    I agree with you that individual struggle for success in academics is not evil. But I think that is what Hutcheon thinks too. In her opinion, academics reduce critical thinking to attack and opposition. This doesn’t mean that in Hutcheon’s view competition is wrong or toxic to academy. I would interpret her idea as that scholars twisting and misunderstanding the essence of critique leads to the brutal scenes in academy. I guess maybe the urge to prevent academy from becoming more wolfish makes her give only few credits to competition without malevolence. It’s quite misleading because she indeed put a lot effort in depicting the negative scenes and used tons of rhetorical questions to make strong arguments. However, in my opinion, Hutcheon just want scholars compete rationally with manner and respect, instead of targeting on destroying each others to win.

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  3. Well, firstly I definitely believe that history can teach us much about cooperation. We can go back to the emergence of humans for useful information. One of the, if not the only reason why Homo sapiens dominated the world and are nowadays the only species in the genus homo, is that they were able to communicate with each other using the same language. ( What gave rise to this ability was most likely a random mutation in the DNA, randomly occurring in Homo sapiens and not in e.g. Homo erectus ) Without communication, groups of more than 150 organisms couldn’t live together or function properly. ( We can find evidence for that in e.g. ape colonies ) Believing in the same spirits and gods and speaking the same language was key. This, what we would now call a culture, allowed members of the same group to work together effectively and in peace. Therefore I believe that practicing and protecting culture is of uttermost importance. Nowadays, we can see that countries that have great pride in, practice and protect their culture (often a singular culture) tend to be more communal and collectivist. European countries and especially Asian conutries are examples of that. Oppositely, Canada is entirely multiculturalistic (as of 1988 by law) and the US too, is influenced by a multiculturalistic ethos. It is important to note, that I am in no way trying to undermine the great advantages that multiculturalism has for a society. However, practicing cultures too loosely, which is often the case when there are many different ones, can lead to problems of insufficient socialization into society. As far as I’m concerned, this is closely related to the rise in individualism in North America, as well as the increasingly competitive nature of the educational system and society as a whole. My personal experience of growing up in Germany and now having lived in Canada for 5 years supports my argument. Therefore, emphasizing on a cultural collective would increase cooperative values. This would include: sufficiently integrating immigrants, spreading awareness of culturally significant events, and teaching about history.
    In addition, I believe that the secularization of North American societies is also causing a rise in competition and individualism. Religious people feel more integrated in society and have a better sense of community. While no one should be forced to become religious – communities and groups, such as the church are very valuable in creating a cooperative and collectivist environment. In addition, the decreasing numbers of marriages and fertility rates in North America also seem to play a role. Families and married couples are more likely to have a sense of interdependence and cooperation than single individuals and unmarried partners.

    Concerning Hutcheon, I believe that her idea of constructive critique instead of demolition of the opposing argument is a good and realistic way of encouraging cooperation in higher education. However, I do believe that competition is inevitable and also plays an important role in academia. (Especially in the sense of motivation.) Without competition, we would live in a communistic state in which our society couldn’t advance further, since people wouldn’t be motivated to succeed at a given task. (If no ones better than the other, what’s the point in working harder?)

    Good question by the way! Hope my response made sense !

    Ps: Sources include : Sapiens : A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noha Harari, 12 Rules for life by Jordan B. Peterson, Imagining Sociolgy by Catherine Corrigall Brown, Psychology openstax (and some academic journals and webpages)

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  4. Hey chuxuanz! Thanks for your comment.

    – to be fair, my name is quite difficult to spell!- 😉

    I totally agree with you!
    My critique was not so much focused on Hutcheons overall main idea, but on certain arguments she used. As I answered to Micah :” Concerning Hutcheon, I believe her idea of constructive critique instead of demolition of the opposing argument is a good and realistic way of encouraging cooperation in higher education.” My critique was rather focused on the seemingly apparent problem of the evil-spirited, destructive way of competing in higher education. (And the feminists argument by Helene.) ((To be more clear, I used the term “individual struggle for succes” as a synonym for ‘competition’.))In my opinion, the contemporary higher education and academia are not actually as malevolent and “war-zone-like” as depicted by Hutcheon. It is important to note that Hutchoens article is 17 years old – maybe the environment back then was indeed as she described.
    Personally, I’d say the present academia has a more prominent problem, related to Hutcheons idea. It is the problem of irrational, emotional argumentation over logical and factual one. I have to clarify myself here. Emotions are an integral part of logic and reason – since without emotion there would be no reason to argue at all. However, in contemporary higher education we can see that arguments are often entirely based on personal experience and emotional aggregation rather than factual and scientifically supported information. This can be problematic, as we have to differentiate between personal troubles (requiring specific, individual help) and public issues (requires governmental, societal change).

    Additionally, even destructive and emotionally based critique can actually strengthen ones argument as it allows for the argumentator to specify exactly how the given critique can’t be valid.
    An example could be the once widely accepted idea that certain vaccination are causing the development of autism in children. A scientist at a conference would argue that this causal relationship is not true, as scientific research and many peer-reviewed studies have not supported the claim. A destructive, but valid, counter-argument could come from a mother, who’s child indeed got autism few weeks after having been vaccinated. She might say something like : “I have the living proof! You are wrong ! My child has autism – because of vaccinations ! Don’t let the medical branch trick you into seemingly safe vaccinations – because – as you all can see, they are not! Now this emotionally aggrevated and destructive critique can be useful for the researcher to directly specify why this tragic case can’t be generalized. ( e.g. the autism might have been caused by something completely different – a confounding variable ; e.g. a prenatal viral infection, family history.. etc) Such could potentially get other mothers in similar situations to think about these other possible reasons for her child’s autism, instead of vaccinations.

    – This, however, is only true if the audience is at least partly experienced and knowledgeable in the matter being discussed.

    To have a rational discussion, one has to have the ability to think rationally.

    Hope that clarified my writing!

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