Let’s be honest. America may be the most competitive country in the world (though China may have now surpassed us). Competitiveness lies at the heart of what has driven our country to become the best on Earth at so many things. Whether the space race, the arms race, the human genome race, or the rat race, we Americans have been determined to come in first in just about everything we do (including, seemingly, bad stuff like obesity, gun violence, and divorce).
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying competition is all bad. America’s competitiveness has propelled us to win Olympic gold medals, have the top universities, be the financial center of the world, the leader in technological innovation and medical breakthroughs, and dominate Nobel prize awards (about 40% have gone to the good old USA). And I’m not suggesting that we abandon our competitive ways. Too much good would be lost if America renounced its “We’re #1!” ways and decided to kick back and relax.
At the same time, I’m seeing some pretty clear indications that America’s competitiveness may be getting more than a little out of hand. More and more activities that people used to participate in because they were fun, healthy, social, or intellectually stimulating are being turned into competitions.
Let me begin with the most obvious: dancing and singing. Remember when you danced because it felt so good to just let go and move to the music (even if you were a terrible dancer)? Yes, there have been ballet competitions for many years, but that doesn’t seem like such a stretch because ballet dancers were already vying for coveted places in schools and companies, and for roles in productions. And ballroom dancing (which, believe it or not, is trying to become an Olympic sport) has been around for while. But it was so niche that it wasn’t a threat to change the zeitgeist of dance. Now we have Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.
Do you recall when singing for most of us involved belting out a tune in the shower, doing karaoke, or listening to other people sing on the radio, albums, cassettes, or CDs for the sheer pleasure of it? Now we have American Idol and The Voice in which contestants are competing for record contracts, fame, and fortune.
What about cooking though? It used to be about combining ingredients to create a memorable dining experience (or just putting food on the table). Yet now, competitive cooking shows, from Iron Chef to Worst Cooks in America, have become one of the hottest genres on television. You thought dancing and singing competitions were subjective? Could there be any other activity more ill suited for competition than cooking, which relies on the supremely idiosyncratic senses of taste and smell?
Well, actually, there are.
Consider poetry, that supreme combination of intellectual and creative expression. When I think of this art form, iconic poets, such as Yeats, Tennyson, Dickinson, Frost, and Angelou, come to mind. Can you imagine any of them going head-to-head in what are rather oxymoronically called poetry slams? Yet, poetry competitions have been growing in popularity over the last decade and have made appearances on television (though not on ESPN yet).
The piece de resistance of this dark turn in competitiveness in America has to be yoga (another activity with Olympic aspirations, however odd that may seem). I suppose if bodybuilding can be a sport, so can yoga. Both have to do with physical posing. But they seem to be so different in every way. Bodybuilding, it might be argued, is about physical appearance, narcissism, and certain Freudian compensatory mechanisms (not to mention steroids!). The practice of yoga, by contrast, has a deep spiritual underpinning in Buddhism, which has a world view that couldn’t be more contrary to competitiveness; a focus on mindfulness, inner calm, the present, and letting go of all things extraneous.
All of these incongruous examples are screaming for an answer to the question: Why has America embraced competitiveness to the point of absurdity? Answers to this question can be found at all levels from our culture to the human psyche.
As with most bad turns in our society these days, popular culture, in which just about every one of these new forms of competition resides, plays a significant role. The reality is that the American people weren’t clamoring for dancing, singing, or cooking competitions. Rather someone in the U.S. media had an idea (often stolen from Europe) and decided to see if these sorts of competitions might stick in America. Well, stick they did!
Competitive reality TV shows provide viewers (or should I say voyeurs) with the ability to live vicariously through the winners while experiencing the most exquisite schadenfreude watching the losers, without having to face the potential risks of experiencing these highs and lows first hand. Especially during times of instability and uncertainty (which pretty much describes the last few decades), this “arm’s length” engagement with the world provides both stimulation and safety, an appealing combination to be sure.
My greatest concern is that this trend toward making these most personal activities competitive suggests some deeper malaise spreading across our cultural and spiritual landscapes. Are so many people no longer finding such inherently enjoyable avocations meaningful? Do so many people find watching others compete at these activities more rewarding than actually doing them themselves simply for the joy of it?
Could this move toward increased competitiveness coincide with a change in America’s values and priorities? It certainly seems as if beating and being better than others has become a national obsession, whether getting into the best schools, winning in sports, or making the most money (even if you have to cheat). Whereas dancing, singing, cooking, poetry, and yoga should be about complete and blissful immersion, its purpose has been externalized and commodified.
At this point, there are more questions than answers. But what could possibly come next? What could possibly come next? Competitive meditation? Judged weddings or childbirth? Head-to-head sleep? The possibilities are endless, so stay tuned.