A Culture War in Miniature

A debate about a 4th-grade basketball game illustrates, on a very small scale, some of the primary cultural and political divides facing America today:

A few days before the game, Jay’s father called me. He and the other parents of his son’s team were “very, very concerned.” Even alarmed. Apparently, as the championship game neared, the boys were doing a lot trash-talking at each other. Surely we could all agree that the real reason for the competition was to teach the boys cooperation and sportsmanship. Playing the game would mean one of the teams would lose, which would lead the winning team to “bragging rights in the schoolyard.” And that would not be healthy. It would undermine the real lessons to be learned about self-esteem and mutual respect.

He dwelled on these points for a while, finally landing heavily on the notion that this was a wonderful opportunity for us, as parents, to “frame the situation as a teaching moment.” Eventually, he got to the money point: He and the other parents of Jay’s team wanted to cancel the championship game. After all, we could all agree that both teams were already winners, right?

Initially, I was nonplussed. But I heard myself saying something like, “You’re way over-complicating this. The purpose of playing the game is to win it. And by the way, the winning team has earned bragging rights.”

As it happened, the two teams fell out along socioeconomic lines. Most of the parents from the other team were professors at the nearby state university, with a couple of doctors as well. Their coach was a well-published sociologist; Jay’s father taught psychology. Our coach was a private detective with a scar on his face, a reminder of a knife fight he had had in Mexico. One of our team’s parents was a real estate broker, another a chef; one sold insurance, one was a building inspector.

What we have here are members of two very different self-selected tribes, which we might call (a)the tribe of the challengers, as its members believe that people grow by facing difficult situations–including situations in which success is not guaranteed, and (b)the tribe of the brittle, as members of this tribe tend to implicitly or explicitly believe that people are so fragile that they must be protected from setbacks that might threaten their self-esteem. And, thinking about this story, it struck me that membership in these tribes very much cuts across the usual demographic categories of race, ethnicity, income, and sex. (Although the writer says “the two teams fell out along socioeconomic lines,” I think the dominant factor here is occupation rather than income. And although he refers to “an effort to feminize young boys,” there are plenty of women whose membership is in the tribe of the challenger.)

What seems clear to me is that in any form of competition between societies–economic, military, even artistic–a society in which the tribe of the brittle plays a leading role will always lose out, in the end, to a society in which the tribe of the challengers drives the overall spirit of the society.

link via Maggie’s Farm

13 thoughts on “A Culture War in Miniature”

  1. Oh, for heaven’s sake.

    These are the people that make an educator’s life very difficult. How to tell dear little Johnny or Mary that their efforts are not quite up to the mark?

    – Madhu

    (I needed to hear that as a young person – that I could and should do better. I was shy as a young person. I was brittle, partially, because I was so loved, protected and cossetted early in life. Hey, I’m not complaining (lucky me!), but it didn’t always help me out later in life and on this everyone in mi familia agrees. I sometimes back down when I should stand up.

    Those incidents that DID knock me around helped with the shyness and the brittleness. The parents in the above post may mean well, but it will not help their children deal with the set-backs, the small sadnesses and inevitable disappointments of life.

    Also, as you say, it won’t help you become a winner. Winning takes a hunger.

    Well, something about that anecdote sure struck a nerve. They are not helping.)

  2. Madhu–“it will not help their children deal with the set-backs, the small sadnesses and inevitable disappointments of life”

    Indeed. Almost certainly, these same parents are highly focused on making sure their kids get the credentials and “skills” that they (the parents) think are the primary factors for success in life. They miss the important role that is played by meta-skills, or what used to be called “character.”

  3. The difference between the two groups of parents, which I’ve tried to capture in the phrases “tribe of the challengers” and “tribe of the brittle,” is similar but not quite identical to the distinction between “hard America” and “soft America” in Michael Barone’s book of that name.

    Barone’s book is very much worth reading. However, I think he tends to identify hard America and soft America too exclusively with the *type* of organization for which a person works, rather than the specific kind of work that the individual does. I’d argue that an emergency-room nurse or an air traffic controller is basically a part of “hard America,” even if they work for a nonprofit or governmental organization, whereas a Human Resources person is likely to have some “soft America” characteristics even if they work in a for-profit company.

  4. The key thing to understand here is the “soft” or “brittle” people aren’t opposed to conflict and competition. They are just opposed to competition in fields of endeavor in which they do not have a decisive advantage.

    You can quickly uncover their hypocrisy by shifting the debate over competition to their own field. For example, simply assert that “everyone is a winner” in an academic debate and that therefore there is no reason for anyone, especially policy makers, to prefer one academic viewpoint over another. If all academic arguments are equal then all academics are equal as well and we can just hand out tenure randomly. Ditto for any other field especially politics. Just tell them that elections are ugly competitive things and that moral people like themselves should just sit them out.

    The soft-brittles will instantly revert to warrior mode and claim that of course people have to fight tooth and nail in their area of dominance. Indeed, many of them will heartily endorse deception and scorched earth to win fights in their domain.

    The extension of the soft-brittles hypocrisy to foreign policy is simply an attempt to make everyone in the world view the soft-brittles as the solution to every problem. They oppose military solutions purely because they are not involved in the military solution so they can’t benefit from it. Indeed, they have developed a pattern of slandering the military just for this reason. Every military action must be a failure because otherwise the soft-brittles aren’t important.

    The soft-brittle parents in the basketball game probably didn’t want their children to lose to a team whose parents they judged their social and intellectual inferiors. Instead, they simply wanted to wipe out competition in an arena they could not dominate.

  5. Shannon…possibly. But what about, say, ed-school professors who preach noncompetitive grading and reject performance-based pay & promotion for teachers? Even though ed-school profs are by no means the brightest stars in the academic firmament, they probably see themselves as smarter than the average K-12 teacher, so if they project themselves into that role, they’d see people-like-them as *winning* in a competitive teacher-evaluation environment.

  6. What crossed my mind was indeed something along the line of “Tribes”. It was Bill Whittle’s classic piece of the same name, which can be found here:


    Two Tribes in the world, Pink and Grey. No race, no skin color. It is all mindset. From the piece:

    The Pink Tribe is all about feeling good: feeling good about yourself! Sexually, emotionally, artistically – nothing is off limits, nothing is forbidden, convention is fossilized insanity and everybody gets to do their own thing without regard to consequences, reality, or natural law. We all have our own reality – one small personal reality is called “science,” say – and we Make Our Own Luck and we Visualize Good Things and There Are No Coincidences and Everything Happens for a Reason and You Can Be Whatever You Want to Be and we all have Special Psychic Powers and if something Bad should happen it’s because Someone Bad Made It Happen. A Spell, perhaps.

    The Pink Tribe motto, in fact, is the ultimate Zen Koan, the sound of one hand clapping: EVERYBODY IS SPECIAL.


    Then, in the other corner, there is the Grey Tribe – the grey of reinforced concrete. This is a Tribe where emotion is repressed because Emotion Clouds Judgment. This is the world of Quadratic Equations and Stress Risers and Loads Torsional, Compressive and Tensile, a place where Reality Can Ruin Your Best Day, the place where Murphy mercilessly picks off the Weak and the Incompetent, where the Speed Limit is 186,282.36 mph, where every bridge has a Failure Load and levees come in 50 year, 100 year and 1000 Year Flood Flavors.

    The Grey Tribe motto is, near as I can tell, THINGS BREAK SOMETIMES AND PLEASE DON’T LET IT BE MY BRIDGE.

    There is more; Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs. I spent 28 years wearing a badge, and I think that barely qualifies me to be a Grey Tribe Sheepdog; but I know that there are many others who have really earned that title more than I. But the main difference is how the universe is percieved.

    My father came to this country from China, alone, and 12 years old. When he came, Chinese were literally not counted as human beings under American law. By the time I was born, that had changed less than ten years previously. He earned his citizenship as one of the first non-white squad leaders in the the combat infantry, crossing Europe with Patton’s Third Army. He came home and built several businesses. While raising me, I was told time and again that in order to get the same rewards as a white person, I had to be three times as good.

    Things had changed. But knowing that the world was not going to be fair, and that if I worked harder, longer, and smarter I would have a chance sure did not hurt me. Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s there was no one to pat me on the popo and tell me that it did not matter if I lost, because I was just as good if not better for losing. And for that, I am profoundly grateful. I have raised 4 children, and while they have each had setbacks in their lives, they are all successful and on the right track. Part of that is because they were raised with the expectation that they would and could excel, with no excuses accepted.

    When the organic waste impacts the rotating airfoil, which tribe do you want to be surrounded by? And which tribe do you think is going to fail to survive?

    Subotai Bahadur

  7. Shannon…continuing the previous thought, I think you’re right that people generally are more eager for competition in areas where they know or think they have an advantage…I suspect that Mensa members rarely oppose IQ tests, for instance. But I also think some people tend to be challenge-seekers across the board more than others.

  8. I recently attended a gymnasics “competition”. My two daughters attend a gymnastics school and the competition was intra-school. They divided the kids up by age, and they each went through the four disciplines – floor exercise, balance beam, vault, and parallel bars. The idea, I believe, was to teach the kids how a real gymnasics competition is structured. The kids were judged, and all received ribbons and medals to the delight of the parents and grandparents attending. Except me.

    During the part at the end when each child was allowed to receive a medal atop the first place spot on the podium I leaned over to my wife and asked her (somewhat loudly) at what age do they begin to have winners and losers at this thing? Most of the parents gave me scowls, but my wife and a few other parents gave me laughs or thumbs up. But that is Madison for you.

  9. Most schools I’ve dealt with or known about do a decent job of balancing both impulses. Do we really need to pretend that parents who want to tamp down the competitiveness are the norm or somehow tyrannically taking over? For every parent overly concerned with over-competition, there is another overly concerned that the coach or the team or the regimen is insufficiently tough or competitive. And the latter, it should come as no surprise, tend to be a lot more aggressive in their presentation — even if they do at least tend to eschew condescension.
    I have spent some time in Japan where all schools have a field day or “undokai” which is in most ways, similar to the American variety. There is heated competition, indeed, but the focus is rigorously held on the team competition between the *red* and *white* teams, into which the entire student body is equally divided. The events are ingenious in their deployment of team work skills. The event usually starts with a contest to see which side can pass an oxen-sized latex ball hand to hand once around the field. From there, there are conventional footraces, relay races, human-pyramid like contests and an incredibly exciting relay race involving a bamboo pole passed across the heads of a moving line of students. The event is a very strong blend of intense focus and teamwork and cooperation. The urban Japanese schools where I have seen these events pack the students in and the events are literally coordinated down to the second. If one person fails to be at their assigned position on time, the entire event is held up. It is stunning how seldom this happens.
    Maybe if Americans could be a little more honest and up front about their true stakes in the *culture wars* they’d find easier to take advantage of learning opportunities like the *undokai.*

  10. Cassandra has some related comments today:

    “I found that my boys had a better opinion of themselves when they were challenged. I think kids in general NEED to fail occasionally: that’s how they learn. When that happens, you teach them to analyze what went wrong, pick up the pieces and try again. I think occasionally failing teaches them that it’s really not the end of the world. I used to stress stories and biographies of famous people who failed several times before they eventually succeeded to show my sons that failure is normal and natural. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not trying hard enough (or trying hard enough things)…When I was raising my boys I did a lot of reading and I couldn’t help but notice the great, yawning gap between how our parents and grandparents raised boys and how children are raised nowadays.

    Back then, most societies actually put obstacles in a boy’s way – really hard or painful things that had to be endured or overcome. Learning to deal with that sort of thing built character – taught a child that he was stronger than he thought. This is what Marine boot camp does – it pushes recruits to the limits of exhaustion and in the process they learn just how strong and resourceful they really are.

    Now we act as if the slightest difficulty will prevent a child from ever accomplishing anything.

    I just cannot understand it.”

  11. To both Shannon and Subotai Bahadur, I can only say, “Hear, hear, hear, hear, hear.” Most people with poorly thought-out pacifist tendencies put a strict limit on the areas in life where the rules against competing and winning hold sway, and it doesn’t usually include areas where their own ox can get gored.

    We went through a cultural phase in which people rightly reviled the sort of parent who’s so tied up in some kind of wish to live vicariously through his jock son that he’d reject him personally if he’s not the star of Friday night’s football game. What that has to do with handing out medals for losing, or for canceling championship games for fear of giving someone an excuse to brag, I can’t imagine.

    Glen Kuniyuki points out, with some justification, that you can have competition that values teamwork and doesn’t merely aggrandize individual cut-throat instincts, but that’s just a question of what a competition is measuring. It still makes sense to decide what’s the valuable characteristic and who has won the contest that measures it best. As for behaving properly when you’ve won (or lost), that’s called sportsmanship and perserverance, and we’re supposed to be teaching that, too.

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