Beyond the Culture of Contest

Beyond the Culture of Contest

I was talking recently to a couple of friends when I suddenly noticed that the phrase: “Discussion drives progress” came up quite frequently. When I asked “In what way?”, the replies included thoughts like “the comparison between oppositional opinions enables new perspectives”, “provides the opportunity for changing someone’s opinion/mind”, “points of view get exchanged, where the right ones are kept and the other ones are being dropped”, and so on. Ultimately the replies all circled around notions like ownership of ideas/opinions, the skill of persuasion, winning or losing an argument and that having a discussion was more efficient/progressive than engaging in dialogue.

This triggered my curiosity: I wanted to know where this attitude of constant competition comes from and why it is so prevalent in our society. That’s how I came about Michael Karlberg’s book Beyond the Culture of Contest. In addition to being a sociological study of western-liberal societies, it is in no way only relevant within the academic sphere of critical theory of culture and communication. I can only highly recommend this book to anyone who is frustrated with the state of our society and wants some suggestions on how to change it. But let me not get ahead of myself. Here are some of Karlberg’s assumptions, I thought worth sharing.

“Surrounding this culture of contest is a culture of protest.”

The book begins with: “We live in a culture of contest. In western-liberal societies, our economic, political and legal systems, as well as many of our other social institutions and practices, are competitive and conflictual. Surrounding this culture of contest is a culture of protest. In response to the social and ecological problems engendered by our culture of contest, we engage in protests, demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, partisan organizing, litigation, strikes and other oppositional strategies of social advocacy and change.” For Karlberg, this is largely due to the discursive constructs that shape our individual and collective thought. One example is the metaphor Thomas Hobbes used to describe human societies as ‘war of all against all’. Karlberg argues that this culturally specific metaphor tremendously influenced European and American thought and practice.

“These hyper-competitive values also translate into rivalries between entire nations.”

He continues by claiming that these conflictual and competitive norms have become so pervasive that they appear natural and inevitable, so far as to define human nature itself as predominantly aggressive and essentially selfish: “These hyper-competitive values also translate into rivalries between entire nations. Every modern capitalist nation, in an attempt to pursue the maximum possible gain for its own consumer-citizens, currently vies with every other nation, in the global market. Struggles over the accumulation and control of resources, capital, labour, commodities, and information play daily in the global market – with the citizens of each nation regularly alerted to the state of competition through comparisons of Gross Domestic Product, the balance of trade reports, currency exchange rates and other indicators of relative national advantage.”

Throughout his book, Karlberg mentions the other side of adversarialism which is mutualism. It refers to “the pursuit of mutually inclusive gains by individuals or groups working with one another. Cooperation, collaboration, and concerted or coordinated action are all expressions of mutualism.” He states that this side has always been present, yet was deemed unrealistic as it seemingly clashes with adversarialism. Karlberg maintains that this is a myth and that we have a very narrow view of what competition actually means. For example within rules ensuring fair play competition has positive outcomes for all involved. The same is true when competition is motivated by mutual gains. More importantly, however, he indicates to the fact that by investing all our energy into adversarial forms of social conduct, we’ve neglected alternative forms like mutualism and the possibilities this engenders.

Much like mutualism, dialogue is still seen as contrasting to discussion or debate, f.ex.: Dialogue is collaborative and debate is oppositional, dialogue implies an open-minded attitude, whereas a discussion creates a closed-minded attitude, dialogue asks to temporarily suspend our beliefs, a debate demands that we believe in them wholeheartedly, and so on. Again, this opposing view is limiting our ability to explore further possibilities of communicational forms, because it forces us to choose either one or the other. And this is the fundamental issue with our society today. We are given pre-determined oppositional choices and are coerced into choosing either one. We are either for or against. If we are not happy with the outcome, we can still protest. Yet Karlberg wants us to question this dynamic further: How useful is it to protest the outcome, if we didn’t even have a say in the choice that was given to us?

“…(B)y channelling social reform energy into contest arenas that favour more powerful social groups by design, these strategies may be diverting energy from more constructive alternatives. Hence the culture of protest may leave social reformers at a perpetual disadvantage within the larger culture of contest.”

In conclusion: “If we cannot transform the culture of contest through a culture of protest, how else can we pursue social change?”

Karlberg gives multiple and hands-on practical answers to this enormously relevant question and they all start with a change in our thinking:

“In an age of increasing interdependence, social change can be pursued more efficiently in a non-adversarial manner by withdrawing time and energy from the old cultural models and investing that time and energy in the construction of new, more just and sustainable models.”



In case of further interest, here is Dr. Michael Karlberg’s Ted talk: