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Friday, April 20, 2018

Winning is everything -- how cultures celebrate toxic competitiveness

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"Steroid abuse affected my dad as it does many people. He became aggressive, overly confident and reckless... He was a strong man, used to being in control. He began using drugs to improve his performance, but forgot they were also highly addictive and could alter his personality... But when I railed against his latest betrayal, my mum would simply hold me and say: "It's not him Emma, it's the drugs." I couldn't understand it then, but I do now."

Emma Fowle writes this personal piece about dealing with her father abusing drugs to be a lifting champion.  The piece titled "My dad used performance-enhancing drugs - it nearly killed him" is very emotive chronicling the familial issues that come from using enhancement drugs and their repercussions. For one, Fowle's father became arrogant, reckless, prone to infidelities and almost lost his family. As he later delineated, winning is everything for athletes. Proving to the judges that he can lift became everything to him so much so that everything else became secondary.

We have made a world where winning is everything and so our responses and our criteria reflect that mindset. When it comes to money, power, sexuality and even identity we want recognition in a way that may be competitive to other personalities. We do not have room for failure. We can be said to becoming more complacent and stagnant as a species.

Drugs are obviously an addiction. However, our modern societies have this other addiction. An addiction to winning or proving we are the best. In modern narratives, losers are always losers. Winning at games, sports, academics even life, with a conventionally attractive spouse and/or a major profession seems to be the ultimate aim. The adage, "Failure is the pillar of success" has lost some of its potency.

We do not like our children giving us mediocre grades. Instead of thinking education is a learning curve we want the gifted child. This fabled prodigious talent who can succeed in anything and everything. Media has also fostered this viewpoint with the persistent hero who never fails, despite their gender, whose failure is treated as a character flaw than something that is rigged against them or not dependent on circumstances.

A few years ago, Bangladesh private universities seemed to have suffered what we can term as the Yaba epidemic. Law enforcers were vigilant to recognize the addictive properties of the drug and try to seize it at its sources and stop its widespread influences. I was a student in university at the time too and I did not know anyone who personally abused this drug. What I heard from second-hand sources is that Yaba was a performance enhancement drug and that it made one 'super-focused.'

For a particular period of time, the person affected by the drugs could be doing at a stretch, without sleeping or resting, the task at hand. Of course, withdrawal would be something completely horrible. With the drugs evacuating the body's system one felt drained and completely tired. These extreme highs and lows could do fatal damages to the body. 

The reason behind this epidemic was the elusive CGPA/GPA score. People wanted to get better grades; they wanted to win at the 'game' of academics. The way our modern universities are structured it is imperative to be an all-rounder. And being a jack of all trades means to be good at almost everything you are participating in the university. This is not always plausible as humans are mortal beings, who are susceptible to illnesses, stress, family issues and other problems.

Yet, we want humans to succeed despite anything thrown at them. Education systems have become cogs in which one is meant to perform and that performativity is tied to winning.  Winning is translated here as being socially popular, academically successful and even successful in class participation and sports participation if one is in some sports activities in university.

To balance these things out is very difficult but we think winners would automatically be able to balance all these things without guidance and with 'inherent talent.' Taking drugs is living up to the 'dream of success' and so Yaba users felt they were achieving something, perhaps even at the costs of their human agencies and consciousness. From home, we are indoctrinated to learn that winning is everything and the only thing that really matters. We celebrate the promotions our parents have at work and we are meant to celebrate the school results of our children. Parents compare children to other children stating why we can't be more like them when we are not succeeding.

There are many reasons a child may not succeed at school. Perhaps they have a learning disability, perhaps they are intimidated by teachers or bullied by them alongside other students or perhaps the ways of teaching do not correspond to their ways of learning or understanding. South Asia has only recently begun to delve into these issues but for a long time rote memorization and doing well in exams was the key way to gauge someone's 'intelligence.' That is only one type of intelligence and not the whole wheel of it.

Success has become synonymous with the conventional standard of winning and it starts also at home with how we talk about familial structures. To us, our breadwinning father is more successful and a winner if he always brings in more money and our homemaker mothers have to be the expert of all household chores and cooking. We indifferently compare and gauge our spouses' beauty to reliability without ever understanding we are dealing with different people in different socio-cultural environments. In-laws are also looking for some "chaste" ideal type of wife or a wealthy husband whereas these modes of thought may be very anachronistic and biased.

We come into a world, which is already very prejudiced in terms of competitiveness. We also want to leave with such recognition and competitive vigor. Many years later, when Fowle's father had stopped abusing drugs and has saved his marriage and family, he and his daughter were reading a survey. It talked about a drug that could help enhance your performance but reduce your lifespan to only 10 more years after using the drug. Fowle saw that many people responded they would use the drug even if it meant a shorter lifespan. Fowle asked her father about the response and he said a younger him would also have answered in this manner. To these athletes it is better to be immortalized as a winner than die as a loser.

We have made a world where winning is everything and so our responses and our criteria reflect that mindset. When it comes to money, power, sexuality and even identity we want recognition in a way that may be competitive to other personalities. We do not have room for failure. We can be said to becoming more complacent and stagnant as a species. For some, that is not an issue. Being moral and ethical may seem redundant when you are to prove to the world you aren't lesser than anyone else. By being a success you win and in that you somehow seem to become better than everyone else. These arbitrary ways of gauging successes and failures may ultimately be our own downfall.


The writer is a copy editor at The Asian Age

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