Everyone Deserves a Participation Trophy
We are suffering from too much meritocracy, not too little
One of the contradicting conservative criticisms of liberal culture is that we coddle people too much with our safe spaces and our participation trophies, but that we’re also destroying the old school jobs in rural America.
Don’t you get it motherfuckers? You lost, globalization won, and you don’t get no participation trophy!
I totally think we should bring jobs back to rural America. But, this push to deride liberals as being “too coddled” completely misrepresents what is wrong with liberal America. Liberal culture is too cutthroat, too ungenerous, too cold, too cruel. Despite liberal portrayal of themselves as humanitarians, in the US, they have consistently failed to protect the vulnerable while enriching themselves (often profiting from the misfortune of others.)
But, let’s back up for a second. What is the problem with participation trophies? Because I don’t see it.
The most common participation trophy I’ve seen is for my friends who run marathons/triathlons/etc. The cost of the trophy is covered by their entrance fee, so it’s not like they’re putting anyone out, and they get something to remember the day by. It’s like, getting a souvenir at Disneyland. And, finishing a marathon even if you don’t win is an accomplishment, and it’s nice to have a physical reminder of that.
Same logic could apply to a soccer league or volleyball tournament. Even if you don’t win, maybe you had a good time and your trophy helps you remember that. Maybe you and your friends take some stupid photos sticking out your tongues with your silly trophies, then 2 years later, you pick up your participation trophy and have yourself a little smile remembering the good times you had with your friends.
After all, if you had fun, you won!
On the flip side, if you won and it’s not the fucking Olympics, who cares? There’s always someone out there better than you. A friend of mine won like, most goals scored in some soccer league and I was all “congratulations!” and he was all “eh, it’s just a beer drinking league” and I was all “no, it’s great!” If you’re going to take the view that only “the best” deserve trophies, why do we give out any trophies for any soccer tournament that’s not the World Cup? Why do people in lesser leagues deserve trophies? After all, they’re not the best.
And, even you’re in the olympics, you probably won’t be the best ever. Probably in like, 20 years we’ll have genetically modified humans who can out high jump anyone today. So what’s the point of being the best in the world right now? Someone will ultimately outdo all the world records that we have today, so why do they even matter?
Well, they matter because they’re fun! They matter because they’re interesting. There’s nothing innately valuable about being the best at performing some arbitrary set of physical tasks, but we like it, so we make meaning out of it.
Well, what’s wrong with making meaning about participation? Yes, it means something different to winning, but no one ever thought that a participation trophy meant the same thing as a “winning” trophy. It’s just a different way of having fun, and it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why not embrace it?
Yet, in the US, we so deeply believe that that only the best deserve anything we’re willing to hang everyone else out to dry. Winning is only fun if the losers are miserable. Winning is the most important thing, fuck family, community, and spirituality.
What does it mean to be “the best” in modern liberal society? We like to think it means “who is the smartest,” but practically it ends up being who can produce the most value for their employer. That is capitalism.
And, by that metric, I have done well. Corporations love computer programmers because we can produce things whose value that far outstrips the cost of our salaries. I get several headhunters contacting me every week, even though I’m not looking for work right now. (They always try to poach me from my own company, which is the dumbest thing ever.)
But, computer programming is hard. The best way I can describe it, is it’s like sitting an 8 hour math test every day. Employers often expect you to put in far more than 40 hour week, to the point that I basically have no personal life while working in industry (see: why I founded my own company.) Many tech companies will add, as a benefit for women, the ability to freeze their eggs because they expect them to work so hard during their reproductive years that they won’t have time to have children. And, I also happen to know that many people take drugs (like adderall and cocaine) to keep up with the mental demands of their job, especially after their performance starts to wane after years of burnout.
To be the best, you have to live a life devoid of love (a disproportionate number of people in tech are single), a life devoid of interests (because you’re at the office all the time), and a life devoid of health (because you don’t have much time to workout, and if you do, you probably still take substances or drink heavily to cope with your job.)
Being the best is miserable. And, I should know — I went to a top tech school (MIT), I got good grades and was admitted to the computer science honors society. I am regularly headhunted by the top tech companies, and I have output such great work at the companies I worked for for that the investors personally sent on their compliments to the engineer (aka, me.)
And I want out.
I can’t work those jobs anymore. I did everything I was “supposed” to do, and it left me with a sad, empty life. I want jobs to come back to rural America so I can move out there and not spend all my earnings just getting by in an expensive city. I want to find a job that will give me time to raise a child. I want a job where I have time to date people so I don’t have to be alone forever. I want a job where I have time to contribute to my communities, religious and secular.
These jobs don’t exist in liberal America.
Liberal America is all about finding “the best” or being “the best.” It about disregarding people who don’t have “the right” education no matter how talented they are, or how much non-capitalist value they are adding to society. Liberal America is about being “the smartest” within a very narrowly defined definition of “smart,” and it’s about casting out everyone who can’t work at the “top level” no matter what a good person they are.
Every single person I’ve seen face a personal tragedy in the corporate world (usually an untimely death of a loved one) has gotten fired. While grieving, these people are not able to output as much as their non-grieving counterparts, so they are not the best anymore. They are no longer worthy of their job, so they are let go.
This is the compassionate world of liberals, those with the most misfortune are the most cast out. At the time of greatest need, we offer the least support. And the *only* place of relief I have ever seen is at the temple I go to (I’m Buddhist.) Religious community is the only place I’ve seen the sort of nurturing people need to get through tough times, but we don’t have much religion in liberal America either.
Liberals need more participation trophies. We need more of the kind, little things that make life worth living. We need meaning that’s not just “being the best.”
Because, most of us aren’t the best. And, even if we are, we’re not the best all the time. We have misfortune. We have illness. We have dependents who need our care. And, even if we don’t — even if we’re a healthy 25 year old with no kids or sick parents — so often “being the best” really means “most willing to suck corporate dick.” So often “being the best” means “devoting decades of our mind energy to making the rich even richer.”
We are living in a time of the greatest income disparity since the 1920s, and so often “being the best” means making this problem worse. It means taking a job to help concentrate wealth at the highest levels of society. It means working a 70 hour week to make your CEO even richer. But being the best is so important to so many people that they will do it, they will contribute to these social ills because they don’t want a participation trophy. They want a “win” trophy.
We look down on people for “just” participating, but participating is what it’s all about. The best things in life — weddings, births, parties, dances — they are often things you don’t win, they are things you just participate in. There is so much more joy to be had other than the joy of winning.
The corporate world will always still be there, and the ladder can still be climbed by all those who still insist on getting to the top. But, for those of us who are happy in the middle, who would take the joys of community over the joys of accomplishment, there’s not much left. There’s no way to build that kind of life anymore. We have to raise our bottom, make our poor less poor, and to make it so you don’t have to give up the joy of living just to stay alive.