Dear blog followers and new readers the following entry is from guest blogger Jim Naremore. Jim is well know to the Indianapolis community. He is Partner and Director at 3rd Sector Consulting and WhitepaperBluesky: http://whitepaperbluesky.com/.
Jim Naremore (dba 3rd Sector Consulting), BA, Indiana University and graduate work in film studies and psychology, offers 25 years experience in public and private social change including the arts, environmental action and community development.
Dominant American culture in general, and the dominant Indianapolis status quo in particular, seem to have become especially enamored lately with the idea of competition. This seems somewhat counter to the loudly stated “anti-‐bully” push we’ve seen in recent years, since the basal notion of competition in the social setting largely stems from school-‐yard survival of the fittest; a sort of adhoc social Darwinism is taking place. This is particularly troubling when bully based, voyeuristic competition begins to spill over into the very serious “arena” (there’s a competition metaphor illustrating the point) of social progress or social change.
We’ve become awash in “competitions”, “challenges”, and “contests” here in Indianapolis in the last few years when we take up the questions of how to improve our community and our society. The most recent example is the Spirit And Place festival’s “A Competition about Race” contest where twenty thousand dollars will be awarded to the winning idea dealing with the issue of the “race dialog” and centering around the large theme of “risk”. We’ve seen it in every aspect of community and social efforts: education, community development, public art, etc., etc.
Probably a lot of reasons.
First realize that the masters of the competition (the Caesar of the gladiatorial contest) are invariably status quo groups: corporations, foundations, government agencies, enormous organizations, dominant social classes, or some combination or defacto creation of all of the above. A “competition” loudly trumpeted by these status quo groups to deal with issues, problems or questions that they themselves either created or profit from allows them to buy off a tremendous amount of guilt without a lot of cost to themselves. “We are allowing citizens/neighborhoods/the people the chance to come up with their own answers to these problems! Aren’t we magnanimous and of-‐the-‐people?” In reality what they’re saying is “We don’t really want to spend a great deal of effort to deal with this stuff, since we’re okay with it anyway. You do it for us.” And when the idea fails (which it usually does because its inherently sabotaged by the status quo) it allows them to say: “Ah, well, we tried! Gave it our best effort. It won a CONTEST after all. You can’t blame us.” It essentially allows the powers that be to check a box on their to do lists.
The second thing these competitions do is limit the communication. What “The best and most well-‐conceived idea wins!” really does for the status quo is solve this problem: “We really don’t have time for all you whiners. There’s too many of you. Pick one representative so we can deal with them and not waste our time.”
Most importantly, competitions ALWAYS provide the safest and most acceptable idea or answer for the status quo. Always. Competitions are by their nature tightly controlled and organized. They have lots of rules. Rules created and over-‐seen by the “competition committee” which is nothing but the status quo to begin with. This prevents messy disorganized out-‐of-‐the box solutions. And most obviously, all competitions have to be “judged”. Who are the judges? Usually either representatives of the organizers (with a few safe tokens for the community tossed in) or a popularity contest where the person with the most Facebook friends wins, or, in the rare cases where the judging is actually done by the people with the most to really gain from the answer (I mean besides the status quo, who always have the most to gain), the rules are so tightly manipulated or created that its impossible not to choose the status quo’s entry.
At this point someone usually says: “But resources are so limited. We have to focus our efforts on one or two ideas to get the most bang for our minimal bucks, right? Competitions are the best and fairest way to do this.”
Putting aside the real question: “Why are resources so limited if this is really an important issue?” for a moment…
No. Competitions, challenges and contests are spectacularly bad ways of getting solutions to social issues. So much so it should be obvious that they are precisely the WRONG way of going about it.
The first thing these contest do is guarantee only one (or a minimal number) of “winners”. With real pressing problems facing society (all of us) we need to have as many potential ideas as possible working at the same time. A correlation to this problem is that competitions automatically brand all non-‐winning ideas “losers”. Its really tough for a “losing” idea to gain traction anywhere else even if its really a good idea over-‐looked by a bad contest or bad judgment especially when potential funders or early adopters are sometimes wrapped up in the contest in the first place. There should be no “losers”, all ideas have great value and we should not jettison them or ignore them.
They don’t always give us the best solution, either. The bigger the contest the more likely you are to see the winner being the one with the best marketing or packaging or frame (the one that knows how to play the “game” best) winning. Often that has little or nothing to do with the actual quality of the solution presented.
Secondly, contests play into our cultural disease of minute attention span. A contest allows for basically ephemeral effort. “We only have to focus our attention as a large community until the next contest comes along.” This creates the atmosphere of short-‐term community (city-‐wide) attention rather than long-‐term thinking and exploration and trial and error experimentation with multiple ideas.
Lastly, and most insidiously, a competition or challenge or contest absolutely inherently cheapens or demeans the very issue it sets out to address. Contests or competitions are basically entertainment vehicles. As the leader of the Central Indiana Community Foundation recently stated “People love winners and losers”. The idea comes from sports. Entertainment. Issues like race or education or poverty or hunger or community empowerment are not there for entertainment purposes. The dominant social class and the monied status quo are not really sitting around enjoying watching people with real ideas fight it out over peanuts and then saying “That was fun. Is American Idol on yet?” are they? The notion of an “entertaining contest that people will enjoy because we all love winners and losers” in order to promote social progress is really disgusting.