Race – “Not some cheesy contest”

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.

Why?

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.

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