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The Ugly Side of Competitiveness

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By nature, I’ve never been a competitive person. In fact, people who are competitive make me nervous. Whenever the tense aura of competition seeps its way in, I’m usually the first in the group to silently retreat.

When I lived in Argentina during the past several months, one thing that surprised me was the relations between Argentine women. The women I would see ordering wine at a restaurant or waiting around for the bus seemed confident and self-assured, lounging comfortably in matching 5-inch platform heels and generously giving each other kisses on the cheek. They seemed to lack a competitive streak that often characterizes female relations in the States.

For instance, at Centro Hebreo Iona, a Jewish primary school in Buenos Aires where I was teaching, the girls in fifth grade were no older than 10, but every time I’d walk into the classroom, they’d huddle excitedly around, telling me not about themselves, but instead about each other.

“Go ahead, Cami!” little Romina would insist, nodding persistently at her friend. “Show Jessica your cartwheels!”

Camila would blush at first and politely decline, but within minutes she’d be doing gymnastics around the room at the insistence of her friends.

As proud as I was of the fifth graders for their maturity, it also made me realize what I lack in the interactions with my own friends. I may not be madly competitive, but I’m still plagued with the standard vices of jealousy or pride. How often do I praise their accomplishments? When do I encourage them to show off what they’re really good at?

Sure, competitiveness has its benefits, but when competition turns ugly, it often makes one do ugly things.

A couple years ago, public relations executive Justine Sacco was relaxing at JFK Airport, killing time before her flight to South Africa. Bored, she scrolled through her Twitter feed and decided to post: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS! Just kidding, I’m white!”

She thought it was clever. The rest of the world thought it racist.

By the time her plane landed 24 hours later, Justine was not only disgraced and fired from her job, but also publicly sneered at on an international scale. Her Tweet had gone viral, and she had transformed from a relatively obscure New Yorker to the global epitome of white privilege and ignorance.

One question that comes to mind is: Who circulated this Tweet? Justine had fewer than 200 followers, barely a touch in the vast world of social media. How did her Tweet, tucked into the discrete shadows of Twitter, suddenly burst into the spotlight?

It was a writer for Gawker Media, one of her followers, who was delighted to catch a PR pro in this awful fumble. He not only reposted her tweet to his 15,000 followers, but also continued to bully her for months after the incident. Was he just a bystander, eager to fight against racism online? Or was he simply an opportunist, grasping at the chance to topple a professionally successful woman in a similar field?

What about the hordes of Twitter followers, who felt the need to vilify Justine so publicly? Wouldn’t it achieve their purposes better to simply message her privately, and explain their outrage to her that way? Or did these Twitter mobs attack Justine just to show off how unlike her they themselves were?

In a similar move, when Patricia Arquette received an Oscar for Supporting Actress in Boyhood last weekend, she launched into a speech calling for wage equality for women. Backstage, she further expanded on her comments, and made several unfortunate remarks, including a plea for “gay people and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now.”

There are several options of how to respond at play here. One would be to deride Arquette as a detractor of intersectional feminism; another is to acknowledge that while she misspoke afterward, she also made several important points during her speech, and then point out that if there is any confusion about whom “feminism” encapsulates, then here it is: it’s all women.

Correcting Arquette is helpful and necessary — viciously attacking her is not. Yet many articles did exactly that. Does making a public mockery of others actually help anybody? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to teach others (privately) why they are mistaken, or how they misspoke? Isn’t this public mockery just … self-serving?

In Judaism, pride is regarded as a very serious vice. In fact, the Talmud goes as far as to claim that “God and the proud man cannot reside together in the same world.” Understanding that there is a larger plan, outside of yourself and your own world, is key to being humble. Making a public mockery of someone else’s misstep isn’t making progress — it’s simply a way to enhance your own pride in knowing that it wasn’t you who made the offensive comment.

In the case of Patricia Arquette, several feminists turned on her, decrying her as the epitome of what she was trying to fight against. Instead of correcting Patricia, her critics simply blasted her and placed themselves on a higher pedestal.

Did this sort of competitiveness among women help feminism? I shouldn’t think so. If the girls at Iona are any sort of example, it’s working together and encouraging one another that leads to progress. The other, the sort of prideful behavior of angry Twitter mobs, helps nobody, least of all the causes we’re all supposedly fighting for.

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