A cloud is shown in the sky above.

What are we shouting about? Restoring the beauty of contest

What a relief to be reminded during the Olympics and Paralympics of the nobility of a contest! The athletes showed us that we can all be elevated when we compete well, and that a bronze medal or even a last place can be worthy of celebration. 

Why do we seem to have lost the capacity to compete as effectively on ideas? Debate, like sport, can be noble. A healthy and vigorous contest of ideas can disrupt patterns of dysfunction and lead to innovation and freedom. Conflict can be a thing of beauty, revealing weakness in our models and systems and promoting new platforms for connection, relieving poverty, and restoring hope. 

But let’s be honest. It is hard to describe much of our current debate as beautiful, or even tolerable. It feels more like warfare than a contest. The way we dispute without listening or learning deepens our sense of hopelessness, tribalism and isolation. It is not only a waste of energy – it undermines what connects us as humans. 

Surely, a healthier debate in the public square cannot be beyond our collective capacity! What can we learn from the athletes? How could we transform our debate so that it is more like sport than war? 

In sport, the contest itself unifies competitors around the shared love of the game. The shared pursuit of sport is to be better, within agreed boundaries. The extraordinary performances of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in men’s tennis in recent years shows how individual excellence is driven by outstanding competition, to the credit of each and the game as a whole. In struggling against when we cross onto the field of play, we actually struggle with and alongside in the bigger theatre.  

In warfare, there is no remaining hope in shared purpose. It is defined by that which divides and separates. War is an admission that ideas or values that are common have proven inadequate to remain side by side. All that is left is to compel one view on another with violence, with the loser yielding to the dominating victor. It is no coincidence that we have begun to describe policy debate as “culture wars”, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it leads to a desire to vanquish, diminish and destroy. We allow our tribes to be framed as opposing armies, rather than as teams in a shared battle – left against right, West against East, secular against religious, progressive against conservative. 

A recent book may help us redefine our tribes as teams, and our competition more as a struggle with, than a struggle against.

In “Nurturing our humanity“, sociologist Riane Eisler and anthropologist Douglas Fry suggest that we could usefully replace the traditional social dualities described above with two contrasting configurations, “the domination system and the partnership system“.

Whether within a family or more generally within a society, social systems that orient closely to the domination side of the continuum are ultimately held together by fear and force.” This includes models where power is expressed and experienced as authoritative. It is power over. The authoritarian model has been described by historian Tom Holland in his best-selling “Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind” as the dominant ethic among the ancient Greeks and Romans: “The heroes of the Iliad, favourites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden. So too, for all the honour that Julian paid them, had philosophers. The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control.” 

When we approach debate with a desire to dominate, we almost inevitably cast our opponents as the enemy needing to be not only defeated but humiliated. We shift from a shared battle to improve, and take up our weapons for face-to-face combat. No mercy!

Eisler and Fry suggest that “the partnership configuration is more peaceful, egalitarian, gender-balanced, and environmentally sustainable… [T]he partnership system consists of beliefs and structures that support relations based on mutual benefit, respect, and accountability.” 

In Australia, we have the benefit of an example of a partnership framework expressed through custodial responsibility. Many First Nations origin stories frame humans as having a responsibility passed down from the creator beings to sustain the health of the system that in turn sustains life. Perhaps this can be summarised by Uncle Ben’s mandate to Peter Parker in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility“. It is power for and on behalf of. Tyson Yunkaporta in his brilliant “Sand Talk” describes it this way “… the role of custodial species is to sustain creation, which is formed from patterns of complexity and connectedness.” A hierarchy of responsibilities can be experienced as empowering rather than controlling. 

This partnership framework gives us language to allow forceful and passionate contest, without diminishing any of the participants. Sporting contestants form a partnership of sorts, to push one another to higher performance, to entertain and inspire spectators, and to reveal the fluidity of our previous performance thresholds. 

A partnership mindset is evident in the way our sporting codes have responded to Covid-19. While they are fierce competitors on the ground, they have adapted and collaborated flexibly to protect the game and reward its supporters when the spectacle of the game itself has been under threat. We are all elevated as they struggle with, even as they struggle against once they cross the white line.

Debate too can have that character. The common law system of adversarial justice seeks to embed a contest for the common good, by pitting the best arguments and evidence of each participant against one another with an impartial umpire. This is guarded by the infrastructure of the courts and rules of procedure which are intended to foster the contest in a way which is fair and balanced (albeit with varying success – the dominating power of excess wealth undermines the capacity of the system to foster a fair contest). 

We have also seen examples in the National Cabinet of the value of listening to diverse perspectives at different levels of Government, and allowing that learning to inform a cohesive systemic response. A crisis has the capacity to reveal what we share that is at risk, and enlivens a partnership response opportunity. We have also seen that partnership undermined when old domination habits creep into the discourse to propose outcomes with clear winners and losers.

As we work with organisations to align more effectively around shared purpose, collaboration, and shared accountability for high performance, we find the language and structures of partnership to be increasingly helpful to replace models and language based on domination, compliance and control. 

It is surely within our reach to do the same with our rules of engagement in the public square.