The Shame Of Losing And The Cult Of Winning

Here in the West, specifically in the U.S., we value winning over pretty much anything. In any contest — sports, academic, military, and even social situations — the trajectory of progress is linear: keep your eyes on the goal, full steam ahead, and don’t let anything get in your way.

That’s what competition is about, after all. Why play if you’re not out to win? Why would you pay money to see a movie if you just plan on falling asleep? Winning at something isn’t really at issue here. Winning, coming out ahead, achieving first place…all inherently noble goals that under perfect conditions push us to do our very best and, failing that, make us want to learn more, train harder, and try again.

Trying again isn’t always an option, though, and that’s the problem. Our culture is so winning-oriented that we have effectively removed all benefit from failure. It’s become a dirty word, and a mark of shame. “You failed”. “You are a failure”. It’s one of the worst sitgma a person has to live with in modern Western society.

On one hand, we lionize winning. Our culture is seeped in messages that winning is everything: “win big or go home”. “Second place is first loser”. All sporting equipment is sold with the promise that it’ll catapult you into the winner’s circle. Watch any championship broadcast and you’ll see orchestrated images of happy winners and dejected losers. Even in the niche realm of PC components aimed at video game enthusiasts, you’ll see ads from manufacturers extorting how their products will allow you to “dominate” and “destroy your competition”.

Failure, then, is no longer defined as the position earned when the other guy did better than you. It’s now viewed as not having measured up, or that you weren’t good enough. Losers are shamed in this environment; it’s not even good enough to win. The amount of accolades a winner receives is directly related to how brutally they bury their opponent. The goal isn’t just to compete, but to brutally massacre the competition to the point where they can’t even rise again to demand a rematch.

It’d be one thing is we were just talking about sports here. After all, we’re a species that figured that putting guys with swords in an arena qualified as a “sport”, so in the Big Picture, creative camera work that highlights the happy winners and weeping losers is pretty benign. Here in the West, when winning means everything, it manages to infiltrate all kinds of places where there shouldn’t be any competition, and where there normally is, it elevates that competition to the level of a bloodsport.

The biggest ramification that I see is that it drives people apart. Everything becomes about winning, and about being right. It means that we can’t have discussions on important topics because each of us has closely held beliefs that we need to defend at all costs. Any potential point of view that could alter our personal world view would prove not that we were not right isn’t seen as an opportunity to expand our world view, but that we lost an argument and that we were wrong.

Being wrong is just as bad as losing in modern society, and the only way we can “be wrong” is if someone else is “right”, and only if both parties (if not more) are aware of it. That results in a social showdown in which one person gets to do a victory dance while the other looks foolish. On the Internet, this is magnified exponentially, and it never ever goes away. Our loss becomes institutionalized in Google’s cached page system, on Facebook, or other social network. So people do everything they can to minimize their chances of looking foolish and being branded a loser by not engaging in discussion, or, if they are pulled into it (willfully or not), the fangs come out and it’s a take-no-prisoners brawl which won’t end until one participant stomps the other into the virtual dirt.

So what are we really losing by demonizing losing? In an ideal world, the outcome of a competition isn’t the extreme polar opposite of winners and losers. It’s most honest representation is a sprint: two runners on parallel tracks, neck and neck, until one pulls ahead of the other. The loser didn’t lose because he or she wasn’t good enough; they lost because the winner was just a bit better. And there’s nothing that says that winning erases poor performance early in the game. Sometimes winning is done in the last moments of the competition, in a “come from behind” style victory we always appreciate. The point is, a winner is only the person who pushed ahead at the last minute. Before that, there’s no guarantee that the guy who’s ahead will win, or the guy who’s behind will lose.

The main benefit of losing is that we get to learn from our mistakes. In sports, performance is a big deal, and athletes take it seriously. They review hours and hours of past performance for both themselves and their competition. They learn from what they did wrong, and what their opponents did wrong, and they try and do better. This is what we miss out on when losing is equated with shame, and when the purpose of winning is to destroy the opposition so that they can’t come back and try again.

Outside of sports, though, one thing that not allowing dignity in losing is honesty. People will go to great lengths to cover the shame of losing by redirecting blame, or doubling their efforts to find an equally or more devastating attack on their opponent that will turn the tides. We aren’t allowed to own up to our mistakes because it makes us look weak and imperfect. When trying to project a persona (especially online to impress, or in politics), we can’t have any flaws. We have an idea that people will only accept us as superhuman constructs that can do no wrong. On the other hand, we’re horrified when we find out that these personas are actually human after all, as if we didn’t consciously know that already.

Most of the arguing on the Internet comes from this unfortunate situation. Being right is valued so much that being wrong is treated like a crime simply so the “winner” can feel superior and appear intelligent in front of strangers in an attempt to gain a virtual pat on the back and acknowledgement that they’re someone with good ideas and above-average intellect. By punishing the loser in a public forum, the winner shows that he’s someone you don’t want to mess with when it comes to arguing on the Internet, because he’ll destroy you and make you look stupid. It’s the modern day equivalent of kicking sand in someone’s face at the beach.