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How To Be Human

Should we encourage competition in our culture? Or seek to eradicate it as the likely cause of our own demise?
juan gatti ciencias naturales 8
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The word “humane” conjures the best we can be: kind, empathetic, considerate. Yet as a species we are uniquely competitive and warlike. Is this who we really are, and the source of our success? Should we encourage competition in our culture? Or seek to eradicate it as the likely cause of our own demise?

Dr Finn Mackay specialises in feminist activism at the University of the West of England. In 2004 she founded the London Feminist Network, one of the largest grassroots feminist activist organisations in the country. 

Here she argues that gender difference is neither natural nor inevitable and that competition does not lead to excellence, as neoliberalism would have us believe.



You say that humans impose an artificial hierarchy onto all living things, yet there are hierarchies all across nature. Is it really so unnatural to be a hierarchical species?

I believe that under patriarchal capitalism, a hierarchy has been imposed onto all living things. This constructed hierarchy is sanctified in most world religions: man is put at the top, with the power to name and bring into being everything around him, including women, including non-human animals.

You may ask what is wrong with this, as in nature we accept that there is a food chain, that there are predators and prey; but in nature this is a simple issue of food resources, or of rates of reproduction. Animals generally seem to live according to the means around them as it is not in the long-term interest of any animal to exhaust all habitat and food sources. The only animal that doesn't seem to understand this is the human animal.

As a feminist I theorise that this has something to do with a short-sighted masculinist logic which is built on exploitation and othering; this masculinist logic is actually a self-righteous illogical approach which aggrandises violence and domination, adding insult to injury by then defining this decidedly unnatural situation as 'nature'. I am not talking about food-chain hierarchy, or trophic levels, I am talking about how some lives are structurally marginalised and based solely on their use-value to those in power. This happens to farm animals obviously, but this othering also applies to women, to poor people, to children, to people of colour, to stateless people. Structural power relationships exist and they scar our society and our world, objectifying certain groups with the result that the lives, the beings within those groups, can then be treated as objects. 

You mention social movements that seek to change the inhumane nature of our society. Some social change has been effective through peaceful protests, yet some change has only been possible through violent demonstrations. Does this not support the idea that we are fundamentally a competitive species?

Social movements effect change through a variety of means or tactical repertoires, the success of which is based on a whole host of factors including the socio-political climate, the economy, the mass-media etc. Some social movements employ or resort to methods that are violent, but we must distinguish here between protests which are violent against property and those that are violent against people. Non-violent direct action or NVDA is a tested and successful tool of many protestors, from the Greenham Women of the 1980s to current Trident Ploughshares activists who sabotage Trident submarines or Animal Liberation Front activists destroying facilities and liberating animals from laboratories.

Such political acts sabotage property, but are not violent against people. There is also a difference between violence and resistance, some groups do not have the luxury of mass petitioning their MP or writing a letter to their local newspaper; sometimes when protesters stand in front of tanks, the tanks keep rolling. We have to ask ourselves in that situation, what would we do? Sometimes armed resistance is necessary for survival. I do not believe that any of these examples prove that humans are 'naturally’ competitive or 'naturally' violent; in fact such incidences show that humans are able to work together with others, to find political solutions and to identify the most efficient tactics to improve lives and, when it becomes necessary, to find ways in desperate situations to protect and save lives. 

If competitiveness is a masculine trait, do you see empathy and kindness as feminine traits?

In the debate on IAI TV I was trying to say that competition is definitely not a masculine trait or male trait; I was making the point that society has attached competition and competitiveness to masculinity and that this is included in the stereotypical imagery of what masculinity should look like. I must emphasise that I do not believe that traits such as competitiveness or empathy or compassion are the property of one sex over another or are hard-wired in our brains according to our biological sex. This is precisely the kind of base biological determinism that I reject.

I think stereotypical examples of masculinity in our culture, what has been called hegemonic masculinity, construct men as competitive and motivated by a desire to compete and 'prove' themselves against other men, or nature or non-human animals. In a way masculinity has been attached to risk-taking, to the risking of life, and indeed to the taking of life or to the threat or power to take life. We can see this in how pursuits such as hunting are masculinised, or how the act of going to war is masculinised, or how being able to defend oneself physically is masculinised, or how masculinity is frequently associated with the ability to control, overcome or suppress emotions such as fear, sadness or vulnerability.

In contrast, other activities are feminised in our culture: nurturing, child rearing, caring for sick or elderly people or animals, or being able to, and indeed allowed to, express emotions like fear, sadness and vulnerability. These kind of dualisms are precisely what I meant when I talked about the constructed hierarchy that has been placed on the world; in this dualistic binary logic women are seen as vulnerable and men are seen as protectors, women are seen as nurturing and men are seen as providers, women are seen as domestic and men are seen as public. My point is that we need to move beyond these ancient dualisms to recognise the unique potential of all human beings and to free all of us, women and men, from these sorts of backwards and limiting stereotypes. The numbers of men in prison, the numbers of young men taking their own lives, the numbers of young men being bullied and attacked by other men, the numbers of women and children abused and killed by men – these statistics are the final destination of harmful gender roles. 

Can human beings be both competitive and altruistic at the same time?

Within patriarchal capitalism competitiveness is a necessary value; within the present system this value is used to manipulate people, to turn people into cogs in vast machines which are often perpetrating terrible crimes against people, animals or the environment. Today competition means companies getting more for less, it means humans working harder for less, it means vulnerable young people or sick people handed over to the 'care' of profit-making companies like G4S or Virgin.

Competition means the competition for higher profits. Often this is not actually in our interests and it results in poorer services, poorer consumer items, poorer quality food, poorer working conditions. It is ironic but obvious that profit always means loss for someone or other. The sad thing is that so many of us are losing out all the time to benefit a tiny elite and those that are othered lose most of all; this is why services for women fleeing violence, or services for disabled people or services for children are often the first to go in times of cutbacks.

If we substitute competition for creativity, we describe the ideal situation people often cite when they defend or praise competitiveness. Creativity can drive human endeavour, creativity can drive technology, creativity can drive compassionate economies. I believe that a narrow and insecure definition of competition actually hinders creativity and limits human imagination as well as draining resources on an industrial and criminal scale due to the individualism and repetition that are side-effects of competition as separate companies create the same goods and refuse to share any findings or advancements.   

Do you think that the notion of collectivised competition within sport could ever be extended to international affairs?

Team sports can perhaps be a more positive example of competition, as the potential is there for collectivity, for shared challenge and endeavour in a controlled and respectful setting where athletes accept others as equals based on skill, talent and conduct. I would have a problem with the suggestion that we apply this approach to politics however, as I would worry about who the teams are and who gets to decide who is on which team.

In politics, teams or tribes are often negative. People are already sick of the tribal yah-boo politics we see in Westminster, for example. People are sick of political parties scoring points at the expense of informed public policy or collective working at a time of global risk when we need everyone to work together. Often the drive to war, or the drive to use and exploit the natural resources of other countries is presented as one side being against another, one team of good guys against bad guys. We all know in our hearts that nothing is actually that simple or simplistic and that playing with lives and with the essentials of life such as clean water, food and shelter is no game, and that we cannot accept there being any losers in this situation. 

If a drive to succeed that stems from external influences like incentives and competition does not create a better schools and public services, what, in your view, will?

I do not think competition creates better services such as better schools or hospitals; I think quite the opposite. Children's safety and education should be the only aim of schooling; pupils do not care about game playing by Local Authorities or the manipulation of league tables. Children are not data, they are not units of value, they are not bums on seats, they are not income generators, they are not failures, they are not too expensive, they are not resource heavy, they are not bad statistics. Yet this is the sort of management speak and box-ticking approach that is attempting to destroy our schools and all public services.

I have seen adverts for NHS Choices reassuring me that as an atomised, neoliberal subject I have the human right to choose which hospital I go to, depending on whether I want it to be local, or specialist, or clean. My response is that all hospitals should be local, clean and provide or signpost to specialisms. Competition is invalid when we all want the same thing. We all want good local schools, we all want to be able to get an appointment at a nearby GP surgery, we all want an A&E nearby should we need it, we all want quality care for our elderly or sick loved ones. So what are we competing over?

What should distinguish one hospital from another? What should make one school better than another? And how on earth could we even entertain that thought when nobody wants to be the person with the rubbish local school or the dirty hospital or the GP surgery that never has any appointments? If we want to compete, let us compete against faceless corporations that seek to persuade us that there is not enough money to go round, not enough resources, not enough housing, not enough human rights, not enough compassion. Because that is a zero-sum approach in which we all lose. 

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