When actor Charlie Sheen went publicly berserk last year, one of his most memorable, oft-lampooned utterances was “Winning.” With one word – simple, bombastic, absurd – Sheen sounded like a sports announcer who had suddenly lost his marbles.
I’ve been thinking lately that the spirit of Charlie Sheen appears to be hovering over recent current events – a contentious presidential campaign, violent uprisings in the Islamic world, gun violence here in the U.S., even a tepid world economy – whispering “Winning” over the masses like an incantation. As a result, people feel frightened and/or justified to act defensively, speak irresponsibly, think reflexively and accuse indiscriminately because the stakes are so high. Oh my God – this is about winning! Winning the election, the war against terror, the war against Christmas, whatever – winning.
Which means we’re often not taking the long view. As a case in point, look at the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. That particular tragedy – and others before it – provided the perfect opportunity to talk about the rationality behind any citizen legally stockpiling 3,000 rounds of ammunition for a handgun and 3,000 for an assault rifle. But do we get anywhere close to an intelligent, measured discussion about gun control? Nope. What we get are the voices of people afraid the government is going to start snatching guns right out of their hands. Or, the rallying cry of a powerful interest group afraid of losing the profits generated by selling a boatload of product. Thus, the fervor to win an argument controls a debate that never has a chance to be aired.
I don’t mean to pick on gun enthusiasts; the winning mindset permeates almost everything, everywhere. And I’m not saying winning isn’t necessary or important, because it often is. Elections, sporting events and arguments are all about who wins them, so it’s natural to give them your best shot. But attempting to win in a state of fear, even hysteria, can lead to unethical choices, senseless action and unnecessary animosity. The Shia and Sunni divide, for example, originated as an eighth-century disagreement over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad after his death. And though the ship has sailed on that particular question, the rift remains. To me, that’s taking the long view certainly, but gazing in the wrong direction.
We all hate to be wrong and will go to great lengths to prove ourselves right. That means sometimes we’d rather be right than effective, or right than healthy, or right than at peace. Again, winning.
Unfortunately, the world is far too complex and far too diverse to solve our problems via jingoist pronouncements or cut-and-dried strategies. As a human community, the sooner we accept this, the better. In addition, we should be completely aware that what follows this admission will require some heavy lifting: tolerance and respect for an opposing point of view, deeper awareness and analysis of complicated circumstances and an openness to think outside our own boxes.
Winning is fine, but not if what you end up losing is perspective.