I have been spending my summer vacation so far rereading the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter: Goblet of Fire, the three European wizarding schools are set in a competition against each other. The individual champions must face dangerous tasks to prove how good they are at magic, strategic thinking and sheer bravery, all in the interest of fostering international and inter-school cooperation. Our Olympics are very similar, using a competition to foster cooperation.
This seems odd. Aren’t the skills that are inherent to competition kind of opposite those that are inherent to cooperation? I have been thinking about this in relation to my teaching these last two or three years. After teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” two to five times a year for the last twenty-plus years, I have seen how he manages to avoid the language of combativeness and argument and replace it with a more nonviolent language of persuasion. He always treats his readers not as opponents who have to be put down or put right, but rather as people who don’t realize they are imminent allies or possibly already allies. This is a very different way of presenting one’s ideas and, if the American political discourse going on these days is a marker, possibly an alien one.
But it is not just politics that seem inherently combative. The news is full of this kind of language, from politics, to sports, to weather. So where do we go for alternate ways of speaking? I wonder if there are texts out there about artistic collaboration, people describing how they work together to create a shared vision. We need more of that and we need it yesterday everywhere. You can’t change the world’s paradigm if you can’t even talk outside the paradigm.