"How the Mutuality Paradigm Fosters Freedom" by Gordon Fellman
I have suggested that through much of human history, people have lived under the aegis of what I call the “adversary paradigm,” which dictates that the point of most relationships is to overcome the other. This is transparently true in war, politics, and business and only slightly less so in religion, education, media, and other institutions. As well as in those places, also in behaviors relating to gender, race, class, and the family, men have traditionally been expected to dominate women, whites to dominate non-whites, richer people to dominate poorer people, and parents to dominate children.
The assumption of and practices of the adversary paradigm are thus passed on through socialization in just about all institutions. That’s the way it’s been.
Also in history, playing second fiddle to the adversary paradigm, is what I call the “mutuality paradigm,” in which the point of encounters is to maintain the humanization of the other, and to relate to them and to nature itself with respect, empathy, compassion, and even love. It is this state of affairs that religions idealize and imagine happening eventually. So do theories of socialism and anarchy. It is the messianic model, the image of the end of days, of the heavenly city, of peace and justice, etc.
While both paradigms are there before us, always, the former has had the upper hand in history so far. My claim is that it has boxed us into endless wars—literally in armed combat and figuratively in “structural violence” upon each other and also upon the environment, and that if we do not back off from these forms of adversarialism, we are doomed to die—we as a species and we as a healthy planet—way before the sun burns out.
While adversarialism corresponds more or less to competition, and mutuality to cooperation, I do not mean them as equivalent terms to those more familiar ones. Nor do I see the contrast between the two terms as a binary. I am not talking about adversaralism bad and mutuality good. I am talking about the salience of the more destructive paradigm over the more creative, fulfilling one. I am talking about shifting the balance away from the predominance of adversarialism to the quite feasible and I say necessary predominance of mutuality.
It would be hard to imagine all competition ending, and that might not be a good idea anyway. But we surely can imagine ending the competition that dehumanizes people, leaving them bereft of adequate resources to live, of community, of healthy relationships with others in their culture, and with a viable and healthy environment.
I have been asked whether freedom can exist without some kind of competition. My short answer to that question is: Yes, of course. When my little kids compete to get to the car first or to breakfast first, no one is harmed in the outcome. And they have fun, and I get them to where I want them to go. That is competition with no adversarial/ dominative outcome.
If car companies compete to make better cars (I wonder, incidentally, why they seem not to), and each company can make good uses of the advances the other creates (i.e., no industrial secrecy or patenting), then competition does not interfere with producing good products and gives each company the freedom to offer a superior product to the public. But if a major computer figure stifles competing software systems that might work better than his, his freedom to dominate in his market undercuts the competition’s freedom to produce a better product and the public’s freedom to enjoy using it.
Indeed, I claim that “winning” is in most cases poison. I claim that some people feel literally driven to win. I call them “compulsive adversaries.” Our political system, e.g., is riddled with such folks. Winning is so important that they routinely lie, steal, and cheat to get what they want. This interferes with the freedom of their victims to pursue their own projects. And it interferes with the public’s right to have real problems, rather than those of narcissistic domination, addressed and attended to in the political system.
In most contexts, “winning” includes dehumanizing the other, taking advantage of, ridiculing, distancing. The “freedom” of the adversary lies in the “freedom” to make light of the other and to establish dominance at the other’s expense.
There is another concept of freedom, which is that my freedom to explore life, develop my talents, create relationships with people which will fulfill me, join in community with others for its own sake and for enjoying shared projects, and to be part of the humanity safeguarding the integrity of our planet—that all this is freedom of the fullest, most meaningful sort.
Contrast this with the freedom to take away people’s jobs and ship them to lower wage societies, the freedom aggressively and seductively to do everything one can to persuade people to buy things they otherwise do not want and do not need, the freedom to destroy a competitor in business or politics, the freedom to rip out natural resources and not replace them, the freedom to dominate women and people of other races than one’s own, to patronize and to ridicule people with sexual orientations not one’s own, etc.
I distinguish then between the freedom to dominate and the freedom not to be dominated, the freedom to exploit and the freedom not to be exploited, the freedom to make lives miserable and to deplete the planet of what it needs to sustain itself, and the freedom of all animals to enjoy a planet that is able to sustain itself and to reproduce itself.
In short, domination does not interfere with freedom so much as it defines unfreedom. Ethically, freedom can be seen as the right to grow in one’s life and relationships and community and to sustain life. Domination does otherwise.
So what about competition? Again, when competition is pleasure and does not result in feelings of humiliation or sorrow or failure, it seems to me it is the expression of the freedom to have fun with others who voluntarily join in the same game. When it works to the disadvantage of others, it is part of a system of domination. Which is to say that ethically, freedom trumps domination, and that competition that results in unfreedom is ethically unacceptable.
Mutuality cannot exist without real freedom. The competitive form of adversarialism can, and most often does.
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