Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The human as a high performance product



Just in time (or precisely not, depending on your perspective) for the soccer world cup, the Franco-German television channel ARTE broadcasted a documentary with the title “Pressure, doping, depressions – top athletes come clean” about top-class sport. Although I thought I already knew quite a bit, this nevertheless opened my eyes for the absolute shocking reality of professional sport today. Athletes are deliberately and strategically trimmed and manipulated since childhood. In order to advance the profitability of the clubs, sponsors and multinationals , tricks such as dubious engagement contracts, performance enhancing drugs, doctors who purposely tell only half the truth and lawyers adept at eschewing lawsuits are commonly made use of. This has increasingly little to do with honest performance and sportsmanship. One wins – and earns in real – only if one is number one, and this necessitates that one is ready to cheat as also ruin one’s body in the long-run. When mere milliseconds decide between the first and second place and only the first place counts for the sponsors, than one can readily comprehend that athletes are willing to turn to any means so as to become and remain number one. The tragic part of all this is that athletes often don’t even have a choice but to serve this relentless pursuit of profit, lest they quit, which for a number of reasons is decidedly difficult.


But this relentless, hyper-commercialized ethos of competition pervades not just the very last corners of sport, but also countless other realms of our life and our entire civilization. Be it in the corporate world, where CEOs are led to continuously peer at the current share price instead of being able to focus on generating tangible valuables; in agriculture, where all of nature is systematically exploited or with the search of a partner, where dating services proffer people as styled products: humans and nature are increasingly dealt with as mere high performance products.

While the continental “old Europe” strives – with visibly increasing desperation – to still offer a viable alternative vision to such a commercialized human and civilization, the United States and many parts of Asia long since capitulated, or have so internalized this ethos, that they perceive it as normal and inevitable, yes, even the to be desired ne plus ultra.
Now, I have nothing against achievement and excellence, especially if they are truly creative. But when people are systematically manipulated and already children internalize this ethos directly or indirectly, then numerous question marks come up for me.

I just had a prolonged conversation with my 14-year old daughter, who is already thinking about what all she needs to do in order to get a scholarship to a top university. And this “do” includes not only getting excellent grades, but also extracurricular activities. Thus she elucidated for me that she will not only be athletically active, but also act in the drama club, star in a musical, contribute to the school newspaper, glean leadership experience in the student council, serve the common good in the UNICEF club, as well as, yes, exercise her entrepreneurial spirit by launching a new club with a few classmates of hers. All this in her first year of high school. Lean in - indeed, as Sheryl Sandberg put it in her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”.
Hearing this elicited in me ambivalent feelings. On the one hand delight at her thoroughly precocious engagement and her noble motives (she is passionate about ethical, social and legal questions and dreams of becoming a Supreme Court justice). On the other, however, also the concern that these ambitions end up having her lose the creative core of all her endeavors, and that she – with the innocence of youth – slides into the above elucidated mills of achievement, to some day find herself as yet another “high performance product” in the service of profitability.

For as sport is in itself a beautiful thing, so is also the avid engagement of youth. That is, would there not once more be the nefarious dynamic of the hyper-commercialization of the last corners of our civilization which we are all subject to. Unless, of course, we quit all of civilization. Which is, again, for a number of reasons decidedly difficult…
Manuel Dawson

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