Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Losing and humilitation

Welcome Wired readers!

For everyone else, I was quoted in the April issue of Wired Magazine in Brendan I. Koerner's Mr. Know-It-All column. Thank you to Wired and Mr. Koerner.

I wrote up some more extensive comments on the question Mr. Koerner is answering in his column.
Below is a lightly edited version of these comments.


The Question: "I recently posted a video of one of my son's high school wrestling triumphs on YouTube. The defeated wrestler's father has asked me to take it down, saying it humiliates his boy. Is his request reasonable?"

My thoughts:

One thing that I find troubling in the request to pull the video is the idea that losing itself is humiliating. There are certainly ways of losing that can be humiliating, but the mere fact of losing a match is not itself humiliating. One can lose with grace. This is a large part of what good sportsmanship is about: learning to accept one’s loss in stride and with poise. Moreover, losing, while painful, is a learning opportunity. The athlete can see what he did wrong, and he can study what his opponent did right.

If an athlete gives his best—that is, he has trained hard, worked at developing his ability, and competed to the best of his ability—and yet loses in a fair match, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. There is no shame in losing to a better, more skilled opponent; and much pride can be taken by competing well against such an opponent.

If the athlete did not try his best or had not come prepared, he might well be embarrassed. But the humiliation here is not from the loss. It’s from the recognition of failing short of what is required of an athlete. Even had he won the match in such a case, he should still be embarrassed for not training and competing as one should.

Winning is important, but it is not the only thing that is important in sport. It is, as the cliché goes, also important how one plays the game. But I mean something more than merely the cliché idea of being a good sport and so on. Competing in sport is also about striving towards excellence. Excellence is not the same as winning. Winning is one measure of excellence. Earning a bronze metal at the Olympics is a great achievement and measure of excellence, and yet one did not win. Some of the swimmers who finished behind Michael Phelps still swam faster than the world records. Surely these are excellent athletes worthy of praise and admiration.

One might raise the issue of consent, that there is a difference between losing in front of a small group of spectators at the school gym and losing in front a world audience on Youtube. In one respect, I can understand this point. What might not bother someone in a small group, would be more embarrassing if broadcast the world over. And anyone who has survived high school knows that such a wide public airing could make worse the teasing and ridicule from one’s peers. However, this is a cost of competing. Being an athlete means that one has to take risks. Not just the physical risks of training and competing, but the risk of going out to compete and not winning, of failing to perform to expectations (one’s own or others). By agreeing to compete, one is agreeing to this risk. If one is not willing to risk that one’s loss will be known by others, then one should not compete.


Patrick Stephens said...

Great job! Too bad the economic advice wasn't as good.

A follow up question:

If there's no shame in losing to a better, more skilled opponent, might there be same in beating a vastly inferior, unskilled opponent?

Frequently in scholastic and youth athletics, contests arise between athletes of vastly different talent levels--it's unavoidable.

How should we approach losing and winning in such a circumstance?

Shawn said...

I do not think that in itself there is shame beating a vastly inferior opponent. (Nor should there be much pride) As in the case of losing to a superior opponent, it's more about how one handles himself in the course of the contest. In both, I think one should play his best and pursue excellence in the game. That does not mean gloating or looking for ways to highlight the inferiority of your opponent. One should not be motivated by trying to humiliate the opponent.

Teaching the young athletes poise in losing or winning is important. Losing well (don't whine) and winning well (don't gloat) are important parts of sportsmanship.

Filsuf Kesasar said...

If one can't take losing aired worldwide, there's no use of trying to be an athlete. Even Beckham had his dark ages.

Anonymous said...

Would you have still posted your son wrestling even if he had lost?

Shawn said...

I think it's quite plausible that a parent would post a defeat. It might still be a very exciting and worthy match up; the child might still have showed great skill and ability.

Conor Charles McClain said...

There is a clear difference between something that should be humiliating and something that is humiliating. The fact is that the father of this child and/or the child himself are feeling humiliated, and all the "should" in the world wont change that.

One can make the argument, philosophically, that in no instance whatsoever "should" one feel humiliated. Humiliation is derived more from a persons own mental state than from the particulars of any given situation. It is when preconceived conceptions about oneself and, morevoer, one's perception of societies conceptions, become challenged or bulldozed over that humiliation hits home.

It is likely the competitor in this case thought himself equal to if not better then the one he lost the match to. He must have thought he should have won the match, or thought that society believed he should have won the match (or at a minimum performed better) in order to feel the sting of humiliation at the loss.

But to the point, the fact is that the child in question and the father are humiliated and we must deal with the ethical question of how do handle that both personally and as a society.

Is it ok to ignore that suffering of humiliation that this child and family endure simply because they "should not" feel it? Indeed, if so, then we should ignore all instances of humiliation out of the principle that humiliation itself is a childish and immature reaction to ones pride.

Shawn said...

Thanks Conor, you raise an interesting point. There are cases where one might feel humiliated but the situation is not one that one should feel humiliated (and vice versa: cases where one should feel humiliated, but does not). I'm not sure it is always as clear as you suggest but surely there are easy cases that show this.

I don't think this all that different from other so-called moral emotions. There are times when feeling anger is inappropriate but one feels angry nonetheless. (My dog accidentally knocks a book off the table with her tail). And times when one feels no (or little) anger but they should. (One's daughter was raped and the father feels no anger).

It seems quite appropriate to say to me when I get angry at my dog in the above example: you are wrong to be angry here; this is not something (other things being equal) that should make you angry.

Some kinds of humiliation are going to be like that as well: the situation is not one that should cause humiliation.

I don't think this shows that we should ignore all humiliation; but I do think that some instances of reported humiliation are not morally significant. I know fans that feel humiliated when the team they root for loses (I admit that I've felt that as well). That strikes me as silly and not morally significant.

But I also think there are situations of real humiliation and should not be ignored.

There are two interesting moral questions here. 1) How to spell out and distinguish between morally significant and insignificant expressions of humiliation. 2) What to do about those who express humiliation in situations that should not normally lead to humiliation.

In terms of the second question, it surely depends on the situation and one's involvement in it. But, where it my son who expressed humiliation in the wrestler example, I would talk to him about his feelings and why he feels that way. I wouldn't say to him: "No you are wrong to feel this way." I'd want to validate his feelings of sadness for the loss while guiding him towards seeing that the loss is not something that should humiliate him.

Danny said...

Very well put...

Arch said...

I agree with connor 100%

Anonymous said...

Oh my. I disagree. These are adolescents - not professional adult sportsmen - who are learning the art of losing and winning. Why are you so certain the 'humiliation' the father speaks of is the from losing the game? Have you not read the scathing, ego-killing comments young people leave in complete anonymitity beneath the youtube videos? How do adolescents have the emotional maturity to handle taunting and cruel comments on this potentially global level? It's difficult enough within the confines of school. And the young man who won needs to learn how to win with grace and humility. You're very attached to the idea that by agreeing to compete, one is accepting the risk that his/her failure might be known to others. Let me give you an example of how this broad level of thinking (especially regarding an emotionally developing mind) is incorrect:

Dear Shawn,
As a former lover of yours, I hope you don't mind that I've posted a video I taped of us having sex without your consent. As I'm sure you remember, you were a failure in bed. I, on the other hand, look fantastic and wanted all of our friends and anyone else in the world to watch! I even put your pre-ejaculation in slow motion! Having intimate relations with someone is a risk. You had to have known I might share your failure - but if you didn't want the world to watch, then you shouldn't have even tried. Be sure to read the 675 comments that strangers have left - I especially like the ones that talk about how funny your ass looks.

The winning lover

Ok, now, I'm sure you won't post this because you have the power to delete it! The wrestling kid does not. Sure, your 'ethical' advice is ok if you're talking about a grown man who has learned that the world isn't over when you don't succeed and people make fun of you. But this is a slowly learned lesson when you're in highschool and should be done in a more manageable, smaller setting.

Please rethink your advice. Reconsider that the humilation may be more about the youtube cruelty than about losing a match. And PLEASE tell the gloating parent to take the video down that's hurting someone else's child. How would you feel if there was a permanent video of your child learning a lesson about losing that is broadcast globally? And then to read all of the horrible things kids are saying about your child. Would you honestly not want the damn thing taken down??

Think Shawn. Think.

Shawn said...

Anonymous: Frankly, your counter-example is totally irrelevant. Sexual relations are inherently private (just the taping without permission is wrong, let alone its broadcast); athlete competitions are public.

Yes the comments on youtube can be cruel (comments on almost any non-blog website are typically stupid, cruel, and petty). They are not ego-killing, unless one bases his ego on the comments of obnoxious complete strangers. I'd regard this as teaching moment for my child. Don't read those comments: they are utterly useless. Base your ego on your actual worth and efficacy on the world and not on the opinions of strangers.

Anonymous said...

Well, I took a risk with my counter-example and failed! Thanks for responding, though. This topic is important to me. I had gotten online to email Stephen/Mr. Knowitall because the advice angered me so...but after a quick google search, I realized you were responsible for the answer.

Yes, of course, sexual relations are inherently private while a sporting competition is not. I was trying the trick of using an extreme example in the hopes of garnering some empathy from you. The example was poor but my point is not.

Again, I doubt the humiliation the child feels comes purely from losing the match. You have no idea if the child is emotionally healthy enough to simply ignore hurtful, hateful comments that are displayed for eternity. Many, many teenagers (and adults!) base their self worth on what others are saying about them - surely you have enough empathy to realize this. Learning how to 'base your ego on your actual worth and not on the opinions of strangers' is something much easier said than done - especially when you are having to read in actual, permanent text that you are viewed as worthless. This would be hard for a healthy, rational adult let alone a growing, developing child.

It's one thing to lose a game in highschool, roam the halls afterwards and endure smirks and a few taunts until the game is a distant memory. A child who goes through this learns about losing, learns it's not the end of the world, learns about his strengths and weaknesses and will probably risk again. It's quite another situation to have a visual documentation replayed over and over in front of the eyes of the world with cruel comments that would knock down even the emotionally strongest individuals.

I cannot believe you would just tell your child to not read what has been said about him. Most people do not have the strength to know something is being said about them and then turn the other cheek without hearing what it is. Be realistic.

I'm asking you to alter your perspective and think about the possibility you might have approached this from the wrong angle.

The ethical question here is not really about losing/winning. It has something to do with how our society is 'me-me-me' centered, where one's every small victory is posted like a movie they star in and everyone feels their judgements about the posted movie is important enough to share, regardless of how mean or petty. It doesn't matter who gets hurt by my movie - it stars me looking good so I'll put it up and gloat and if it hurts you...just ignore it! Buck up! You shouldn't put yourself out there if you can't handle it! It's such a good learning moment for you! I'm great and you're not!!

If I played a game of tennis with my peer and won I would not post a video of it on youtube to gloat and expose him to potentially hurtful comments. I would lack compassion and empathy if I did that. What is the parent who decided to post the video teaching her son? I'm glad she at least questioned her actions enough to seek outside advice but I think you advised incorrectly. Why couldn't the parent simply make copies of her video and send the dvds out to select friends and family? Why put it out for the world? Even if the individuals she gave the video to made fun of the young man who lost, he wouldn't have immediate access to their words. There are other solutions to this problem rather than just telling the kid 'this is how it goes if you play a game at school.'

You did not grow up with youtube. You spent your formative years learning how to cope with fair criticisms and unfair slurs in much smaller settings. Your advice is ok if you think of it in terms of your childhood. But you should approach this problem in terms of today's society.

It's a question about how to be a compassionate human. It's a question about how to best help a child navigate the path of successes and failures in today's sociey. It's a question about our me-centered society in general. It is not a simple winning/losing question.

Grimace said...

I will disagree with your statement that anonymous comments are not ego-killing. In many situations (I can think of many examples for myself) people may weight stranger's viewpoints higher than those of friends and family simply because there is no pre-existing relationship. This isn't a terrible thing. Most people would feel worse if a stranger told them they smelled bad over hearing the same comment from a friend. This is why I shower before I head to the store. This is not to say that the comments are okay, but the feeling of humiliation from random cruel comments may not be disregarded as much as they should be. Getting back to the posting of the video, whatever the source of humiliation, the Dad should spend more of his efforts strengthening his son's self image about the loss and less trying to pretend it did not happen. There is nothing wrong with a parent protecting their children, but I think the better protection is learning to deal with the source of the humiliation. I'll conclude saying that I place no judgement, hardly all the facts are known.

Anonymous said...

The fact that no consent was given to post the video from the opposing party, means that that video should not have been posted. It is the individual's right to accept or refuse his/her image to be displayed to the world.

Shawn said...

@anonymous: Part of the issue is whether a public performance is implicit consent. One is engaging in an activity in the public sphere, so one is consenting to be in public sphere.

Anonymous said...

it is his personal freedom to refuse his image to be posted on the internet. A high school wrestling match is by no means a national event. Take a professional football player: he knows ahead of time that he will be recorded and displayed to the rest of the world, thus he consents (non verbally) nonetheless. This wrestler is entitled to his privacy, even if by privacy is being defined by his immediate community.

Shawn said...

Looks to me like the question is really all about our paparazzi culture, and different levels of "public.
While some view an abrupt distinction between what is private and what is public, others see shades of public.
How public is public? Can your privacy be invaded even though you're in a public venue, simply because your expectations are that only a certain number of people, most of them from your town, will see the event?
It's not even just the venue, it's what happens there. If a gunman comes to a high school wrestling match and holds everyone hostage, it's just expected by everyone that they may appear on news broadcasts all around the world, but if everything goes normally, expectations will be different.
Imagine this is 1962 and someone snaps a picture of a wrestling match like this one, the final victory or defeat moment, then drives to Washington DC, rents space on a billboard near the Washington monument, and enlarges the picture and posts it up there for everyone to see, urging passers by to graffiti their comments below the picture, along with where they come from, city and state. After a week he takes down the billboard, and puts it up on another billboard he has rented near the high school where the match was held, with a big sign saying all comments are from passers by at such and such a road near the Washington monument. How would society back then have reacted? Would legal action have been taken?
How about a simpler example. You're at a ball game, and you snap a random picture of the lady in front of you cheering or blowing her nose or whatever, then paste it up somewhere near the stadium. This is still 1962. How would she react if she drove by and saw it?
How about now? It's not Youtube, it's a billboard near the highway, but it's 2010.
In 1962 a parent might take a home movie of the event on 8MM film, but it wouldn't likely be seen by more than close family and friends.
Then you could get into legal issues, who owns the rights. Is it you, the other father, or the high school? Can you in such a legal battle consider yourself a journalist because you have a blog, and thus be exempt from punitave damages? You could just as easily have given the video directly to your local television station, unlikely that CNN would run it, but your local station might. Then what could the father of the losing boy do?
The thing is that the wrestling match is much more likely to end up in the paper and on the news than a picture of a random fan at a ball game. If one of the kids had gone to the hospital it might have even ended up on national news.
On the other hand, we don't have to wait for working journalists to notice anymore. we've slowly become more and more both a paparazzi and a voieuristic culture, where anyone might be the object of public exposure, and maybe we should all just accept the fact that if we're in a public place there's a chance we could end up on Youtube, even be the next big hit of Youtube, so don't sit there at a ball game picking your nose if you think there's a chance your boss and millions of strangers might see it, and don't try out for wrestling if you're afraid you might lose, and end up being the talk of the world.