Last week I had the pleasure of reading two very powerful books. The first, A Bigger Prize by Margaret Heffernan, is about the dangers of too much competition. Balancing sociology with real-life vignettes, Heffernan makes a well-documented argument against the damage we do ourselves, each other and the planet when we experience life as a constant race. The second, the much-lauded novel Americanah, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about love and identity. Reading them back to back, I felt the two doing a delicate waltz, their exploration of ideas syncing gracefully. Impelling both, with a gentle rhythm, were underlying themes of loss and redemption.
Heffernan’s book is about organizational structures, its narrative a latitudinal examination of poorly functioning organizations, followed by examples of successful, sustainable ones. That tidal pattern is important: for all the destruction competitiveness wreaks, Heffernan also offers examples of how an integrated focus on cooperation, in big and small institutions, is part of an emerging counterforce, a reversal of profit-over-people thinking that signals hope for our future. With all the attention global warming is receiving, Heffernan’s book is timely because the possibility for change is real. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, for example, is being rejected by Canadians despite all the jobs promised to come with it. Residents in Fort St. James B.C. voted against it in favour of protecting their communities and the environment. Those instances of voting for change, one hopes, are the start of a broader movement toward acknowledging just how interconnected we all are. Heffernan’s book is signatory in that sense: she herself worked collaboratively to fill the book with inspiring examples.
Adichie’s Americanah gives us an outsider’s view of the United States, and later Nigeria, via her young protagonist Ifemelu. The opening lines of the novel, where Ifemelu compares the smells of American cities, establishes her critical distance from her surroundings, emphasizing her observer’s detachment and ironic gaze. This vista allows her to write about being black in America, her anonymous blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, becoming an outlet for her struggles with racism, the victims of it and those non-blacks who struggle just as hard (sometimes to rather comic effect) not to be offensive. Adichie’s conceit of blog entries, written by Ifemelu, allows her to explore the various status levels accorded blacks, skin tone being the barometer by which they are judged. It’s all about competition too, a competition that for people of colour starts the day they are born.
Pecking orders then, preoccupy both Heffernan and Adichie and it’s not surprising that those on the bottom rungs, in both books, suffer most. In one of Heffernan’s chapters, titled “Angry Birds,” what starts off as a literal discussion of the pecking order of hens, by pioneering zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, turns into a discussion of its human equivalent.
A fascinating observational study of high school students mapped their pecking orders to try to identify which of their friends were on top, falling, moving up, in the middle, at the bottom, or cast out. Quite voluntarily, they described their social world as inherently vertical and they could “recognize, differentiate and label their peers in terms of status, prestige and popularity.” From the information they received, the researchers could map the teenagers on the same diagrams, with the same accuracy, as Schjelderup-Ebbe had applied to his chickens.
The anxiety felt by those in closed social systems, like those found in high schools, is worst at either end of the social scale. Those at the bottom are anxious about being cast out and those at the top worry about what they might lose. It’s a pattern played out in many school shootings. Like the Columbine shooters, it’s those at the bottom — social outcasts like the Trenchcoat Mafia — who aim their anger at that perennially favoured group, the high school jocks.
It’s not surprising then that students in the middle of the social scale experience the greatest security. It’s this sense of security and belonging that Ifemelu searches for her first few years in the U.S., and it’s the same search that prompts her to lie to her fellow Nigerians about how long she’s been abroad:
Years ago, she had been asked a similar question, at a wedding of one of Aunty Uju’s friends, and she had said two years, which was the truth, but the jeer on the Nigerian’s face had taught her that, to earn the prize of being taken seriously among Nigerians in America…she needed more years. Six years, she began to say when it was just three and half. Eight years, when it was five.
Ifemelu’s desire to be more American comes at the cost of being less herself, a dilemma experienced by all immigrants. So goes her search for identity, a search that becomes a long process of elimination, an ongoing discovery and rejection of what she is not. As an African woman, she is not what her American boyfriends think she is, and as an Nigerian-American, she is no longer what her fellow émigrés imagine either: Ifemelu is loathe to fall into script when another Nigerian woman, working at a hair salon, asks her for romantic help of the sort best left behind in the old country.
But even with her rigorous pursuit of authenticity, Adichie’s heroine occasionally finds herself in competitive channels that distort her intentions. Similarly, it’s the unchecked momentum cultivated by the need for success that distorts much of what passes for progress in the West. That template of behaviour, of one-upping one’s own or others’ successes, can edge an individual, an industry or a discipline onto the debit side of a balance sheet. Heffernan uses the example of architecture to illustrate her point:
The age of austerity…hasn’t produced an aesthetic of austerity; in the West, architects are left feeling quite confused. They learned to compete, but the visual vocabulary of size they created to do so didn’t lead anywhere. In the context of the economic crash, these huge, expensive buildings suddenly look irrelevant and crass, oblivious to the inequality they have come to symbolize. Renzo Piano’s Shard may be the biggest building in western Europe, but it’s hard to see what other role it plays in the London landscape. Once architects proved that they could build very big, very strange shapes, there has been nowhere left to go.
This is what happens to a discipline when it cannot put the brakes on its own momentum. Oversized buildings may not be the most harmful example of competition gone amok, but they are certainly the most visual. Dubai, the Emerati city in the center of the Gulf Region, has become the darling of architectural hyperbolists, with a city-scape that reflects the postmodern trend of spectacle replacing experience. According to Guy Debord, a French theorist, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” Dubai, Disneyland and Las Vegas are places that compete precisely in this way and on this scale. They typify the vacuousness that Heffernan also writes about, the existential contest that, when it comes to taste, is really a race to the bottom.
Adichie writes about this too. Eager to put her American experience to good use, Ifemelu returns to Lagos and comes up against forms of classism that mirror the racism she experienced abroad. Although it’s clear that Nigeria is progressing, the cost of this progress is a subtle form of social corruption. In a conversation about Lagos restaurants, she thinks:
This was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had: a “they have the kinds of things we can eat” kind of person…Fred was talking about Nollywood, speaking a little too loudly. “Nollywood is really public theater, and if you understand it like that, then it is more tolerable. It’s for public consumption, even mass participation, not the kind of individual experience that film is”…they were not supposed to watch Nollywood, people like them, and if they did, then only as amusing anthropology.
What’s not amusing for Ifemelu is her job writing features for a women’s magazine called Zoe. She interviews Nigerian society matrons, the kind of women who reflect an insipid aspect of Lagos’ culture, one that is spurred on and supported by economic competitiveness.
A servant or child would let her in, seat her in a living room of leather and marble that brought to mind a clean airport in a wealthy country…all of them…boasted about what they owned and where they or their children had been and what they had done…
So as Ifemelu’s love life heats up, so does her professional restlessness. She eventually leaves the magazine and starts a blog, one that will provide a middle path. Calling it The Small Redemptions of Lagos, the posts “would be in a stark, readable font. An article about health care…a piece about the Nigerpolitan club, a fashion article about clothes women could actually afford.” Ifemelu’s authentic voice is one that forges connections between Nigerian women, not one that draws on their distinctions.
Heffernan’s text closes with literal races to economic bottoms: the factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1,146 workers, the phone-hacking scandal in the U.K., and the institutionalized abuse of animals in America, especially those destined for the slaughterhouse. In all three of these cases, the power-distances — the emotional distances between the powerful and powerless — are vast. Heffernan’s overarching concern, that we are losing the ability to connect with one another, is most compelling in these discussions.
But then both Adichie and Heffernan, in their own ways, are urging us to foster connections and build communities. And both are expert at showing us how we lose authenticity and harm one another when all we do is compete. Their messages are not novel or strange, but are deeply relevant, poignantly rendered and worthy of heeding.