The Ethics of Losing pt. 2
by Ampson Hagan
Peace Corps Volunteer
read pt. 1 here
read pt. 1 here
You were supposed to succeed, people depended on you to do so, and you whiffed. I’m not talking about some moral failure, one that reflects a character flaw or temporary lapse in judgment; that failure is apart from the simplistic, yet absolute, binary of win/lose. When the stakes are higher, and conclusions render a success/failure decision, it’s no longer akin to a game. Losing an MLB game in July doesn’t perpetuate a crippling disease or result in women dying from preventable hemorrhaging in some rural Cameroonian clinic. It’s just not that serious.
I’m not an either/or type of person despite the fact that the dichotomization of all aspects of modern society has unceasingly tried to convert me. I think that the human tendency to reduce everything to quantifiable, ranked categories, obscures our wonderful ability to interpret the seemingly black and white with incredible nuance and sensibility. But yeah, some things really are just black and white, good and bad, 1 and 0. Winning and losing, and sometimes, success and failure, are easy to understand. But the failure as a functional state of existence, a thing, is not so innocuous and insignificant.
In failure, one may find resolve, perspective, gravity; these are the things one often deigns to contemplate in victory. In the throes of defeat, one is momentarily (or sometimes permanently) effaced. With failure, social death is a risk. One can disappear from society, an erasure. Success is also valued as a virtue. This moral condition is falsely applied to success, a subjective consequence circumstance, luck, preparation, and a host of other situation-specific variables. The program may have succeeded because of exceptional planning and execution. It may have worked because people who are inherently good were involved. Conversely, losing has never been embraced as a good thing. This is emblematic of the dichotomization of success/failure.
This relationship isn’t so simple when there is a moral imperative to succeed, when the moral need is stipulated in the beginning, the reason for the action. Finding a cure for the Ebola virus that is hellishly ripping through West Africa is an unquestioned need, and the success and failure of that effort is easy it imagine; the curative drug is either created, or it is not. Of course, a failed drug trial would be crushing to researchers and patients alike, especially under this incredible global pressure. But saying, “Oh well, we tried and that’s what’s most important.” is a callous, blithe disregard for the seriousness of the problem, the failure. I’m not advocating for a dignity in defeat, not a defeat of this importance. I’m questioning the idea that losing, failing to achieve objectives of real importance is acceptable. The failure is a rational consequence of an earnest attempt and it is an understandable consequence, but it is not ok and it is not an opportunity to quit. The ethical next step, the grace (if there is any to be had) is to strive for more, to keep trying to find the cure, the solution.
Failure is a false refuge, a delusional reprieve. This is a poor reflection of society, an environment that is accepting and accommodating of failure. Society is supposed to maintain a stable equilibrium between success and failure high performance and unfulfilled objectives. Of course, this balancing act isn’t without strange discrepancies across different sectors of society. The Washington
Redskins Professional Football Team has failed to make
the playoffs in 3 years and the fan base wants blood. The coach has to get
better performance out of the players or he will be fired. This is an undoubted
fact. That seems to be balanced, right?! You do well, you keep on going. You
fail though, and you get cut. It’s mad simple. I work for a development
organization in a small developing country in central Africa. I work in a small
village doing health promotion, consulting and community health worker
trainings. This place is poor, with few resources and little community
action. People are depending on me to get things done, to have an impact. Women
in my community want me to succeed and want me to help them achieve better
health outcomes. If I am successful in achieving my project objectives and
goals, everyone will be cool with that, and I can feel good about myself.
Whoopee. If I fail though, and can’t get my project going for whatever reason,
I’ll still be respected. In fact, the consequences for a poor outcome will
purely personal. My boss will find the silver lining in my failed project, my
family will think that my service was a great sacrifice and my friends will
continue to lavish me with unmerited praise. The stakes are supposed to be high
but my risk is actually low. I can’t lose. I can feel bad about sucking but no
one is going to give me grief about it. My environment is undermining the
efficacy of the success/failure dynamic as a regulating force of behavior and
ambition. People are tacitly approving my shitty work but this isn’t
restricted to my experience.
So, a football team (with a racist name) and poor play for most of the past decade, operates with more fidelity to the win-stay/lose-go social construct. The public demands much for the team and changes come swiftly when they are needed. The tolerance for failure is low, really low. This is SPORTS people. This same low tolerance, quick-trigger reaction is nowhere to be found in my field, however. I’m trying to put programs in place that will help improve people’s HEALTH. This ain’t a damn game. But if my project goes south and I can’t get anything done, I’m still a hero for trying. No, I’m not getting paid millions of dollars to throw a ball around (I see you Bob Griffin!), but I have a job to do and I should be expected to execute my objectives nonetheless. Why shouldn’t I face termination if I fail? Is my job any less important than an NFL quarterback’s job that I don’t incur penalty for losing, for failing?
Society’s capricious concern for its responsibility to uphold this order leads to a breakdown in the rules. Its unwillingness to hold all entities to the same standards allows for the failure of some elements to go unpunished, the mistakes of some to remain uncorrected. Society has abandoned its duty to expect greatness from all people, all elements, and it has instead, traded this power for an unbalanced appreciation of the winners and the fickle and lazy constructive critical analysis of the losers. Society allows losers to feel good about themselves despite their losing, their missed opportunities, their blown chances, and that is a loss for everyone else who didn’t even play in the game.