Warning: This is more an essay than a blog post, but I got carried away.
I like intellectual patterns and I tend to see them in very disparate occurrences and situations. Today, it's (a) the recent flap over the 2007 performance of the New England Patriots and (b) women lawyers so timid that they are still - in 2007 - waiting for permission to have rewarding, significant careers rather than grabbing the opportunities in front of them with both hands. To me, both phenomena (and I use the word in two of its senses for the Patriots' performance) are part of a pattern I don't like that says nothing is pure and everything must be measured by reference to what the least charitable someone else might think. They also seem to be part of a pattern that says something about power.
When the Pats scored 52 points against the Redskins, there was a lot of grumbling about running up the score as well as some dire predictions about how such superiority of attitude and dominance of play might well lead to, among other negative repercussions, a deliberate attempt to injure the quarterback. I'm tempted to go off on a tangent about how any such attempt would be reprehensible and possibly criminal or about how provocation does not excuse violent behavior however much it may explain it. And regardless of that 52 points, it's hard to imagine that the Patriots' exceptional play hasn't already turned them into a hunted team that everyone wants to knock off. (Nice try, Colts - and I mean that sincerely.)
But I'm on a different track today. As I watched the Patriots play in Dallas the week before the game in question, it occurred to me that their coach might well be trying to build a perfect football team. His insistent focus on what his talented team could have done better in every game, which is evidently how he coaches and also how his players look at results, seemed beautiful in light of how very good the team is. By normal standards, they were already well past good enough. When I watched the game in question with this notion in mind, it seemed to me that the Redskins were basically irrelevant. The only worthy opponent the Pats had encountered up to that point on the road of the 2007 season was the Pats themselves. They looked to be trying to beat their own previous best and the result was football played gloriously, at a giddily high level.
But to my surprise, the reaction the day after the game was an indignant chorus of how unsportsmanlike and classless it was for the Patriots to have made the Redskins look so hapless. Huh? I suppose the Redskins did look hapless, but isn't that a Redskins issue? Was it necessarily the Patriots' motivation? Their goal? Their fault? Couldn't it as easily have been an unintended byproduct of the superb performance occasioned by their pursuit of football perfection? And, if so, should that pursuit of perfection be hampered by potentially unfortunate byproducts? Frankly, I don't even see what's so unfortunate about this byproduct. If the Redskins can't handle the Patriots without looking hapless, then the Redskins should get better. (And, if they do, they are free to prove it by soundly beating the Patriots the next chance they have.)
It's ridiculous to suggest that the Patriots shouldn't play to the best of their abilities and pursue something extraordinary because their opponents aren't up to it and will look bad by comparison. Why is it unsportsmanlike to do your best in a game that is about winning and entertaining the masses? Why is it more sportsmanlike or respectful to do only what's necessary to beat the other team, then sit back and coast? Is that somehow less disheartening to the loser? And anyway, why is it even relevant in this context how the loser ends up looking or, for that matter, feeling?
I've always believed that too many people worry too much about what other people inclined to think badly about them will think of their behavior - and, as a result, they make cramped, coerced, conservative decisions instead of big, free, innovative ones. I had a boss once who asked me apropos of an interpersonal mess created by a peer's discomfort with the exceptional results generated by one of my groups, "Would it have killed you to make XYZ comfortable with what you were doing?" I was astonished by the question. It wouldn't have killed me at all, but it never occurred to me - both out of respect for XYZ (why would I do him the discourtesy of assuming he had to be managed?) and because I never dreamed that he (or anyone else) would perceive my group's success as a way I was trying to make him look bad. I was just doing my job. It wasn't about him or directed at him in any way; he was completely irrelevant to my motivations, my intent, and my group's performance. But, apparently, I should have foreseen his discomfort and found a way to make him comfortable, too. Sorry to be repetitive, but huh? Why on earth would he think my group's results had anything to do with him? Why couldn't they be purely what they were? Why did my group's success justify his attempt to blame his own feeling of inadequacy on me? Why couldn't he give me the benefit of the doubt? Do we have to correct for the upside of success by slamming the people responsible for it?
And it's not like any of this helps the weaker. A woman lawyer recently told me she wanted to get on an important committee, but “because I deserve it, not because I’m a woman.” I told her she shouldn’t care why she got on the committee. In a place like her firm, where women still don’t routinely find themselves on important committees, it’s silly to turn down a leadership opportunity because affirmative action is or might be behind the invitation. The goal is to get there and then prove via great performance that you deserve to be there, not to wait for the powers that be to recognize that you’ve earned it the “regular” way.
She looked unconvinced and added that she didn’t want “the guys down the hall to hate me because as a woman I got it instead of them.” This, too, is ridiculous. If she has a contribution to make and she’s willing to stand or fall by her performance on the committee, why should it matter to her that a few sour-grapes types may grumble or doubt her merit or think she got an unfair advantage? Does she hate men because they routinely get opportunities, advantages, mentoring that she doesn’t? Does she think they hate each other for this reason? Of course not. She might hate the system, but there’s no percentage in hating the beneficiaries – unless they intentionally work to exclude you. In her case, they weren’t doing that, but her fear that the traditionally powerful would attribute bad motives to her for not doing it their way was very effectively achieving the same result.
I'm thinking all this has to do with the one-size-fits-all relations that are assumed to exist between the strong and the weak, regardless of the particular situation. The strong are assumed to be so at the expense of the weak. The weak are assumed to be at the mercy of the strong and also to be trying to cut them down or curry favor with them at all times. None of these assumptions is inevitably true.
I agree that it is incumbent on the strong not to use their strength to harm the weak and to deploy the advantages of strength appropriately. But the weak have an obligation too, and that’s not to blame the strong for weaknesses they did not cause and are not exploiting. Whether you're strong or weak, there's still room for effort and for excellence. There's still room to pursue great performance, to innovate, to challenge yourself, to stay in the game and succeed spectacularly. If your motives are pure, you shouldn't have to give up in the face of strength or weakness. You shouldn't have to stop and rest on your laurels the instant you achieve the lowest common denominator with which the least capable or charitable of your fellow strivers feels comfortable. You should be able to give it your all, give others the benefit of the doubt, and count on being given the same in return.