Socializing with other people can be a delightful and heart-warming experience, particularly with like-minded people. But unfortunately, it does not seem to last long. Why is this the case? Is it, perhaps, due to the game of one-upmanship people play in many of their interactions? Whether it is one manifestation of “the will to power” or the human residue of the animal competition for survival, it is one phenomenon in human interactions that seems poisonous. Whether it is done consciously or not, once people notice this game is being played against them, they often begin to develop antipathy to the aggressor. Then, it is fairly obvious that the one-upmanship is not a good game to play in one’s relationships with others, particularly when one has to maintain a good relationship for a long time to come. But, ironically this game is often played within fairly close relationships – probably because they tend to spend more time together.
The weapons used in this banal “game of thrones” are varied; however, they often seem to involve the main sociological concepts/categories of race, gender, and class. The first category is the most problematic as it can be observed in the case of Ferguson tragedy that transpired in Missouri in August this year. It seems to me this case exemplifies the devastating outcome of institutionalized racism in the US. (This is not to say that institutionalized racism does not exist elsewhere. It does.) But, nevertheless the game of one-upmanship using the category of race can be commonly observed in everyday life. In America, the category of race is divided and then subdivided into many grades where WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) still seems to occupy the top level. Since this is the ranking based on one’s birth but not on one’s own achievement it is theoretically un-American (ideologically Americans are encouraged to believe a person’s value is based on the person’s own effort and work.) But, still the ranking based on race is most enduring and most common in America today.
The second category of one-upmanship weapon, gender, seems a world-wide category to rank people. In most existing societies, perhaps except for Sweden and Finland, the male is still considered better than the female; that is, most societies still seem largely patriarchal. This category is closely related to the category of race in that the category is not based on what one creates but the one that a person is born with. These days this category seems more flexible and complex mostly due to the advancement in gender transforming medical technologies. As John Stuart Mill discussed in The Subjection of Woman, the gender classification that divided people into two, initially created social hierarchy by applying physical force and then it was stabilized in the form of laws and social customs. In short, it is the brutal force that consigned women into the inferior rank. Thus, there is nothing civilized about social hierarchy based on gender. It is certainly as unfair and uncivilized as social hierarchy based on race or ethnicity.
The last of the three major categories, class, is often said non-existing in America. Perhaps, this only means that American people do not so much care about cultural or educational accomplishments, which are supposed to be used to classify people in some other societies. But, if one defines class, in Marxist way, as social hierarchy based on the economic power, it seems true to say that class exists in America; but it is more flexible, particularly, until recently. As iconized in the concept of American Dream, it was not uncommon for a person born to a resource-deprived circumstance to become a middle-class citizen or a millionaire. So in America, class stratification is based on economic power one has – however transient it may be. Probably this is why “conspicuous consumption” is more common in America than elsewhere where class is not solely based on material power. And one-upmanship is often played by showing off one’s material possessions.
Thus having considered the game of one-upmanship played in America, I wonder if one-upmanship based on conspicuous consumption is perhaps the least invidious of the three, primarily because the desire or necessity to feel better than others by owning material goods seems childish and silly. If one-upmanship is played on the basis of race and gender the game seems more destructive because it often seems to involve hatred based on a person’s unalterable identity rather than simply wanting to feel better than others. But still “game of thrones” based on class or economic power may be as devastating as power struggle based on race/ ethnicity and gender, depending on the people involved. Finally, I can say this: one-upmanship of any form can be pernicious to relationships. I think we can develop a more civil attitude to one another by becoming more aware of our subconscious tendency to play the game of one-upmanship.