Jeremy Sherman: Spiritual Omnivore

The Trouble With Team Players

Why does "bluish" mean a little blue, but "selfish" doesn’t mean a little self-focused? In common usage, "selfish" is something you either are or aren’t. 

I bring this up because we could use a word that means a little selfish. There are degrees of selfishness, not just based on intensity of self-regard, but also on kinds or size of selves. In terms of time, there’s your self today, your self this year, your self this lifetime, even perhaps your self in terms of the very long picture—your ancestors and your children. And there are degrees of social self, too—our you-and-who-else selves. In terms of family, there’s you, your romantic partnership, your family, your extended family. Socially, there’s you, your local friends, your Facebook network. Vocationally, there’s you, your department, division, corporation, and industry. Politically, there’s you, your party, your country, the world.

It’s not as though there are just two levels: forest vs. trees—thinking of yourself vs. thinking of others. There are many levels based on lots of dimensions, and plenty of them affording us opportunities to be self-ish. One can be selfish on behalf of a larger community. Ignoring this, we often mistake selfishness for selflessness.

For example, we assume that team players aren’t selfish—as the saying goes, there’s no “I” in team. But actually, there’s plenty of “I” in team. We can be intensely selfish on behalf of our team.

There are plenty of names for the dark selfish side of being a team player. We can be cliquish, jingoistic, exclusionary, elitist, or partisan. But we rarely notice that the dark and light sides of teamishness are two sides of the same coin. Team player: good; cliquish: bad.

How, then, can you tell when someone has entered the dark, selfish side of team playing? Not by the sanctimonious sound of selflessness, since we often feel proud of our selfless generosity to the team when we’re being selfish to outsiders. It’s as if we say to outsiders, “I deserve more than you, but if you think that means I’m selfish, you’re wrong. See, I think my fellow team members deserve more than you, too.”

Paradoxically, one of the best indicators that someone has entered the dark side of team playing is proud self-proclaimed selflessness in sustaining just such a double standard. Let’s take a current example.

A minority of fringe plutocrats and religious fundamentalists who have taken over the lead in the Republican party today are skating closer to totalitarian talk than any mainstream U.S. candidates in decades. True to the totalitarian tradition, they’re insisting that they’re acting selflessly to protect us all against the immoral behavior of their opponents both within and outside the United States. All totalitarians talk like that.

And all totalitarians either can’t or won’t assess their own behavior by the same standards as they weigh their opponents’ behavior. The same exact behavior when they do it is fine, justified, and appropriate. When their opponents do it, it’s an unambiguous sign of their depravity.

In other words, they hold two standards—one for their team, another for non-team members—and are proud of it. Indeed, they justify their pride as selflessness in the service of the home team and the greater good even though they are in the minority and opposed by the majority. It’s as though they say: “My double standard is a sign of my selflessness. I’m generous because I think both me and my fellow teammate deserve more than outsiders."

Whether you agree with that example or not, it’s worth paying a little more attention to the dark side of being a team player. We can be collectively selfish, leaving the world at large bluish.

Originally published on Mind Readers Dictionary.

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