Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto
Start with the obvious: Rachel Homan is an amazing curler. She's focused and skilled, and can make shots that few other competitors can even visualize. Many fans figured her rink was a podium lock at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
But sports are cruel. For the first time in Olympic competition, a Canadian side, male or female, lost its first two matches: Ms. Homan down 0-2. Then, against Denmark last Friday, came The Burn Heard Around the World. One of the Danish sweepers touched a rock as it moved into the rings. The contact was pretty minute, especially given the little lint-remover brushes that are the sport's contemporary norm. But it happened, and it called for a decision.
Current curling etiquette suggests that the opposing skip should alter the position of a burned rock but leave it in play. Ms. Homan, in accordance with strict rules, exercised her option to remove the rock entirely. By modern curling standards, this was seen as a jaw-dropping, mean-spirited decision. In a post-match interview, Ms. Homan had had the dead-faced demeanour of New England Patriots' coach and alleged serial cheater Bill Belichick, ending sentence with that tell-tale "So … yup" of failed justification. So long to the myth of Canadian niceness.
Cosmic justice: Ms. Homan, like Mr. Belichick in this year's Super Bowl, ended up losing the contest. She was suddenly 0-3, and in momentary disgrace (her rink has since bounced back.) No one can know what was in her mind when she shoved the burned rock aside, but I bet it was some combination of frustration, competitive anxiety, and a bit of the edge that you need to win or do anything at the highest level.
But here's the wider social question that lurks beyond the burn. How much sharp dealing is essential to success in any human undertaking? Like many people, I was struck by stories last week about the Norwegian Alpine skiing team, who have a regimen of respect, egalitarianism and team support that have racked them an array of gongs to rival Audie Murphy's display case.
"We believe there is no good explanation or justification for why you have to be a jerk to be a good athlete," multiple world champion Kjetil Jansrud told the New York Times. "So we just won't have that kind of thing on our team. You have to get along with everyone."
Wait, what? You don't have to be a jerk to be a great athlete? These Norwegians obviously don't watch NBA or NFL games, or Brad Marchand's NHL shifts. Everyone knows that the celebrated amateur spirit of the Olympics is a long-gone ghost, but isn't it kind of great to hear those ideas from a competitor who is a global champion in his sport?
I work in a profession that, for various sad and indefensible reasons, encourages people to be jerks. Indeed, academic philosophers are so notorious for rude behaviour that they've become a shorthand term of mockery. I once remarked in a mixed university committee that my colleagues were "somewhat contentious." The room erupted into prolonged helpless laughter. I had evidently executed comic understatement of a high order.
Why is this so? I'd say a combination of professional reward for abusive objection, institutional exemption from normal standards of civility, and pathetic faux-machismo about who's the smartest guy in the room. It's no coincidence that the most penetrating, and hilarious, recent analyses of bad social behaviour – examining the jerks we meet in the real world, not just academia – were penned by philosophers, Eric Schwitzgebel and Aaron James. (They both also live in California, but I have no idea if that's significant.)
Of course, nobody but a few hundred people anywhere worry about the arrogance of philosophy professors. I mean, who cares? But the larger issues revealed by the Olympic stories are actually significant. We are at a cultural moment when a lot of entrenched social and cultural norms are rightly being questioned. This is no exception.
Here's a radical notion: You don't have to be an awful person to be good at what you do. Giving yourself permission to be a jerk is the first step on a slippery slope of knock-on bad behaviour: heedlessness, punching down, harassment. It's also true that, though jerks sometimes do succeed in the world, that's no reason to stop calling them out. I won't bother naming anyone who happens to reside, sort of, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And even the best of us are susceptible in a given moment. I don't think Rachel Homan is a jerk; but she acted like one last week. And then she lost.