A theatre of dominance

Organized sports often turn into a play about status roles and dominance. Bullfighting, pro wrestling, even hockey, are about who’s winning, who’s losing and who’s in charge.

But they are also theatres of affiliation. The fans celebrate their unity as well as their divisions. The pomp and circumstance are a form of culture. There are insiders and outsiders, and the right way and the wrong way.

When a sumo champ breaks protocol, the crowd isn’t happy. When the people next to you are wearing the same jersey as you, neither of you is headed onto the ice, but both of you feel like you belong.

The symphony has the same elements. The affiliation of players in tune, of familiar music from the canon, of an audience that knows not to clap between movements. But it’s also the dominance of the European-trained conductor, bringing his passion and will to bend the performance to his wishes.

One way to understand what’s happening in the office or on the news is to look at it through these lenses.

The theatre of affiliation happens when groupthink sets in, when we’re wondering what others will think of a new idea, when we go out of our way to play the long game and to be kind and thoughtful. “People like us do things like this.”

And this always dances with the theatre of dominance, when we see someone shortcutting to gain market share, or subjecting a co-worker to abuse in a meeting. It leads to a reinforcement of caste and stereotypes, and yet it persists. “I’m winning.”

Affiliation is the infinite game of culture building, sustainability, cooperation and resilience.

Dominance is an instinct as well, something we see in many successful species, and particularly when the game that’s being played is tweaked to reward dominators, it often returns.

When you’re in one mode, it’s tempting to believe that everyone else is too. But depending on which pocket of culture you’re in, which ticket you bought, what state your persona is in, it might be that you’re not seeing what others are seeing.

Getting in sync requires doing the emotional work of changing state long before we start using words and rational concepts. When in doubt, assume the people over there might be engaging in a different sort of theatre than you are.