I was sitting there peacefully in a selection committee meeting and suddenly heard the words ‘we want someone who will fight the world’s fight’.

In another meeting one of my colleagues explained they had a duty to ‘fight for the rights of their staff and students’.

Then I thought about the war against terror, the war on drugs, and freedom fighters.

I started wondering about this martial language. When did all these things start being framed as just wars fought by heroes?

As a biologist I imagine that we do have basic instincts related to fighting. Even when most of the world is peaceful, a bear will fight to protects its cubs. I’d go so far as saying it feels good to fight sometimes. To be possessed by Mars, the god of war.

But is there a way of avoiding describing everything as a justifiable war and minimising the celebration of conflict?

It’s important because ultimately – though many may deny it – humans often find themselves fighting against other humans, even when they say they are fighting for lofty principles.

It’s difficult to fight for something without creating an enemy to fight against.

There’s a line in a song that goes “know all your enemies, we know who our enemies are.” But mostly we don’t know, and there is a danger in framing our fellows as enemies or of demonising strangers.

In academia unknown administrators, with power, are sometimes considered to be enemies. Researchers are angered by the comments of reviewers, by the conclusion of the editor that the work would be better suited to a more specialist journal, by the grant review panel that decides that the project is only of incremental importance, by the research funding agency that expects work to be both of fundamental importance and ready for immediate translation. But as one’s career progresses and one takes on these roles, and becomes the enemy, one feels less that the people in the past were ever really enemies up for a fight.

Within the university the people one knows are friends but the faceless people in administration can feel like enemies. The head of school’s not too bad, but the higher levels of management are either dangerously ambitious, or simply out of touch.

For those in university management it is the regulators, the research funding bodies, the ministers and the key people in the government departments that are powerful and thus treated with caution. Gradually you get to know them and their visions too, and suddenly they cease being anything like enemies. But then, all too soon the portfolios shift, and one begins again.

Nevertheless, getting out more, meeting people, talking with them, and walking a mile in their shoes, is a great first step in ceasing to see other people as enemies and in moving away from framing every encounter as a just fight against a demonised enemy.

It’s hard to move away from the language of fighting but one alternative is to frame things as a festival where everyone tries to be the best they can. The primary aim is not to win the flag but to finish in a better place than last year. Not just to kick a lot of goals but to be the best and fairest. To harness the ego of Mars for the common good and to be recognised for exhibiting the right behaviours rather than to seek to be David, killing some monstrous Goliath.

All the league tables, the bean counters’ metrics and KPIs, while pernicious and hated when overused, can also provide scoreboards that distract people from fighting each other and help them work towards higher goals. The changing data underlying the UN Sustainable Development Goals inspire progress and shift mindsets from local conflicts to striving to change these scoreboards.

Engaging in races can still be complicated. Many argue for cooperation, for collaboration, for harmony, for a triumph of love over war, of Venus over Mars. We should try that, but I don’t think we will ever set Mars aside completely. It’s in our DNA to fight. The trick is to find the best ways of exercising our muscles without fighting one another.

Just as King Arthur shifted his knights off the battlefield, got them round the table, and then sent them out on a quest, we too should commit to a thousand human missions. We should race to get more than 95 per cent of Australians vaccinated, race to reduce emissions, race to educate the poor, race to reduce the gender pay gap, race to generate innovations and art – add your own favourites and see how you go. It’s all possible in the age of global data.

Let us race against each other, and other cities, states, countries, and harness the innate human desire that evolution instilled in us all – that primal urge to fight to win. Not to destroy some imagined enemy, but to leave a better world for the bear cubs of the future.

Professor Merlin Crossley is DVC Academic and Student Life at UNSW Sydney



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