Monday, May 11, 2009

The Professor vs. The Primitive

I've made many promises lately about returning to a normal schedule around here. So instead of paying it lip service today, I hope this 1,700-word post proves my renewed seriousness. (Granted, some of the words aren't mine.)

David Barash is a psychology professor at the University of Washington, and this piece of his has been making the rounds online for a while. (Thus the reference to March Madness in the first paragraph.) It's essentially an argument that watching sports is not far removed, on an ethical spectrum, from suicide bombing. It runs to more than 3,500 words. I've responded to a lot of it (though, good lord, not all of it) below. Barash's words are in bold and indented. Mine are not.
Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn't religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month's collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.
Great start. Let’s change this sentence to apply to movies: “What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that narratives composed of moving pictures of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves?”

Or books: “What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the fake exploits of fake people are somehow consequential for themselves?”

Or ballet: “What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves?” (That last example is the sentence unchanged, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

I’m all for direct experience, but for Barash’s opening formulation to be useful, you would have to apply it to anything you enjoy that other people do. This is to say nothing of “consequential,” a loaded word that goes unexplained. Consequential in what sense? And how many of the seemingly intelligent millions truly believe in those consequences?
Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.
Are you getting the sense, like me, that Professor Barash smiles a lot?
More than a decade ago, a baseball strike canceled the season and the World Series. The first time ever, we were told in hushed tones. . . . But wait. Here is heresy indeed: Was it really such a disaster? Or is it a disaster that our current paragons have been revealed to be hormonally enhanced and ethically challenged?
Well: A. No, it wasn’t such a disaster. It was just a bummer for baseball fans; and B. Ethical challenges are indeed a greater disaster -- though, also not such a disaster -- and they’ve been covered that way. Reporting and hand-wringing on steroids has been going on a good decade now. The lost World Series was forgotten pretty soon after the fact.
Is life so pale, dull, and unsatisfying that it must be experienced vicariously in order to be savored? You might try reading a book, talking with your family, going for a walk, wrestling with the dog, listening to some music, smelling a flower, making love.
Not for the last time: Huh? I’m a big baseball fan. A big sports fan in general. I read lots of books (sometimes for vicarious experience), I talk with my family often, I’m willing to bet I take long walks as often as the author does or more, I listen to music almost constantly, flowers are fine, and . . . well, let’s keep this family-friendly. The point is, I urge Barash to Google the phrase “mutually exclusive.” What he finds will be useful during the composition of future articles.
Let me be clear: It is not the doughty doing of sports that is so ill-conceived, but the woeful watching, the ridiculous rooting, the silly spectating. . . . I have no quarrel with vigorous participation, pursuing an activity for its own sake, for the exercise, the camaraderie, the joy of simply doing it. That appeal is in fact so strong that the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga seriously proposed 70 years ago that the human species be renamed Homo ludens (man the player).
Don’t get me started on Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. That guy still owes me 50 bucks. Instead, let’s travel back in time with Mr. Barash, to when professional athletics didn’t exist:

A few guys are kicking a ball around a patch of dirt. Over time, some of these guys become really good at it. Over a bit more time, they’re so good that others are inspired to stand around watching them do it. They’re that good. Why would Barash condemn anyone -- author, dancer, orator -- to excel at something in solitude? Is there really something so incomprehensible in admiring someone else’s gifts? Has the professor ever witnessed a particularly well-turned double play?

[More nonsense redacted]
. . . when children avidly pore over vacuous images and vital statistics, or traipse enthusiastically to the local (or even distant) stadium, it is easy to make allowances. Indeed, there is something touching about such fresh-faced yearning for exemplars, even though the constellations they see may not be notable for the content of their characters, intelligence, compassion, decency, or creativity, but rather for an uncommon and sometimes downright freakish ability to hit, throw, catch, roll, or bounce a ball, to jump high or punch hard, or to bump into other people in such a manner as to knock them down and/or avoid being knocked down themselves.
Is this serious? Lots of people play sports. Unsurprisingly, given the make-up of any group of “lots of people,” some of them are less admirable than others. I suppose we shouldn’t teach our children to read because of the character defects of Hemingway and Marquis de Sade. Also, not notable for their “creativity”? Again I ask, not rhetorically, has Barash himself ever watched a supremely gifted athlete play, or is he too busy staring at the fans and taking notes? Wayne Gretzky? Michael Jordan? Mostly, I find his essay so dispiriting because of the assumption that physical creativity is so inferior to mental creativity that it need not socially register.

[More nonsense redacted, in which Barash comes close to arguing that physical skill makes one, ipso facto, less likely to be an admirable person; boldly groups Alice Walker with Einstein and Gandhi (don’t ask); trashes the idea of ever identifying with a group; uses the word “ersatz”; implicates the audience (again).]

Finally, he reveals what he’s up to, using evolutionary psychology as the mindless cudgel it’s quickly becoming. He actually starts a sentence, “Consider the American oystercatcher, a shorebird about the size of a crow...” Given the context, I’d rather not. I can’t linger on this section of the piece (which is quite long, so you can thank me next time you see me), partly because I do find overuse of evolutionary psychology intellectually repugnant and partly because it often seems to contradict the author (and expose him or her as a simple egoist) even when it’s right. I’ve said this about Richard Dawkins and others before, but here we just substitute sports-watching for religion: The scientist-philosophers carefully argue that we have a deep need, a deep instinct, a primordial urge to do what we do; and yet they spend the bulk of their time (and prose) proclaiming their complete befuddlement at why we do it.

In a word: What?

Here’s one last burst of Barash, and then I’ll close with some visual argumentation:
It is no great distance from the mesmerizing impact of close-order drill to the stimulating consequence of shared chanting and cheering, the waving of arms (military or civilian) in unison. The Wave, which many fans say originated in my hometown of Seattle, is a good example. Even though they don't get to swing a bat, throw a pass, or sink a three-pointer, fans have been inventive in providing themselves with ritualized, shared movements that further embellish the allure as well as the illusion of being part of the larger, shared whole, tapping into that primitive satisfaction that moves at almost lightning speed from shared, ritual action to a tempestuous sense of expanded self. One becomes part of a great beckoning, grunting, yet smoothly functioning, and, presumably, security-generating Beast. And for those involved, it apparently feels good to be thus devoured whole and to live in its belly.
Notice the use of “primitive” again. Let’s overcome ourselves, y’all! Forget for a moment that The Wave is perhaps the worst example of anything except human boredom and stupidity; given that I often see it begun at moments of high drama on the field, the most malevolent thing it might signify is ADD. Let’s focus on the military angle here -- the implication (which Barash enforces later by shamelessly bringing up Rwanda) that caring about sports is just a step or two below genocide. As a counter-argument, I’d like to re-post the following video, which I first shared in October 2006. It shows the view from outfield seats as Magglio Ordonez hits a home run to send the Detroit Tigers to the World Series, the team’s first in a while. I’ll grant Barash that sports fans aren’t worth defending as an entire group -- there are plenty of drunken louts and violent hooligans. But I’m not going to degrade them as an entire group, either. In this clip, I see a bunch of strangers enjoying themselves -- a lot -- and sharing a great moment. They’ll get up to go to work the next morning. Just like they would if the Tigers lost. Can they just enjoy this moment without being asked to consider their philosophical relationship to oystercatchers?



Anonymous philosoraptor said...

You do realize that he published that essay on Opposite Day, don't you?

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Saxo Philologus said...

Excellent. That article annoyed the hell out of me when I first read it in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and I'm glad that you disposed of it so effectively.

12:14 AM  

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