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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

And while we're talking about sport

Christopher Hitchens comes down hard on international competitive sport, claiming that it exacerbates rather than reduces conflict.

In reply, Mike Labossiere gives a defence of sport more generally - emphasising its character-building nature and so on.

My verdict? Alas, I'm a bit of a fence-sitter with this one. I think that Hitchens' article is rather over the top and that, despite the existence of corruption, extreme rivalries, and so on, international sporting competition probably does do more good than harm. It does seem to create some international goodwill, overall, and to provide a relatively harmless outlet for nationalistic fervour. Glory on the sports field is a far preferable goal to glory on the battlefield. However, this is impressionistic. Just how anyone could be confident about the net effect is unclear. How do you measure it against the counterfactual alternatives?

While Hitchens may be over the top, Labossiere strikes me as a bit too Pollyanna-ish. Sure, most people in amateur athletics probably display ordinary human sympathy and courtesy when appropriate. So do most people at rock concerts or science fiction conventions or poetry readings or tutorials on ancient ceramics ... or in the supermarket, if it comes to that. So? There are also circumstances in which people may not be so "nice" (e.g. in prisons, or when arguing anonymously on the internet), but they are not the rule from which kinder behaviour is a special departure.

H/T Tauriq Moosa.

Edit: Some of the responses to Hitchens are hilarious. I like this one:

The athour must be a booksmart idoit who tries to bring down all athletles because they are better than him. To the athour: your a big softy who cant play sports, and sports does i lot of good i would know due to sports i care about school and iam healthly and more of a man, unlike the authour, who poorly attemps to bring down whoose who are great so you can sit alday typing ur dumb opion and acting like your cool and people care about your life. I know your somewhat smart though....but catch me on the mat of the football feild and i dont think youll have much to say


Damian said...

I long ago admitted that my support of Manchester United was almost certainly irrational. I rather like Billy Connolly's reaction to supporters singing, "We are the champions", when, in actual fact, they're not the champions, at all, the team that they just so happen to support are.

I would suggest that it depends on the individuals involved whether sport is a net good or whether it divides people. I am very conscious that in football there are often heated rivalries that involve quite a lot of hatred and invective, and I always make the point that I want no part of it. I try to explain to people how wrong it is to hate the people (who they almost certainly don't know, as people) who support a particular team, based solely on the fact that they support a rival team, or because they have had a bad experience with a very small minority of those supporters, etc.

However, because I am conscious of most or all of the pitfalls, I find that I do get quite a lot out of sport, even though I realize that I can't necessarily rationally defend my continued support of a team because I just so happen to have been born near the City (Cheshire, which is south of Manchester) where they are based. I can also see how silly it is that I get excited every time they win a match, and that I feel distraught every time they lose. But as I began to support them prior to knowing all of this, it really isn't easy to let go, and nor do I want to.

And I see parallels between that and religious belief, particularly when an individual is indoctrinated in their youth. I suppose that I could argue that my 'religion' is less harmful and less serious, and that I am not really affirming any truth claims about the world, as such, but I would be clutching at straws, in all honesty.

On the positive side, I have learned about many nations and cultures that I would not ordinarily have known about, and that can only be good thing for mutual understanding. And there certainly is something to be said about what you can learn about humanity from sport, but not all of it is good, I admit.

So, I'm left with a rather uneasy feeling about it all, and I sometimes wish that I could simply be an objective observer, rather than a 'supporter' of a team that I really have no connection to. But then I realize that I would not have had the same experience from it, which, in the main, has been quite exhilarating.

The lesson from all of this is that we really are quite strange and complex beings, I suppose.

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Colin said...

Fairly typical OTT contrarian stuff from Hitchens, but - as usual - not lacking a grain of truth.

Sport (and not just international sport) can be, and often is, a catalyst for some of the less appealing of human character traits. But I think it can also be, as Russell suggests, a (usually) (fairly) harmless outlet for some of those tribalistic instincts.

Specific examples of each tendency can be found. In Scotland, the 'Tartan Army' were famously described as Ninety Minute Nationalists, and as far as we can tell, few of their number spend their weekdays building bombs for the SNLA.

On the other hand, the fanatical support for the 'Old Firm' (Rangers and Celtic) has been used as both the public face of, and almost certainly a fund-raising device for, Northern Irish paramilitary groups. (@Damian, in the town I used to live, the parallels between football and religion are particularly close!)

And there are competing theories as to the effect of football in Francoist Spain and Tito's Yugoslavia (I used to teach a class on this stuff!)

I guess a lot depends on whether we feel that, in general, our nastier instincts are better controlled by being provided with, or denied, a quasi-legitimate outlet.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, and my own view on that has always been that society needs to provide some kind of regulated accommodation of these things. It needs to have a general rule forbidding violence as a means of succeeding in competition, but it's beneficial to allow some regulated avenues - in the boxing ring, on the football field - for prowess in violence to receive rewards. Likewise for our fascination, as spectators, with displays of prowess in violence, and for the kinds of tribal fervour that we're talking about. Generally these things are not good, but something in our nature makes them difficult to stamp out completely, so they are better accommodated in some sort of quasi-legitimate way.

But it would be very difficult to prove that this really is better than attempting to squash these things completely, since no society has ever even tried that. All the same, I don't think we should try the experiment.

Alexis said...

@ Russel: Sounds like you're presenting a version of an argument against prohibition. Whilst the analogy isn't perfect, prohibition has been (unsuccessfully) used to try and control other human behaviour (alcohol, drugs, etc.)in many societies. So that should be a reasonable answer to the charge that no one has tried to completely squah it. I would imagine an argument for regulated violent/aggressive sport could be built on much the same grounds as an argument for any other harmful activity embarked on by consenting adults. If purchasing and consuming poison is legal with regulations, it seems ridiculous to prohibit an activity that involves running into each other in the pursuit of a piece of leather.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, sure. But note that a lot of people seriously want to ban boxing and/or mixed martial arts (and similar forms of combat sport). I'm not one of those people, but there are plenty of them.