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SOCCER IS POPULAR,” sci-fi literary genius Jorge Luis Borges famously declared, “because stupidity is popular.”

You might have heard this one before, as I certainly have. In my social circles (which are mostly academic and literary) I have surely noticed  a lot of disdain for soccer. My guess would be — though I might be wrong — that a significant segment of those people, who often pride themselves on consuming ‘high culture only’, share Borges’ dismissive attitude towards soccer (or any form of popular entertainment, for that matter).

Obviously, there is an irony at play here. For calling an activity that is enjoyed by millions “mindless”, often without any form of justification, as I have often heard, surely is just as narrow-minded as swallowing any form of entertainment that pops up on the tv-screen. This dismissive attitude needs some justification, to say the least. So, is there any reason for disapproving of soccer and similar forms of entertainment?

BORGES CERTAINLY THOUGHT there was. To the Argentinian writer, the link between soccer on the one hand and extreme forms of nationalism on the other was quite an obvious one: “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.” A similar remark can be made about the cheering crowds in sport stadiums —  as Borges did.

Case in point? Just try to suggest that a tackle, performed by a player of the team you’re cheering for, might not have been a text-book illustration of fair play. What do you reckon the reaction of your peers will be? Or worse, just imagine what usually happens to any sports-apostate who switches teams. How big do you figure the chance that he will be ostracized by the very same people with whom he previously shared nothing but moments of pure extacy?

Of course, Borges would most certainly agree that terms like ‘ostracism’ and ‘apostacy’ are more than just metaphorical in this context. They refer to attitudes and practices — in the context of early democracy and religion respectively — that are arguably also present in the mass culture surrounding soccer.

The dangers in giving in to these impulses was obvious to Borges. In very much the same manner as governments take advantage of the people’s fervor in religious or national contexts, Shaj Matthew argues in Why Did Borges Hate Soccer?, “governments can take advantage of the bonds that fans share with their national teams to drum up popular support. This is what Borges feared — and resented — about the sport.

THE PARALLEL BETWEEN extreme gusto in sports and nationalist or religious alacrity isn’t only obvious to anyone willing to consider the comparison; it is also explainable. How? Well, some (evolutionary) psychologists have given credibility to the claim that both nationalistic and religious agitators use a set of techniques that are evolutionary adapted to arouse popular support. Similar ones are used in sports.

Consider, for example, the distinction between teams on the basis of shirt-color. Surely, this is mostly a practical issue. (Who could distinguish between teams if everybody wore the same garment?) Yet the psychological effects of these visual cues on both players and spectators are undeniable from an evolutionary perspective. One need only to be reminded of Henri Tajfel’s famous experiments in social psychology.

Tajfel’s was a social psychologist, who’s intention it was to create oppositional groups with as little meaning as possible — by separating people onthe basis of shirt-color for example. During his experiments, Tajfel discovered that even in the most minimal group conditions (hence the name of the field, the ‘minimal group paradigm), people generally tend to favor members of the in-group.

People exhibit this tendency, even when they are appointed to a group on a completely arbitrary basis — like the color of their shirts. Perhaps most shockingly, people favor members of their own group, even when doing so results in negative consequences both for themselves as individuals as for the group as a whole. People support their team, even if they get beaten up by other teams… Simply for wearing the wrong shirt.

Because that’s basically what it is. We’re cheering for clothes, Jerry Seinfeld once famously remarked—Henri Tajfel essentially proved him right.

THE HUMAN PROCLIVITY to think in terms of in-group and out-group comes with a panoply of other negative effects. For example, when we encounter another group, we tend to ascribe to all its members characteristics that they must contain essentially. The traits we attribute to them are, not surprisinly, mostly negative. An example would be: “Unemployed people are just lazy.” Of course, whenever academics or writers describe all soccer fans as “inherently mindless”, they would be making the same mistake.

The other side of the coin: when we are in a context of competition and we see a member of our own team making a mistake, we are inclined to justify his or her behavior — even though we would deem the same action unforgivable if it were made by someone outside of our own group. “Sure, a harsh tackle is a harsh tackle,” you might say. “But we were trying to get to the ball, while they are just playing dirty.

On the other hand, there are a lot of evolutionary and historical advantages to spontaneous forms of group-think. In a situation of tribal war, clinging on to your group and portraying all its members as good specimens of the human species is clearly advantageous, because they might one day actually save your life; while attributing inherent maliciousness to your enemies makes it easier to justify killing them.

In more moral terms, group-think provides people with a sense of commitment, belonging and identity that is clearly beneficial whenever some enterprise needs popular support to succeed.

THAT’S WHY SPORTS clubs use all kinds of techniques to reinforce group-identity. Think of national anthems. Think of chantable slogans. Think also of symbols, garments, flags and mannerisms that all club members share or only in-group members know about. Why on such a basis? Because these rituals make the activity of showing support, and the identification of other group members, as straightforward and easy as possible.

We know that some people identify with these rituals and symbols to such an extent that they are willing to commit violence in their name. War is but one example in the context of nationalism. Terrorism is another one. Both kinds of excesses are rightly associated with religion and the process of nation-building. But evidently, the same mechanisms are also present in the mass hysteria surrounding soccer.

Is it any wonder, then, that there are people (mostly young men with high testosterone levels) who are willing to commit violence on behalf of their team — hooligans — just as there are people who are willing to commit violence for their country or religion? Whenever people give in to the psychological mechanisms of in-group thinking, some people are bound to take its psychological products to the extreme.

In religious or nationalist context, this might mean terrorism. In the context of sports, it means hooliganism.

This is, essentialy, why I’ve always shuddered whenever I saw my friends cheering for their favorite sports team, just because they happen to have been born into a family that supported that particular team (another parallel with religion.) Moreover, that ‘s why I could never understand people who denounce the underlying principles of nationalism and religion, and the excesses they produce, while at the same time supporting for their favorite soccer team.

WHENEVER SOMEONE ADMITS to not being a soccer fan, and dismisses the surrouding culture on the moral grounds mentioned above, (s)he can expect to face the accusation of elitism. Jorge Luis Borges certainly got the accusation hurled at him. So did I.

It is only a matter of common sense that unrequested critique is almost always unwelcome. That’s why, when that magical time comes, every 4 years, when my roommates flock around the sofa, screaming at the TV while dressed in flags and painted with national colors, I try not to say anything about it. I do what I usually do: I just read a book in the corner of the room. Ironically, it’s mostly my friends who come up with remarks during the soccer game.

“OMG! Did you just glance at the TV?

“I guess I did.”

“You see! That means you like it. You like soccer!

“Sure I do,” I answer. “It’s entertaining. But that doesn’t mean that I like it. On the contrary, that’s exactly why I dislike it.”

“How do you mean? How can you dislike something you like?

“Entertainment means power: the power to secude. And I don’t want to be lured into meaningless and time consuming activities, just because I enjoy them.”

OF COURSE, THAT’S exactly the kind of elitist answer my friends would expect. The double irony is that a conversation, very similar to the one mentioned above, took place a couple of years ago. At the time, I was reading Amusing Ourselves To Death by communication scientist Neil Postman. In this profetic study (which is an absolute must-read), the reader is confronted with a haunting comparison between George Orwell and Aldous Huxly, and their respective dystopian visions of the future. The introduction famously ends with the following sentences:

“In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

I fear the same thing. And essentially, I believe both Borges and Postman are right. I believe that most sports spectacles function as wolves in sheep’s clothes. They allude to our most tribal impulses while giving them an alluring air of entertainment. This is why I dislike soccer and — coming back to my main point of this article — I feel quite confident in saying: hooligans, terrorists — psychologically speaking, there are reasons to suspect they both act from the same motives.

That’s why I never partake in social activities that are related to sports—enjoyable as they might be . To me, it’s a form of self protection; a way of resisting a dynamic that one day might easily be used for purposes that are surely less noble than soccer.

Did you like this blog post? Then my (Dutch) novels might be an interesting philosophical challenge for you!

Palmloos Gebed/Massamoord Refrein

Wanneer religiewetenschapper Simon Goldstein een religieus visioen ontvangt, slaan de twijfels toe. Zetten zijn geliefde abrahamitische religies aan tot geweld en zelfmoordterrorisme? En zal hij aan hun lokroep kunnen weerstaan?


De Ziener

Wanneer Isaac Newcomb een hardnekkig theoretisch computerprobleem oplost, wordt zijn kwantumcomputer alwetend. Maar wat als Newcombs geesteskind op de hoogte is van informatie die al zijn geliefden in gevaar brengt? Kan hij nog iets aan het noodlot verhelpen of is iedereen – Newcomb inclusief – gedoemd?


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