What basketball has to do with assassinations — and with Robert Gates‘ defense strategy
©Andrea Morisette Grazzini March 2011, updated October 2012
Two months after America was stunned into sobriety by the shootings of a congresswoman, a little girl, a grandmother and others, enormous efforts were underway to restore national dignity. Discourse skyrocketed beyond boundaries of well-intended but impotent “be nice” efforts. Civility was suddenly very serious business.
Headlines covered former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. partnering bully pulpits to support a new Civility Institute at University of Arizona, in reaction to the January violence in the same Tucson community the college shares. Others report purveyors of rage losing serious sums in ratings and revenues. Among them said The Wall Street Journal are Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.
Still the war against incivility isn’t won. To succeed, it will need persistent infusions of candor and courage from leaders, consistent rejection of destructive behaviors and sustained communication from all corners.
To carry the military metaphor one “theatre” where evidence of ongoing conflict is most widely communicated has been Paul Ryan’s state, Wisconsin. Brutalities are occuring in less visible places, too. Where pro-social lessons are ubiquitously available and remedies for bully behaviors are clear and accepted.
Troubling examples have been witnessed on amateur basketball courts. One at a Big Ten game at the University of Minnesota and another in wealthy Minnesota suburb Eden Prairie where high school teams played. Fans of the home team jeered economically poorer rivals back to their “food stamps.” In both cases, well paid coaches made unprecedented pronouncements calling the behaviors out.
Their swift reaction made headlines. But a sobering reality remains. This incivility was practiced through crowd behaviors of students from respected institutions. Where emerging adults, in part due to heavy funding and promotion of powerhouse sports programs, are positioned to produce proportionately more impact on our country. They will take what they are learning into future positions as political, military and business leaders.
Now before pointing fingers (again), stop! The lesson is not who to blame. But rather: who isn’t? Consider the reasons gun violence and sports events attract such strong reactions.
First, they are cognitive no-brainers. The images are straightforward and stable. Anyone from a pre-verbal toddler to a senile octogenarian can understand them. Since they don’t change much, neither do our interpretations. We have no need to think them through. Why when we see a ball swish in the hoop we know it’s a good thing and when someone’s been shot it’s a bad thing.
Second and more saliently, they have nothing to do with mental reasoning and everything to do with emotional reactions. The images, again, are straightforward and simple. We feel happy or sad. The difference is feelings are so visceral we can’t—or don’t—explain them.
If anything we assume that everyone, or, conversely no one, feels the same. Insert this flawed logic into a chaotic social milieu, and the effect is compounded. David Brooks explained that society “progresses to the extent that reason can suppress emotion.”
The opposite can occur, too. Society regresses to the extent that persistent expressions of things like contempt or fear overwhelm reason.
Which explains our doubt, when we have gut senses that violent images are bad. Our culture is so insidiously imbued with such images it’s implied they are acceptable. People begin to believe buying viewing and communicating brutality is benign, because everybody does. Amplify this in intense public settings and you’ve got a juiced-up contagion propelling normative rationality right out of the sight.
Consider the strategy of one of the US’s most powerful leaders. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejects irrational norms. So much so he slapped Congressional leaders’ hands for overfunding military initiatives that essentially misappropriate emotion-driven assumptions and destroy mission outcomes. Mr. Gates’ ‘fund our soldiers’ well-being, not our bigger-equipment-is-better egos’ bottom-line is prudent and critically civil.
Citizens must see how we both internalize and externalize our high-octane emotions to collapse collective reason. Bouncing orange balls don’t cause bullying anymore than inert metal guns cause death. Without human engagement, they are simply inanimate equipment. Intended or not, the reality is they are serving as catalysts to brutal ends. By buying and cheering their worst uses, so do we.
Which isn’t to say we should crumble in shame. Emotions, like lifeless equipment, can mobilize good. If we can spark cultural passions which promote and defend leadership that embodies our best behaviors, we can build on emerging waves. To buttress proof that bipartisan dignity is quite serious business.
It’s time to reject passive spectatorship and blind boosterism, especially our own. By taking multiple positions as coaches and fans–but most of all as team players hustling for our common causes.
What’ll you chose? Supporting more incivility or getting down to the serious business of an “all-Americans” win?