Saturday, January 5, 2008


An acquaintance recently wrote:

"I think our priorities as Americans are warped when we pay WAY TOO MUCH money to these violent sports stars, allowing these disproportionately self-esteemed bums to continue to make MORE money than they are worth by hitting people and scoring points while people cheer them on. We need to PAY OUR POLICE OFFICERS, FIREMEN and ARMED FORCES the way we pay these "SELF-ABSORBED" poops and then maybe we'll be teaching our kids truthfully what is really VALUABLE in life."



I confess that I am sympathetic with this evaluation, and probably have said something similar, and even find myself largely in agreement. But before we opine too dogmatically about how much these athletes get paid, and before we criticize them for their violent activities, let's look at another possibility. Consider what is taking place in post-election Kenya, in civil war torn Iraq, in Pakistan following Benazir Bhutto's murder and in any Junior High School girl's locker room, and a hundred other places in the world where people are displaying clannish aggression and violence.

HUMAN NATURE: Passive or Aggressive?

I know some of us think that humans are sweet, kind and innocent by nature, but the anthropological evidence suggests that human beings are territorial and aggressive by nature; racism, tribalism and sectarianism have been and continue to be endemic to the animal and human conditions since as far back as we have records. I am not saying this is the only human trait, because we can also be quite empathic and cooperative. I am not justifying, encouraging or suggesting that we continue such behaviors, but simply observing what experts are telling us. The first step to changing an intolerable situation is an honest and correct evaluation of the problem based on the evidence.

Many of us Westerners pretend this assessment of the human propensity to sectarian conflict isn't true, preferring the Noble Savage view espoused by Rousseau and other so called romantics, but the fact is that humans are neurally hardwired to choose a tribe to love, cooperate with and defend as superior. Look at the current 2008 presidential process – many women are siding with Hillary Clinton because she is a female, many blacks are siding with Barak Obama because he is black, many evangelicals are siding with Reverend Huckabee, many white males are siding with one of the several white male candidates, and young people are siding with the younger candidates as seen recently in the Iowa caucus.


Humans tend to identify with that which is similar and find fault with those who differ. Freud called this 'the narcissism of minor difference,' the natural human propensity to find fault and criticize it, especially in the 'other'. This is actually a good trait when it doesn't get out of hand, arising in the individual psyche, causing a person to find areas of improvement and seek advancement for the self and our tribe. Some have called this 'divine discontent.' Freud described the world in general as a 'space of conflict'. External conflicts are little more than projections of the chaos found in the individual psyche. Our attempt to create civilization, said Freud, is an effort to carve order out of this 'space of conflict'. Humans must be taught to get along and 'act' civilized.

It is not our nature to embrace differences without struggle, no matter how progressive and Politically Correct we may want to be. Freud predicted the failure of Communism in 1930, writing that humans are not constitutionally constructed to get along and overlook differences. Howard Bloom's book, The Global Brain, explores this in the realms of animals, insects and humans, “Individuals extremely similar to one another find some petty distinction, then raise holy hell about it.” Howard Bloom, Global Brain, p. 93 Emile Durkheim wrote, “…a community of saints will classify a bit of lint on the heavenly robes as intolerable, and will viciously hound those who aren’t lint free. Eventually the supposedly unkempt may seek out others with a sloppy bent, and wall themselves off as a separate sect sworn to a messy destiny.”


Those of us who consider ourselves non-sectarian and more liberally minded all know that Conservatives routinely mock, bash and deride the 'Libs'. Yet most Liberals I know, including myself, oppose violence and advocate world peace, but often privately mock and bash those 'stupid fundies'. But we more progressive types are more subtle, keeping our bigotry concealed. I think this is called Passive Aggressive, which one fellow described as the dog that licks your face will peeing on your leg. I suggest that this is not hypocrisy, but very natural human behavior.

America's multi-billion dollar Organized Sports Industry just may be a brilliantly creative way to channel our innate tribal aggressions so they don't spill out into the streets, which they sometimes do anyway. That was one of the main reasons the ancient Greeks founded the Olympic Games, allowing the various City-states (tribes) to aggressively compete without bloodshed on the battlefield. The ancient Mayan cultures played a game similar to the modern game of soccer, culminating in the execution of certain players at the end of the game. Contemporary Mayan Shaman explain that this was actually a civilized way to avoid mass bloodshed. The game was played when feuding tribes were about to go to war over territorial differences and trade routes. Rather than continue horrific wars, they played the games and settled for the death of a few instead of many. This may seem barbaric to us today, but it was actually quite a creative solution given the alternative.

Sporting events are rife with animalistic tribal totems, unique identity, uncompromising competition, aggressive emotional expressions, overt acts of penetrating (violating) boundaries and conquering territory, keeping score, emerging victorious and gloating in the conquest. The losers get to experience humility, vague resentment, regrouping and another chance next season. One side goes away elated, the other side hopeful. Both are beneficial emotions and filled with optimism.

The philosopher Aristotle coined the phrase 'cathartic theatre,' suggesting that human emotions will either be expressed vicariously through spectatorship, or suppressed which causes emotional damage, or expressed directly through raging mouths and violent fists. He suggested that the state support such spectacles for the health of individuals and the society. Consider the possibility that the money our American athletes are making may be a means of keeping our society reasonably violent free, compared to those cultures that have no alternatives but to express sectarian aggression against those with whom they differ.


Again, please don't misunderstand. I am not calling humans inherently evil, sinful or bad. Those who observe human selfishness and conflict by resorting to Augustinian Original Sin are at the other extreme end of the spectrum. I see this innate struggle that Freud and others have observed as the necessary and normal condition of the human psyche on the way to making souls. Just as wandering space debris collides to create planets, so the human psyche, and human cultures collide to make larger souls. The poet William Blake wrote, "Without Contraries in no progression." Blake intentionally capitalized 'Contraries' because he viewed this as archetypal, a living pattern of the universal psyche. Joseph Campbell was once asked how people grow spiritually. He answered, "Either by trials...or by illuminating revelations." [Campbell, Joseph, The Power of Myth, p.126] The Hero's Journey always includes an encounter with some obstacle and opponent. before one can return home an expanded victor.


So what does Benazir Bhutto have to do with all of this? People like Martin Luther Sr., Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, Ghandi and more recently, Benazir Bhutto are the real sports stars. They were not afraid to move onto the larger social playing field and encounter intolerable and inhumane sectarian opponents. They played the game to make the human team larger, melting tribal differences into the union of larger humane souls. We must be careful not to divert all of our aggressions through organized sports. Sports can be a good release valve, but not to the point of welding us to our couches, isolated and removed from encountering the game of life. It seems to me that the aim of life is to see the normal and necessary human 'narcissisms of minor difference' to be a means to expanding human consciousness and making larger individual and social souls.

No comments: