Friday, September 22, 2006
I haven't watched football in years. But I'm still a Steelers fan. When I see a Steelers game when I'm in the bar it recaptures a special something from my teenage years...that passionate, unthinking, unreflective, pure partisanship. But why? The team isn't what it once was, I barely recognize most of the players. The style of play changes from year to year on contingencies having to do with coaching, rosters and the newest fad in the NFL (remember "Run & Shoot"?). But team loyalty is real. Of course some teams do have some stability, as the Rooney family in Pittsburgh has been a fixture for decades, and teams usually are geographically stable for long periods of time. But the dispersion of Yankees, RedSox and Cubs fans show that national brands aren't hard to develop, you have to capture a mystique. In case of the Yankees, it was one of victory, in the case of the RedSox and Cubs, it was one of tragic defeat.
Spectator sports seem trivial, and yet they trigger strong psychological tendencies toward group affiliation among humans. The substance of spectator sports, the narratives, are not really filled with genuine gravity, but fans imbue them with significance. In The Nurture Assumption and Not by Genes Alone there is ample reporting of social psychological evidence which suggests that the nominal assignment of group affiliation to subjects can induce heightened altruism toward individuals you have never met, and never will. Labels matter, even if the substance is imaginary.
I only bring this all up because of the common refrain I hear, "But you can't even tell the groups apart," or, "They've been neighbors for so long," or, "We worship the same God, let us make peace." These sort of statements are predicated on the logic that substantive cultural/genetic/social distance is the root of group violence or conflict, but the reality is that ingroup-outgroup barriers are often notional (superficial, simply markers) and hard & sharp. Even if neigbhoring groups are physically similar, the tatoos they wear can exhibit almost no intragroup variance, and are perfectly distinctive characters between the groups.
There are substantive issues which drive groups to conflict. The poor resent the rich, there are issues of public monies to divide, or, there is a conflict in how to use a communal resource, etc. Nevertheless, a great deal of the time & passion derives from, at least the outside, superficial differences. Cries from the "inside" that the differences are superificial go unheeded, because difference doesn't matter, as long as you can recognize your own group, you behave as any human would, you look for tatoos, not "rational" self-interest.