In Praise of Tribalism

Murray v. Federer.  Why would anyone support the grumpy Murray against the gentleman Federer?  Why would one back ordinariness against genius?  Why would one root for efficiency over grace?

Because Murray’s a Brit.  Meaning I share what in common with him exactly?  That we both pay taxes to the same exchequer?  That we’re both subject to the same laws and have the same citizenship duties and rights?  That seems a weird basis on which to base any emotional attachment.  That we share the same values?  I doubt it.

But for most sports fans, backing one individual or side against another is integral to the enjoyment (and the pain).  One can be impressed by the skills on display and from an aloof standpoint still appreciate the aesthetics, but partiality is what gives watching sport its passionate heft.  That’s true if one is a lone viewer in front of the television and even more so when one loses oneself in the hysteria of a crowd.  And it’s energizing and enlivening to be swept along in a nation’s irrational exuberance.

If nationalism is not the most logical criterion on which to select an athlete or team, well, that hardly matters – at least so long as democratic institutions are robust enough to prevent such feelings spewing out into more deadly arenas of contest.

So, like most Brits, I backed Murray.  For an athlete, the more supporters the better, but the irony, of course, is that an identity was conferred on Murray which he only weakly claims for himself.  For he’s a much prouder Scot than he is a Brit.

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2 Responses to In Praise of Tribalism

  • Ben says:

    You’ve never enjoyed a sporting event where you didn’t mind who won? I was thoroughly indifferent to the winner of the Wimbledon final – interestingly, I found myself much better able to appreciate and delight in Federer’s skill (and empathise with his mistakes) than my more partial fellow viewers. Who enjoyed themselves more, I wonder?

    If partiality’s your thing, why nationalism in particular? Pick something more anodyne: the plucky underdog, or even liking one player’s haircut more. I think your brief acknowledgement of the nasty side of nationalism is rather glib; even ‘friendly’ nationalism has its effects on wider society, in ways that can foment rather less pleasant attitudes. It’s not at all clear that democratic institutions, no matter how robust, can prevent such swamping.

  • Dave Frame says:

    I agree that affinities to players or teams add to the experience of sport for spectators. They make it a richer experience because we get emotionally engaged. It’s interesting how we choose to form these affinities. Much of it is amazingly pre-rational, I think. The big thing seems to be to build some sort of imagined affinity with a team or a player – it’s purely one-sided of course. I’m not sure it matters so much how the affinity is formed – it’s pretty arbitrary, but it would be unsurprising if readily available sorting devices and heuristics like geography didn’t come in to play. And personally, I think nationalism is pretty reasonabe, even though I don’t really feel very nationalistic. A nation may be an “imagined community”, but the solidarity we interpret into it is no more arbitrary or socially constructed – or toxic** – than that associated with other imagined communities such as class or race or culture.

    **Even more barbarities were committed in the name of class solidarity in the 20th century than were committed in the name of nationalism.

    In reply to Ben’s post – I’m sure players’ haircuts really are a frequent driver of these affinities. [In the absence of other sorting data it seems entirely reasonable to support the NHL team with the better selection of mullets.] As for plucky underdog or other personal qualities – yes… except they’re not really personal qualities. They’re public projections of glimpses of people’s character. Someone who is a plucky underdog at Wimbledon might be an insufferably arrogant destroyer of the weak at any other level; to some extent players are cast into one of a (small) number of roles by the media, who broker our interactions. I don’t think there’s much point looking for authenticity in the affinities we choose (except in the rare instance we actually personally know someone involved). We may choose large-scale (national, cultural, etc) bases for affinities, or small-scale ones (haircuts, “personality”, personal playing style), but in the end we’re choosing on fairly weak grounds, however we choose.


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