Friday, March 9, 2012

It's All Relative

What do people want? It’s a broad question that could spur a discussion well beyond the confines of a single blog post. There is one succinct answer to this question which highlights a disturbing aspect of the political noise coming from conservative America. Before getting to that, let’s set a scene we all know well . . .

Waiting in line. We’ve all done it. So, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself waiting in line. For purposes of illustration lets imagine you’re in line for movie tickets. Your happiness in the moment will likely depend on the speed of the line. Even if you are very patient when it come to lines, spending 5 minutes in line is better than 30 minutes. So let’s say you spend 15 minutes in line. Now your happiness has been adjusted down by a set amount equivalent to spending 15 minutes in a line. That’s probably not really an adjustment at all. You, like most people, will be about as happy as you were when you started waiting in line.

So now let’s add to the scenario. Instead of one line for movie tickets, there are four. Four separate lines, and you pick one at random. Now imagine standing in line while three other lines move toward the same goal: precious movie tickets. This time, your line whizzes by, while the other three lines stand relatively still. That feels pretty good. So if your speedy line still takes 15 minutes, you’re probably a bit happier at the end than you were in the single line scenario.

But what if, and you know where I’m going by now, your line moves like molasses. It seems that every person ahead of you line contemplate for ages on which movie to see, and then decides to pay in pennies dug from the bottoms of their pockets. You’re line still takes 15 minutes. 15 agonizingly long minutes while the other three lines move forward with a steady efficiency. We’ve all been there. It’s frustrating.

So in all three scenarios you wait in line for 15 minutes. It’s the same result. And yet the emotional reaction to each scenario will be dramatically different.
So what do people want? One of many answer is that people want to be better off than other people. It’s hard wired into our very being. We’d like to think that we want that line to move quickly. But, when it comes down to it, we’re pleased if our line moves faster than everyone else’s line.

It’s a disturbing reality that poisons a lot of political discourse on government benefits, wealth and employee benefits.

The Republican Party is largely the party of privilege. White Christian men trying to hold onto the privilege afforded to them by the nature of their position. Privilege is really just a stand in for doing better than others. Even a poor man is master of his wife. Even an uneducated white person can look down upon the immigrant.

So much of the Republican Party rhetoric seems to be about slowing down other people’s lines. About taking away food stamps, or benefits, or retirement. This message taps into something deep and dark within people.

Unfortunately it isn’t an easy message to counter. It takes clarity of purpose and reason that isn’t always easy to communicate.

The difference is the difference between hearing that a retired California government worker is living on a six figure retirement income and thinking “why does he get all that” versus thinking “why don’t more workers get that”

Monday, March 5, 2012

C'mon, Sir Charles

On the reports of the Gregg Williams bounty issue: "“You have to be a punk to snitch that out,” "

Adults talking about "snitching" is not a productive part of society. Reporting wrongdoing, even anonymously, is heroic. It took down Richard Nixon, it stopped the abuse of Abu Ghraib, and it will make the NFL safer. It's protected by law under whistleblower statutes. Grow the hell up, Barkley.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gregg Williams, You're Ruining it for Us All

Gregg Williams paid his players to injure opponents. Direct hits to the head, neck, and knees, by players carrying an amount of force similar to an automobile. This tears ligaments, breaks bones, and above all, causes concussions. This, above everything else, is the one thing that would make football intolerable. Fixed games, steroids, players with criminal records, instant replay, more commercial breaks, the two-point conversion, expansion—none of these things would even approach the impact of the NFL allowing this to continue.

I'm never loath to quote superhero comics when making a serious point. They deal with issues of such exaggerated importance they'll occasionally give us a moment of really profound wisdom. Here's a chance to use Uncle Ben's best line, from Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." Usually that's the kind of thing that comes up in political situations, but it's almost never applied so literally. These guys carry enormous power on the field. Literal force: they clobber each other. We understand that that creates a risky game, where injuries are a part of life. Legitimate moral questions are raised even in the day-to-day experience of football, and the answer to those questions is deeply tied to the NFL's ability to assume the responsibility created by the violence of the game.

Sometimes the responsibility emerges cleanly: after Kevin Everett was paralyzed after a collision during a kick return in Buffalo, he regained the ability to walk thanks to advanced techniques researched under grants from the league. The NFL also has funded extensive research into concussions, and consistently updates its rules to limit the hits that cause them.

But this is a new ballgame. We're not talking about the incidental risks of a dangerous activity, we're talking about deliberate violence, intended not to win the game but to break the opponent, in ways that destroy seasons, careers, and lives. A sadism induced by thousands of dollars. That's why the NFL needs to bring the maximum penalties in its jurisdiction against Gregg Williams. A lifetime ban is a minimum beginning. Public release of all documents pursuant to the investigation, and availability of league resources to any pending criminal cases or liability suits. And then, they need to find out where else this is happening, and bring down a similar wrath.

Thankfully, most fans are outraged by this, but there are plenty who are saying that this is just part of the game. And they're matched by players who refer to it all as no big deal; just an incidental burst of violence among the rest. This is obviously more evidence of the coarse sadism that I've written about before, but there's a secondary point to be made here: this is evidence of objectification of people.

Objectification is most commonly thought of in terms of sexual objectification, of which plenty has been written. I'm not trying to compare them—but the point is that this is a result of the same phenomenon. Fans stop thinking of the players as people, but something less. Not even animals: Michael Vick's dogfighting ring gained far more universal condemnation than Gregg Williams humanfighting ring. We're looking at men as machines, or perhaps, simulations. We forget that there is a human cost to Sunday's results.

We overcome the objectification of football players when we afford them essential human dignity—their safety is public concern, we respect the emotional and physical cost of the game and respond appropriately. To some extent, even fans' resentment of players' ability to negotiate pay for their services smacks of this objectification. The players' personal agency is dismissed. Shut up and play the game. That's what we need to stop.

The players' own indifference to injury or the bounties is no counterproof. They are surely under significant pressure to act as tough as possible, to prove to teammates and coaches and fans that their performance is unimpeded by any personal concerns. Beyond that, they have spent their entire lives in this enviroment—and in a culture that reinforces it—and are willing to objectify themselves, and take on a false consciousness about their role as humans. This is not to completely dismiss their statements on the matter—resisting objectification demands that their subjective views of the matter be fully relevant—but under no circumstances can this continue.

Roger Goodell, you've been a commissioner with a strong hand in punishment and a crucial concern for player safety. End this now.