Guest Post by CJL: The Role of Sports in the Modern Context

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From a philosophical perspective, the infatuation and obsession with sports seems a bit strange. On a surface level they mainly involve two teams attempting to move some sort of ball or object across a line, through a hoop or in a hole. However, these games evoke immense passion, draw massive crowds and inspire almost a religious fervor in one’s favorite team. 

What can explain this all? 

Is there more than meets the eye?

In this guest post CJL provides some insight into my questions, and explains how we find meaning in sports. 


You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation

Plato

It’s 9 a.m. on a crisp fall Sunday morning in a midsized American city and tens of thousands of people have already gathered in coordinating colours to perform a day long ritual of eating, drinking and reciting ceremonial chants that have been passed down through generations. These circumstances could depict a religious ceremony or holiday festival. However, in this particular case, in the outskirts of Pittsburg, Kansas City, Houston, Seattle or a few dozen other locations, the community has gathered to spend the day watching football. It’s undeniable that sports have an impact that permeates through society in a way that nothing else can, it creates bonds and rivalries that can unite or divide over the course of decades. There must be more to this phenomenon than watching a group of athletes compete to put a ball into a net or run across an arbitrary line.

Sports, for both the athlete and the underlying fanbase, create a healthy medium for us to channel our natural tendencies towards competition and aggression. The origins of sport are believed to have developed as an offshoot of military training and included events such as wrestling, boxing, and running. The first Olympics occurred in 776BC and provided an outlet for the various city states of Ancient Greece to channel their nationalism in a healthy and competitive way. These athletes were not making tens of millions of dollars per year instead competing solely for pride and the “teams” they played for. Although these events would have been considered brutish by today’s standard and occasionally led to serious bodily injury and death, the Olympics and origins of sports provided a much healthier alternative to the constant state of war that was a condition of the times.

Lacrosse is considered to be one of the oldest North American team sports. In the traditional form of the game, Native American tribes of hundreds of men would play on a field miles long in games that could last days. Even in these early times, the tribe leaders understood that this was a healthy outlet for their members to express pride in their community and channel the need for competition. Similar to the ancient Olympics, the game was not without risk often leading to disfigurement or death, but it still acted as progressive alternative to warfare. In the Mohawk language, lacrosse is referred to as “Tewaaraton” which translates to “little brother of war.” The community impact and involvement extended far beyond the athletes as there were also roles for shamans, healers, and many ceremonial rituals leading up to the games. There was also material impacts as wagers between the tribes were placed on the outcomes. 

Although the consequences of modern sports are not as significant, many of the same sentiments and emotions have continued to this day. Take for example the recent Euro Cup, which pits the top European national soccer teams against each other over a month long competition to determine which country will hold bragging rights for the next four years. The nationalism and emotion that is created from this event extends far beyond the players, organizations, and even the individual nations. When Italy won, a unifying celebration took place across the country for days following the penalty shootout. The impact was much more widespread and global as similar parties could be found in Toronto, New Jersey, Argentina, and many other countries around the world which host an Italian diaspora. The modern Olympics are regarded as a global unifying event in which nations send their best athletes to compete for the title of world’s best. The contemporary state of the Olympics often pits the two world super powers of China and the USA in a race for superiority to see who can collect the most medals before the closing ceremonies. There are also significant financial outcomes for the athlete and national Olympic federations based on the results. This a healthier form of competition than allowing nationalism to manifest itself in a military context.

While professional and international sports play an important role in allowing nations and communities to channel their competitive nature and pride in a healthy way, participation in them also has a significant impact in personal development. Enrolling a child in a sport is one of the best ways for them to learn how to function within a group environment, how to win or lose graciously, and how to deal with challenges. Children who compete in competitive sports learn much more than how to dribble a basketball, shoot a hockey puck or putt a golf ball. What the environment is actually fostering is an ability to handle stress and battle through adversity which will greatly benefit them in future careers and life situations. We are seeing an attack on many of these fundamental principles as people argue that it is inappropriate for youth sports to award winners and losers instead promoting the idea that all kids deserve a trophy regardless of performance. This may have detrimental impacts on children as they become entitled and unable to understand the value of hard work and perseverance. The narrative of the comeback or underdog story is one of the most enthralling in sports and should not be watered down in the name of equality of outcomes.

The phrase, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” was coined by the late wrestler Eddie Guerrero. While competition and the desire to win is the central motivation of sports, there must also be some level of ethics and respect for the game. Sports can only function when there is a universally agreed upon set of rules and norms that all athletes abide by to ensure a fair competition. The topic of steroids in sports draws a lot of controversy as these drugs allow athletes to compete at a superior level, but simultaneously subjugate the user to a greater risk of injury and potential for long term damage. It is for this reason, in addition to maintaining the integrity of the game, that most professional leagues ban the use of the performance enhancing substances. The debate over whether sports are worth the risk of bodily harm has also flared up within youth sports. In games which involve risk of injury, such as hockey or football, there are contrasting opinions over whether children should be given the opportunity to choose to compete. In Ontario, this debate has led the governing body to raise the age at which body checking is allowed in hockey. There will always be some risk competing in these activities. However, it is important to remember that this is a healthy avenue to channel aggression and competition through.

Whether or not the nationalism that sports conjures up, if athletes are overpaid and overvalued for their roles in society, and if children should be provided the opportunity to compete in activities which could potentially cause them harm are all up for debate within the modern context. However, if our human nature does in fact include a need for tribalism and competition, there may be no better avenue to channel this through. This idea, along with the opportunity for individual and community development, shows that sports do in fact play a key function within our modern society and will continue to do so in the future. It is now Sunday afternoon and the nearly 100,000 fans that have packed into the Steelers, Chiefs, Texans and Seahawks stadiums, along with millions watching at home would certainly agree.


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The Polarization Series: A Look at our Moral Foundations

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In my last piece in this series, I argued that our minds are susceptible to a host of biases and deceptions which influence our decisions. We are inclined to jump to conclusions, and make up stories to justify our beliefs – even when we lack concrete evidence to back up our claims.

This can partially explain why we are sometimes dumbfounded when questioning the judgements or actions of others. Of course, we all have the ability to act rationally, but our capacity to think clearly about issues is in large part shaped by our environment, as well as our emotions.

Let’s continue to peel the layers of and explore what factors influence our judgements.

With so much cultural and moral diversity apparent throughout history and across different societies in the modern era, is there anything that binds us together? After all, in spite of these disagreements on what we consider right or wrong, each of us humans share a common ancestry.

Moral Foundations Theory

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues developed a theory to try and answer these perennial questions. Moral Foundations Theory proposes that we all have a set of fundamental moral intuitions which guide our behaviour. In the Righteous Mind, Haidt puts forth six building blocks of morality. 

Moral FoundationDescriptionExamples
(1) Care\HarmWe are sensitive to others who are suffering, and are inclined to care for those who are vulnerable or in need.Care for a small child, or someone who is ill.
(2) Fairness\CheatingEnables us to be aware and reject ‘free riders’ in instances of group collaboration, that is those individuals who get the rewards of something but didn’t contribute.Explains our aversion towards those who are rewarded without ‘paying their fair share.’
(3) Loyalty\BetrayalEvolved to allow us to build coalitions and work collaboratively. Motivates us to reward those who remain faithful to a cause, while punish those who detract.Think of when your favourite player gets traded to a rival team.
(4) Authority\SubversionObedience to hierarchy, rank and position. Also includes the desire to follow traditions, institutions and shared values.Respect for parents and family, cultural traditions, and institutions.
(5)Sanctity\DegradationClosely associated what we deem as ‘sacred’.   On the flip side, feelings of ‘disgust’ arise in cases where someone degrades what we hold as sacred.Principles, objects or places we place an infinite value on.   Religious symbols, objects of patriotism including national flags, saints or heroes.
(6) Liberty\OppressionInclination to resist unwarranted authority, domination or tyranny.Desire towards equality and freedom.

Haidt comes up with yet another brilliant metaphor to explain a pluralist account of how we can all share these moral foundations yet have starkly different attitudes towards various contentious issues.

The analogy is as follows. All of us humans have the same five taste receptors, but like a variety of different cuisines. Cultures have different foods which satisfy our desire for sweetness. I may like churros while a friend may prefer baklava – nonetheless both desserts are satisfying the same taste receptor.  

Further, some of us could be more inclined towards foods which are more bitter, while others prefer foods which are sour. Just because we have the capacity for different tastes doesn’t mean we like them all equally.

Haidt’s thesis states that we are all born with the same six moral intuitions.  However, the variety and differentiation in our morals and values comes as a result of us our societal and cultural upbringings as well as our social interactions.  Different practices can satisfy the same moral foundation, and some groups may be drawn to some values more than others.

This allows for both rigid moral foundations, yet flexibility in the development of cultural norms.

Political Applications

What is interesting about Moral Foundations Theory is that can be applied to a range of issues, mostly notably politics.

Haidt’s research is able to help us discern what moral foundations underpin the values of liberals, conservatives and libertarians.

  • Liberals are motivated by (1) Care\harm and (2) Fairness\cheating foundations and (6) the Liberty\Oppression foundation. Focused on issues of fairness and social justice, liberals are driven by the desire to push for policies which expand equal treatment to minorities and marginalized groups. The attention is on the individual rights as opposed to the group.
  • Haidt found that conservatives appeal equally to all six foundations, giving the most weight to upholding tradition, social intuitions and shared values in order to uphold social cohesion.
  • Lastly, libertarians prioritize the (6) Liberty\Oppression foundation, namely advocating for freedom from interference by the state.

Search for the Grey Areas

Moral Foundations Theory offers us a starting point to better understand those who disagree with us on certain issues.  It is easy to simply talk past one another, especially in cases when two people have a different set of moral values.  As postdoctoral researcher Kristin Hurst notes,  

People on both sides of the political spectrum tend to frame their own issues using the language and arguments that align with the moral convictions of their own group. We can have a hard time recognizing the legitimacy of each other’s moral convictions and, because of that, find it difficult to craft arguments that resonate with people who prioritize a different set of values 

While we may not be convinced by another’s argument nor change our mind, at a minimum we can gain insight on which of the 6 moral foundations someone is appealing to.  With this, we can understand how to frame the issue in a way which is more sensitive to the moral concerns of others in order to try and develop a common ground on what is actually being debated.  

Each of the political paradigms or ways of seeing the world have both positives and negatives. For instance, there is a tradeoff between promoting individual rights (liberalism) and upholding traditions and social cohesion (conservatism).

Issues arise when we divide others into right or wrong or slip into black and white thinking. Rather than becoming fixated on our differences we can try to work towards searching for the ‘grey areas’, the things we can agree on and search for compromise.


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Mindfulness and Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evolution-des-wissens.jpg

Much of our suffering and psychological problems we face are due to the fact that we are using ancient cognitive machinery to deal with the complexities of the modern world. Humans evolved though a process called natural selection in which genes that were best suited for their respective environments were passed on to the next generation. As Robert Wright notes in his book Why Buddhism is True, natural selection is not concerned about whether we evolved to be free from pain or to see reality objectively. Rather, its central objective is to pass on genes which are essential to an organism’s survival through reproduction. 

Humans have shifted from living in relatively small hunter-gatherer tribes to urban environments and large cities. Consequently, many of our predispositions that were previously useful in the past are now the cause of needless anxiety, suffering and discontent. Let’s look at some examples to prove this point.

Anticipatory fears:  As the Stoic philosopher Seneca stated, “We often suffer more in our imagination than in reality.”  Why is it that people fear things that they have not yet experienced?  For instance, some people have a fear of flying without even stepping foot on a plane.  Others dread experiencing traumatic events based on programs they watched on TV.

Why is this the case?

Our fight or flight response system that we inhibit was incredibly useful when humans were living in natural environments. Imagine living in a hunter-gatherer society and hearing the sound of movement in the trees. We anticipate a threat even though this may or may not have been a predator. However, in the one case that it was, those who quickly escaped had a better chance at long-term survival than those who did not.

Our proclivity towards short term pleasure: Many of us continually crave and indulge on short-term pleasure which we know are only temporary and will soon pass. Take for instance, the craving to eat a whole box of chocolates. Once we start eating it may take incredible will power to stop. However, we know that after of our feast is over, we will likely feel terrible – not to mention the high caloric intake and long-term effects of this indulgence.

The temporal nature of pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If pleasure lasted forever, we wouldn’t have the drive for reproduction and to fulfill our most basic needs. We would cease to desire more food after we finish a meal because we wouldn’t have the signal of hunger telling us that we need more food.

Our aversion towards public speaking:  According to studies, almost 30% of Americans claim they are either ‘afraid or very afraid of public speaking.’ The fear of public speaking can be traced to our distant ancestors. Maintaining group solidarity and cohesion was crucial to fighting off large predators. Being ostracized from the group would lead someone to face incredible hardship, a potential early death. This links to our loathing towards public speaking, and our aversion to be judged and rejected by our peers.

Mindfulness

So how can we cut through these delusions and regain control over our immediate desires and impulses? Mindfulness can provide us with some direction.

Mindfulness is quite simply ‘cultivating awareness’ to the contents of your consciousness in a clear and non-judgemental way. It trains us to cultivate attention and be able to shift our awareness to the present moment.  The hectic nature of our day to day lives barely gives us time to think and reflect. Consequently, as mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat Zinnn notes in his book Falling Awake,

“We so easily default to an automatic pilot mode – descending into the familiar ruts in our thinking and our emotional life, getting caught from agenda item to agenda item, and becoming more and more addicted to all the ways we have to distract ourselves through our devices and our so-called ‘infinite-connectivity’ that we lose sight of what is right in front of us and of what is called for now”

This next section of the blog will explore how mindfulness and Eastern philosophy can serve as an antidote to our needless suffering. These practices can help us step off the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ and enable us to cultivate awareness so we aren’t constantly driven to ‘keep up with the Jonses’.