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 Search for Wisdom in the Information Age

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How can we make sense of it all – the cynicism, arrogance and perpetual noise that is becoming ever more pervasive in our culture.

We live in strange times. Despite have access to almost unlimited information at our fingertips, we remain confused and overwhelmed.

Who am I to believe?

Who am I to trust?

The increasing sophistication of technology becomes anxiety inducing without the insight on how to use it to live well or enhance our wellbeing.

It is like we are drowning in a sea of facts without ability to know what is really important. These problems of discernment and sound judgement stem from the failure of our culture to adequately differentiate between knowledge and wisdom.

Although these two terms seem similar at first glance, it would be a mistake to conflate them.

Knowledge: Technical Know-How

Knowledge refers to one’s understanding and mastery over a subject and a certain set of facts. This can be acquired in school, training or other forms of education. Someone who is knowledgeable in a particular field has acquired a specific set of skills and has the capability of coming to conclusions about a given subject area.

However, just because an individual has acquired mastery over these facts doesn’t imply that they are able to make wise judgements about how to use them. We all know examples of those who have a high degree of intelligence but no basic ‘common sense.’ This often leaves us baffled or scratching our heads. Furthermore, intelligence says nothing about one’s ethical or moral foundations. Someone who is a brilliant student can lack kindness and compassion.

Scientific knowledge and technological advancements have given us modern humans great power and control over the natural world. However, without the wisdom to accompany them, these advances have been used towards destructive ends. Building nuclear weapons, addicting consumers through digital media and expediting environmental destruction are all consequences of using technology to satisfy self-centered and egotistical goals.   

Wisdom: Perspective, Character and Judgement

Wisdom is more than the acquisition of merely technical skills. It involves using perspective and discernment to apply one’s unique skills in specific circumstances. Moreover, it requires one to acquire virtues working towards mastering the art of living. Wisdom can’t be learned in textbooks but rather by actively participating and engaging in the world. That is to say it must be embodied in one’s character and disposition.

Through experimentation, experience and trial and error one is able to learn from their mistakes and strive to be in the right relationship to both themselves and others. Wisdom enables us to cut through alienation, self-deception and enhance our connectedness to the world around us. 

The Long and Winding Road

So how do we attain wisdom?

This has long been the role of religions and spiritual traditions. Religious figures such as Jesus, Confucius or the Buddha etc. were exemplars who an individual could aspire to in search for truth, beauty and goodness.

In a secular society however, I think the humanities and liberal arts (i.e., literature, history, philosophy) can offer a means to contemplate the big moral and ethical questions of our time. These subjects provide insight into different ideas, cultures and perspectives offering the learner to consider what it is like to ‘be in someone else’s shoes.’ They provide collective insights into what it means to be human both in the past, and in our current day and age. The humanities also enable us to look at the prevailing social norms and customs of our society with a critical lens. Honest and respectful discussion about the values can inspire empathy, understanding and greater co-operation.

Not all problems are technical in nature. Solutions to complex problems often require shifts in our perspectives or value structures, namely changes in how we see the world. This means that we cannot rely only on scientific advancements for the pressing global issues we face but also need shared wisdom and distributed sense making.

The path towards wisdom varies from person to person. It can not be bought or learned through persuasive yet deceptive self-help gurus. Not every answer to our questions can be found on Google.

Wisdom requires work, action and perseverance.

More importantly, it can only be found within.


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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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