By Duane Sharrock
In the United States, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday and with talks about race. Since King’s leadership succeeded in influencing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, he is cited as an example of effective nonviolent protest as a response to nationally-supported segregation. Racial differences can still stir up conflict around the same themes year after year, but the new presidential inauguration and the final days of the US’s first black president exposes the many racial issues that remain in this country.
But Black History Month is coming.
This is a time to remind the nation of the many different contributions black people have made to make the United States great. These contributions were made in the Arts, Sciences, Law, politics, and many other fields, besides sports and athletics. But there were many contributions in sports.
For all of the heroes of great moments in history, Jesse Owens’s victory over the Nazis and Adolf Hitler was spectacular. “He was the most successful athlete at the games and, as a Black man, was credited with “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”, although he “wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.“”
Jesse Owens is noted here not because of his athletic victory though but because of the use of sports to make political statements. Owens was “was paid to campaign for African American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election.”, and sports can be a powerful facilitator for discussions on race.
Politics and sports have a long history in the United States. In the article “Politics and Sports: Strange, Secret Bedfellows”, Kyle Green and Doug Hartmann write:
“sport is…associated with moral worth. Within the popular media and the community of fans, the sporting world is cherished as meritocracy at its finest. The playing field is said to be even, and the players who reach the highest levels do so through talent, drive, and hard work. As a fan, it is nearly impossible to avoid subscribing to these omnipresent ideals.”
For this reason–that “the sporting world is cherished as meritocracy at its finest”–it is the best reason that the American people should talk about sports and greatness when they want to talk about race relations. Meritocracy discussions are concrete. In a meritocracy, talks can focus on accomplishments and achievements, not on potential or possibilities and rumor. Potentials and possibilities are what we mainly argue about when we talk about race, especially when we are talking about the limitations of those potentials and possibilities.
This is the main problem with those arguments. When we talk about potential and possibilities, we don’t really talk about the reality of what people actually do or did. If there is anything we might honor in sports it’s not about how, it’s about how many. Regarding sporting events, people can argue about what could have been or what should have happened, but a win is still a win; a loss is a loss. Greatness is about how many wins are won, it’s about achievements and accomplishments. It is not really up to debate.
If we ignore concepts that drive networking theory, this focus avoids some irrational beliefs that keep getting in the way of evidence-based discussions. It also moves away from magical thinking.
What is magical thinking? In this Scientific American article “magical thinking” (as it has been called) is defined as the belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome.” Magical thinking is another name for the category of logical fallacies and cognitive biases we should avoid when trying to have rational discussions. The problem is magical thinking shows up in the most common of discussions, even in political movements.
For example, why do people who want America great again believe that they can personally benefit? What is greatness any way?
There’s That Dream Thing Again
Who can argue with wanting to be great? Like many ideas that people can generally agree on, the specifics of this greatness is not something people can agree on. When we analyze what we really mean by greatness or when we try to choose “great” times, we often find disagreements around specific events, specific people, specific decisions made, even specific speeches. “Best of” lists are always judged incomplete or too inclusive. So, “greatness” is necessarily vague. It is better to start with what “greatness” will be for the sake of argument.
Greatness is not about money. It is not the same thing as “richness.” The lists of great accomplishments have nothing to do with bank accounts or gross national products or stock market profits. Instead, greatness has to do with feats of human striving and focus and action in spite of obstacles and barriers. Greatness can be accomplished through votes or participation. Greatness has to do with creativity and innovation, with the relentless lobbying and ratification of progressive laws, and with the refusal to compromise their most important values and virtues even in the face of opposition.
Greatness in any nation results from the efforts and successes of a great person or a leader of a great, effective, networked community, yet people seem to believe that one person’s great accomplishment is shared by everybody in that nation, even though they had nothing to do with that person’s greatness or had no part to play in the greatness network. How do people come to such beliefs then? This is a case of magical thinking.
That Big Blue Marble
Older Americans are proud that NASA was able to send people to the moon. In 1999, Frank Newport reports for the Gallup News Service a number of statistics “About 7 out of 10 Americans who are 35 years of age or older say they watched the moon landing on television in July, 1969” and Quora shares a number of mostly positive, first hand accounts of watching the moon landing. For those days, this might have been considered great television. The question though is why feel pride? What did any of watchers contribute to this historic enterprise?
Think about it.
If someone researches the greatest moments in American history, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon can be found in many lists like on Listverse. Whether historians point to short lists of great moments in space exploration or if they count up 25 moments that have changed society, Armstrong’s walk on the moon is placed somewhere on their list. But where were you when this happened? What were you doing? Were you alive? Do you remember?
Who cares? Why is this important to anyone? Whether the person is a scientist, an engineer, a mathematician, or some kind of technician, few people today were actually involved in the work that led to Armstrong’s walk. People are obviously invested in this accomplishment to the point that there are arguments over whether or not this lunar landing and moonwalk had actually happened, but the reasons why people are invested in this accomplishment, or faked accomplishment, are unclear.
The same can be said about people who actually watched it happen on television. Be very clear about this: seeing it on television makes you a spectator. Only a handful of people alive can claim they have contributed to any of these great American moments in history as anything more than a spectator. Like slavery and slave ownership, few people alive have actual, direct experience. Few people have direct experience with rocket ships or moonwalks so what “greatness” can most Americans–living today–claim participation in? How does this event benefit us? How does this accomplishment give any of us comfort or even confidence or bragging rights?
It’s like when a person drops a name of someone famous. They tell some story of how they met or how they took a picture with a celebrity. The name dropper seems to believe that somehow, because they briefly shared the same space with this celebrity, that this proximity somehow makes them great as well. Or that maybe some of that greatness was contagious and has infected them. Or that maybe this brief connection makes them friends now and all they need to do is pick up a phone or tap out a text and the celebrity will do them a favor.
It is absurd.
It is the same thing even if you have slept with a celebrity. As Tina Fey warns ambitious women in her book Bossypants: having sex with a talented comedian doesn’t give you comedic talent. To extend the warning, kissing, shaking hands, patting a celebrity on the back or being patted on the back by a celebrity, does not convey talent from the talented to you either. Greatness is not a sexually transmitted disease, unfortunately.
Something else that might surprise name droppers is that being a fan of that celebrity doesn’t make you great. Knowing everything about the celebrity–their habits, preferences, pet peeves, greatest accomplishments, the name of their first pets–will ever make you great or make you accomplish great things. So, why do people believe that living in a great country entitles them to greatness or that it will infect them with greatness?
Again, this is magical thinking.
Or maybe this is a strawman argument. Maybe it is more about entitlement? Maybe it is more about the strange psychology of fandom.
Opportunities and Role Models
Some people get annoyed with the use of sports analogies and anecdotes. These analogies and anecdotes usually make a cliche or make a meaningless statement in order to fill air time (you can find many such statements in boldface here). On the other hand, some insights can be learned exploring the psychologies of sports fans.
There are similarities in attitudes between nationalists and sports fans. The attitudes become obvious where teams represent nations like in the Olympics or in the World Cup Soccer (futbol/football) games.
During international sporting events, players, as well as their teams, become elevated in status. They become representatives of what is best about that sponsoring nation. After all, an Olympic competitor doesn’t just sign up and play; they win their status from numbers of competitions at the city, regional, and national levels. Only then does a player represent the nation to compete against other nations for specific sporting events. Sometimes, although fandom can turn ugly, the Olympics and the World Cup provide opportunities for a fan to express national pride.
We affiliate ourselves with many different groups and organizations. We feel we belong to them, and they belong to us, even though we are only spectators. As a fan, it is easy to understand the value of these affiliations and to accept the convoluted sense of contribution and ownership. However, although fans recognize the truth of the meritocracy because “the players who reach the highest levels do so through talent, drive, and hard work”, fans also feel a sense of entitlement. They feel that players owe much of their success to their fans, and that the players should feel appreciation for the worship and monetary support of their fans.
However, fans get it twisted. Fans also seem to believe that they are also the players through some strange psychological thaumaturgy (magic). Erick Fernandez writes in his article “Science Shows Something Surprising About People Who Love Watching Sports”, that fans experience these brain-changing experiences watching sports teams compete. They feel…
“dominant: “After watching your team win, levels of testosterone skyrocket, especially compared to experiencing a loss,” according to ASAPScience.”
“a rush of pleasure: Some fans experience dopamine surges whenever their favorite team or athlete fares well.”
“like they are playing in the game.”
So, if the researcher conclusions prove accurate, and it is true that sports fans actually DO experience the wins and losses of others as if they personally won and lost, that fans do feel “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” without experiencing the physical pain, hard work and sacrifice of the athletes who actually played, we may need to look at the engagement of spectators differently, and should change our understanding of society in general.
For example, it has implications in politics. Maybe the fans see themselves in their candidates the same way sports fans see themselves as players. The arena of elections, the fanfare, the build up, the backstories, the speeches: it is all similar to the build up of major sporting events. This perspective reframes a person’s engagement in elections and politics if it can be established that people unconsciously define country, region, state, city or political party in ways similar to a favorite sports team.
There are a few moments that would be considered great moments in the USA’s history. There are hundreds of people born and bred in the USA who contributed to this national greatness. Even when they were not born and bred in the USA, some nationalists may claim “nurturer” status by extension because of the education given in American universities and the employment of the foreign transplants (i.e. educated, talented immigrants). People of every ethnicity, race, and national origin make some claim to some past greatness because of some superficial connection as if correlation is evidence of their own potential and possibility.
This is the point though about the people of great moments. Of all the scientists and engineers, mathematicians and technologists, the artists, the poets, the dancers and musicians, the sculptors, the architects, the orators, the legendary activists, the war heroes and journalists, the songwriters, the playwrights and novelists, the industrialists and celebrated CEOs, and anyone else historically celebrated for their world changing accomplishments: “they” are not you.
Sometimes, a simple but profound shift in pronoun reveals just how entitled people feel to the accomplishments of scientists as belonging to mankind. This sense of entitlement can be heard when people aren’t saying “they” landed a man on the moon and instead say “we” landed a man on the moon. Not the royal we that means “I”. It’s the there-is-no-”I”-in-”team” we. There is an example of this “They to I” shift in the movie I, Robot which was loosely based on the Isaac Asimov book of the same name.
In the movie I Robot, an android named Sonny and the police detective Del Spooner have a conversation about the superiority of human intellect and creativity versus the synthetic intelligence of an android. Humans are better for a number of reasons, because we are alive and machines are not.
Detective Del Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a… canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
Sonny: Can *you*?
When Spooner says “human beings”, he is implying the us/we argument. This kind of argument is repeated often where “we” can do this, but “you” can’t. When arguments involve “us/we” against “you/them”, people tend to gather numbers of accomplishments in the “us/we” column and take credit as if the entire list of accomplishments was a team effort. Just as depicted in the movie scene above, “us/we” includes every accomplishment that every human being has accomplished, but “us/we” have done a lot throughout the history of mankind. By extension, since you are a human being, you belong to Team Humanity. The historical accomplishments then are within the reach of every human being, regardless of whether the individual can actually read music or render a mathematical proof or even understand the philosophical arguments of Martha Nussbaum. It is the Dunning–Kruger effect on steroids.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is pretty common. It is a human failing where people can watch a basketball game and think they can do better. They can be “armchair quarterbacks” when it comes to watching American Football. They can see that common sense is not so common when it comes to foreign policy, the losing of weight, the passing of laws, the regulation or non-regulation of corporations, automobile design, as well as for some writers who think they can solve race relations by getting people to treat arguers as sports fans. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is that sweet spot where not knowing enough about a subject makes you think that knowing a little is enough and that this enough makes you smarter than experts immersed in the topic.
It would be easy to blame the media with all of its movies about simple, down to earth people fixing major, complex world problems when they can get around the entrenched, myopic bureaucratic experts. These experts who are just too accustomed to being in control and who may be more than a little corrupt because of some implied conflicts of interest. It may be fiction but when your interactions with people in power are limited, it may comfort you to believe in simple truisms like “power corrupts” or “they all lie” or even better, “they are too educated to listen to common sense.”
Beliefs similar to these lead to overestimating your competence. It also sets you up as deserving more status. You can’t really be challenged because you don’t speak the expert’s language. It also puts you in the position of needing to be taught the necessary content and evidence that support the expert’s beliefs and positions. This is a limit of transparency, that often, the expert’s explanation of a decision requires years of expertly guided learning before someone with no experience in the field can truly understand the complexity, the urgency, and the scarcities that led a committee of experts to make the informed, but hurried decisions they make. Imagine the time a doctor and surgeon need to take to explain to a patient the rule-outs and tests that led to her diagnosis and intervention plan.
Untrained, uneducated people who believe they know better than highly trained, highly educated experts have been studied by a variety of scientists. Some tendencies have been collected from these studies:
“This pattern of overestimating competence was seen in studies of skills as diverse as reading comprehension, practicing medicine, operating a motor vehicle, and playing games such as chess or tennis. Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
fail to accurately gauge skill in others
recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is amazingly toxic because it is comforting, an opium that almost everyone has sampled. It sneaks up on experts of other fields as well where people highly trained and highly educated in a different field also overestimate their competence in a field outside of their expertise. We don’t just see this in actors and actresses and other artists, we see it in doctors, professors, highly successful entrepreneurs, and highly compensated CEOs. It happens to all of us. We just don’t realize the distorting influences of this effect until much later in life, when hard-won humility has finally set in and you have reflected on enough failures to realize just how ignorant you have been about…well, about everything you have ever been certain about.
“What if a much of a which of a wind…”
There are people posting quite boldly that they have never owned a slave and most people have never been slaves, so they say “Get over it.” If they don’t say it specifically, they paraphrase it. They don’t understand the anger and resentment, the recriminations of the “other” race.
And it is an effective argument. It is simple: if you haven’t done it or experienced it, you can’t claim it. You can’t say it has any impact on your life. It’s like the meme depicting the conflict between the perceptions of a career and what is actually done in the career.
However, think about it this way: we make comparisons of who we are, our qualities, our skills, our affiliations, and we decide if we are alike or different. We decide how much we are like you and how much we are NOT like you. As a result, the scientists, the engineers, the technologists, and many other highly educated or highly capable do get torn down for their human weaknesses and failures. Their failings draw disappointment and criticism though only after they are worshiped as gods and goddesses for their intellectual abilities, their creativity, their drive, but most of all, for their accomplishments and contributions. They were there to play and they played to win. They put the points on the board.
We also believe that we have inherited some of those abilities. The same way fans worship their athletes and their teams, people worship those who accomplish great things. But in that worship, people collect the characteristics they share. Somehow, they overlook the values, the education, the self-sacrifice, the commitment that led to those accomplishments, and instead, they focus on the superficial, the meaningless.
The problem with the popular focus on greatness though is that it can overshadow people that the general public doesn’t recognize as valuable. People who do repetitive tasks day after day that bring food from the farms to the tables and the grocery stores, and repetitiousness that brings natural resources and materials from the mines and processing plants to people doing great things are forgotten. The miners, the farmers, the loggers, the fishermen, the harvesters: these people are dismissed as simple cogs unseen in the depths of the nation’s economic machine. Despite the dangers they face each day, these daily victories aren’t celebrated, aren’t written about, and they are not televised.
This is how you begin to lose touch with entire groups of people. You can create “filter bubbles” which neatly filters out diversity without any effort, without your even having to make a decision to tune them out. You leave them out of the conversation. You don’t even look at them. You don’t even depict the heroism of their lives.
Documenting all of what makes America great and how this greatness is reported helps to understand why the non-participation, the lack of contributions to that greatness, the lack of understanding of the technologies or the processes used to do great things play a part in the up-swell of exclusionary nationalism. When someone claims credit for something they didn’t do based on the us/we team argument, where they superficially resemble or are related to great people, they must eventually admit to themselves that they contributed nothing, that it wasn’t them, or they must strut around with the false pride of impostors.
How else would someone make claim to greatness, or that they are greater than someone else, based on their name (genealogy), where they live (nationality), or based on the color of their skin (race)?
Jesse Owens. (2017, January 16). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:03, January 16, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jesse_Owens&oldid=760380418