Of Conflict and Sport

Of Conflict and Sport

In his influential book African Genesis (1961) the American playwright Robert Ardrey described humans as ‘Cain’s children’:

“Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon. It is war and the instinct for territory that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.”

You’re sitting at home, the TV’s volume is up and you find yourself gazing into the pixels. The clock reads 10 as you’re unable to keep your eyes open. The feeling of having a productive day brings a sneaky smile to your drowsy face, and yet, you feel incomplete. The daily whims of fulfilling tasks that society defines as productive and worthy, you realize, don’t quite enthrall you. The TV booms as the words echo in your head:

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”

The Psychology:

In Schmidt’s Der Begriff des Politischen (The Concept of the Political), he talks about conflict and inequality is intrinsic to humanity. Central to this is an understanding that humanity, at its most basic nature, is savage and hellish. That is to say, chaos is rooted deep into life itself. Up until a few decades ago, humans lived unsure lives. Every single day was a new challenge, in the sense that one was never stable. Before civilization took off, every day was a new threat, every night was a dangerous one. To be alive when you woke up the next day would be an achievement in itself. Thus, as the decades passed, humans evolved to possess a deep-seated attachment to uncertainty and mystery.

However, some of the readers might outright deny my claim and argue that humans have already “grown out” of this very behavior. And that brings us to conflict. A situation where a difference in opinion between two sides often leads to physical harm and violence. It would seem rather logical that humans would settle this peacefully, agree on a compromise for the good will of both parties, right?

Well, history disagrees. Several psychologists, sociologists, historians have tried to analyze why.

An early American psychologist William James once suggested that war is so prevalent because of its positive psychological effects. It creates a sense of unity in the face of a collective threat. It binds people together – not just the army engaged in battle, but the whole community. It brings a sense of cohesion, with communal goals, and inspires individual citizens (not just soldiers) to behave honorably and unselfishly, in the service of a greater good. It supplies meaning and purpose, transcending the monotony of everyday life. 

From the above arguments, it is safe to agree upon the fact that Schmidt was indeed right. Humanity longs for conflict. Contrary to this is the 21st Century’s lifestyle of the modern man. A world of confined peace, monotony and uninteresting daily lives. Society, as we know it, has people with jobs, schools, families, traditions, norms. Every day is merely a part of the larger lifestyle, a seemingly insignificant compilation of moments, lacking any implications of a risk. Amidst all of this is man’s instinctive hunt to ‘fight and live’, an evolutionary remnant that is no longer necessary. At this transitional phase in history, conflict arises for resources, not for survival. It is here that man finds himself isolated and irrelevant.

Conflict has always existed inside man, and sports has only bought that out in people. Credits: Twitter
A conflict has always existed inside man, and sports has only bought that out in people. Credits: Twitter

Why Sports?

Enter Sport.

A form of “entertainment” where two sides go against each other, in an attempt to prevail, to win. Herds of people on each side, brimming with passion. Complete with their flags, anthems, emblems, badges, tactics, and spectators. All inclusive of the central fear of facing humiliation upon defeat.

Sounds familiar, does it not?

To further understand the parallels, it is imperative to look at René Girard’s theory of Mimesis.

The mimetic theory began with an understanding of desire and blossomed into a grand theory of human relations. Based on the insights of great novelists and dramatists – Cervantes, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky – Girard realized that human desire is not a linear process, as often thought, whereby a person autonomously desires an inherently desirable object. Rather, we desire according to the desire of the other. We rely on mediators or models to help us understand who and what to desire. The problem, however, is that imitative desire leads to conflicts because a model can quickly become a rival who competes with us for the same object.

In a rather similar fashion, people are influenced by sport through their pals or family. It is the curiosity to understand the maddening experiences a fan goes through that allow them to see it for themselves.

As a solution to this societal problem, to restore peace and stability, Girard suggests the prospect of a scapegoat. One that is to be blamed for the sins of the masses, one that takes the fall in order to convince the rest that they were harmless. However, this instigates a cycle where another conflict arises due to mimetic desire and there is yet another need for a scapegoat. Girard believes that the cycle shall keep on repeating until there is a sustainable choice of a figure, one that can effectively outweigh/accumulate everyone else’s desires

According to William James, the psychologist whose work was earlier examined, human beings need to find activities that provide the same positive effects of warfare but which don’t involve the same devastation. In other words, we have to find alternative activities to give us that sense of feeling alive, of belonging and purpose.

And what better way to find this “moral equivalent” than through sport?! This figure that Girard talks about, the sport might just be it- the savior of the lost generation.

Picture yourself watching a game of your favorite sports team going head-to-head against their arch-rivals. The impeccable, inexplicable feeling that oozes through every single muscle of your body, the sensation of blood swiftly moving through your veins– a perfect way to capitulate the very feeling of belongingness and passion.

For ninety minutes of a game of football, you have absolutely no idea what the outcome is going to be. For the four hours of a game of twenty-twenty cricket, there is no guarantee what might happen in the next moment. As long as the ball is still on the court, an uncertainty over who’s going to get the final ace remains. Till the buzzer goes off, the game is still open. Fans are certainly familiar with the high one experiences after a wonderful, emphatic victory for their team. The collective need to experience such emotion springs along a warm yet enthralling feeling of ecstasy, pride and above all, togetherness.

In this undying world where nothing is fulfilled, sport offers a simmering, stimulating and immersive experience where the identity of one is irrelevant, where basking in the spectacularly minute occasions can bring the world of a change to one’s life.

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