Certainly Meaning Matters

One of my more annoying habits is to speak in uncertain terms: to use perhaps or probably instead of yes; to use maybe or unlikely instead of no. Everything always seems to be rather than is. I find it less annoying than my urge to cite references, which interferes with the flow of conversation, but my interlocutors probably don’t. I would guess they think they I’m waffling, but this is done more from doubt and an awareness of statistics than indecision or equivocation.

But there are some things of which I am certain.

It’s much more relaxing to watch the UEFA Champions League or the Cincinnati Reds, where I know I have no power to affect the results, than the turmoil in public education or trade wars or shooting wars, where I’m only probably impotent. I can feel the difference: the excitement, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat compared to the anxiety and frustration and hopelessness and despair.

In The Chomsky Reader (1983), Noam Chomsky discusses with James Peck our fascination with sport instead of politics, and speculates that it might have to do with powerlessness:

[T]his concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. … The gas station attendant who wants to use his mind isn’t going to waste his time on international affairs, because that’s useless; he can’t do anything about it anyhow…

Analysis of the effects of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti noticed that adverse reactions to psychological stress increased after help arrived. That is, when the population was able to do something to help each other and rebuild, they were fine. When they were told to stand back and let their saviors do all the work, when they couldn’t act in response to the stress, their resilience failed.

The well-known Whitehall Study found death rates were inversely associated with one’s position in the power hierarchy, particularly with regard to one’s lack of control over one’s work: associated, that is, with powerlessness.

How are sports different that they are so casual? I’m not invested in the outcome. Whether the Reds win or lose will not affect me. I’ve not placed any bets on the outcome. It doesn’t matter. I certainly don’t care.

They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Some football fanatics get wrapped up in the result. For them it has meaning. They care enough to kill for it.

Should we expect the same of politics as it subsides into an identitarian team sport? What if this were a monarchy, where I knew my actions had no bearing, where I had no control over death and taxes?

What then? The Serenity Prayer, probably. Why not now?

There is a context where I can act, where I do have control, where my actions do matter: at home.

Let me turn my attention there.

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