Beyond Tribalism

David Edmonds blogs about the Murray/Federer match in the Wimbledon 2012 final, and his decision to support Murray;

Why would one back ordinariness against genius?  Why would one root for efficiency over grace? Because Murray’s a Brit.

Murray and Federer

Murray and Federer; Wimbledon 2012 final

Edmonds’ is skeptical about the value of nationalism but goes on to justify it as a harmless tool for generating thrills;

That we both pay taxes to the same exchequer? That we’re both subject to the same laws and have the same citizenship duties and rights? That seems a weird basis on which to base any emotional attachment. That we share the same values? I doubt it.

But for most sports fans, backing one individual or side against another is integral to the enjoyment (and the pain). One can be impressed by the skills on display and from an aloof standpoint still appreciate the aesthetics, but partiality is what gives watching sport its passionate heft.

It’s energizing and enlivening to be swept along in a nation’s irrational exuberance. If nationalism is not the most logical criterion on which to select an athlete or team, well, that hardly matters – at least so long as democratic institutions are robust enough to prevent such feelings spewing out into more deadly arenas of contest.

[Sections removed from quote but no content altered.]

I agree that it can be energizing, fun and captivating to allow yourself to get swept away in the nationalist throes of a crowd. Watching the England vs Italy game during Euro 2012 in a Birmingham pub, I found myself sat in front of a group of roaring, fervent nationalists, chanting the praises of their great nation. Allowing oneself to join in instantly immerses the self into a lively collective, which is a great feeling. I got quite carried away, until the descent of the jingoists into the xenophobic and the indecent brought me crashing back to earth.

I’m not convinced by Edmonds’ justification of his nation-based choice to plump for Murray in the Wimbledon final. The bulk of it isn’t even a justification for nationalism at all – it’s a justification for taking a side. I can think of a host of other (some of them better?) reasons to pick one of those players over the other, if you feel the need to do so. Federer is a true master of tennis, and a joy to watch – support him on that basis. Murray is the underdog – support him on that basis. Murray has a sexy Scottish accent – support him on that basis. If Federer won, he’d go back to number 1 and match the all-time record for the most time spent in that position, and it’d be a privilege to see that happen – support him for that reason. Of course, one could also do as I did, and choose neither player to “support”, and just enjoy the spectacle and the skill.

The only part of Edmonds’ article which is a justification for taking a side based on nationality specifiter is that it’s fun to join in with what the crowd are doing. The problem is that this doesn’t really balance out the negative elements of nationalism. It’s not hard to imagine the kind of jingoist fervour I described earlier spilling over into something much more serious – see the worst elements of Euro 2012. Justifying nationalism on the grounds that it’s fun to be a part of the crowd is worrying because nationalism – seemingly harmless when you’re sat at home alone – rears its darker head precisely when it’s found in crowds.

(More on whether it’s actually harmless or not in isolation at a later point…)

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About Jon Robinson

Lefty ex-politics student turned med student, interested in current affairs, economics, gender politics and health issues. Occasionally pretends to understand philosophy. @jon__robinson

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