People love to watch a battle between fierce competitors and root for their side to win. To the victor goes the spoils. Sport is the modern equivalent of warfare, wherein battles can be waged every day to the delight of the competitors and the audiences. I suspect our desire for the spectacle is something that’s part of our evolutionary heritage; something so rooted within us that we cannot squelch it.
I watched the Wimbledon final last Sunday between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It was the most intense tennis “battle” I have ever seen. Federer, the Tiger Woods of tennis, winner of 12 grand slam titles, the five time Wimbledon champion, looking to be the first in modern times to win six titles in a row. Nadal, his opponent for three years running at Wimbledon, the guy who dominates the French open as much as Federer does Wimbledon and who beat him handily in the French finals three years in a row, the guy whose game just keeps on improving and has looked invincible in all recent matches.
A tennis match is much like a battle between two gladiators. In this modern version no weapons are used and no blood is shed. Indeed, the players never even touch each other except for the final handshake. In some ways it’s also like a video game where each person has multiple lives. Each point that’s played is an attempt by one player to “kill” the other. Once the kill is complete, the score is noted, and the next battle ensues. When a player attains a sufficient number of kills, based on the odd scoring system, the winner is declared. In this match Nadal killed Federer 209 times to Federer’s 204 kills of Nadal.
The intensity is seen most clearly by the players and the audience when a rally rages for a long time and when one or both players make spectacular shots. Those shots are like unbelievable swipes of the sword or incredible defenses and close misses. These are the times when everyone’s adrenaline starts flowing. When a battle like that is won the victor instinctively screams and pumps his fist into the air. The audience does almost the same thing.
This instinctual desire to fight and kill an opponent carries over into many other venues beyond sport. One such place is politics, where the weapons are words. An example in the US today is the war of words in the media each day between conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin versus liberal talk show hosts like Al Franken, Ed Schultz and Mike Malloy. As the verbal battle rages, each side does its level best to tear down the opposition.
Here’s a few examples,
Rush Limbaugh says,
Rush Limbaugh also says he doesn’t want to win over liberals, he wants to DEFEAT liberals.
More colorfully Mark Levin call liberals “… a bunch of walking hemorrhoids!!!!”
On the other side Mike Malloy says about conservative Republicans,
I don’t know who started it, but there has lately been a book writing frenzy with titles designed to diss the opposition.
Al Franken, a comedian, liberal talk show host and now candidate for the US Senate, has written a series of books, one which is titled,
“Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
Ann Coulter responds with books titled,
Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right
If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans
As the war of words escalates, the attacks became more personal, perhaps beginning with Al Franken’s book titled,
“Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations,”
Rush Limbaugh makes personal attacks of his own on his show. Recently he said,
A few more personal attacks in book titles include Joe McGuire’s
Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter
and Clint Willis’s
The I Hate Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity. . . Reader
Natural human tendencies to battle each other carry over into politics as well as sport. Perhaps this is why talk show radio is so popular. Audiences likely respond to every verbal jab at the opposition in the same way they respond to a great passing shot. The sharper the criticism and the greater the personal invective, the more likely the audience will respond with an adrenaline rush and a fist pump in the air. This may be why the more outrageous the comments, the greater the audience. And of course, each attack by one side against the other invites a retaliatory response.
The question I have is whether turning politics into a sport is an effective way to discuss public policy issues. Does the choice process improve as the discussions become more competitive, or does it get worse? Do the discussions offer any hope of bringing people together, or do they merely continually fan the flames of contentiousness? Does any one side have any chance of defeating its opponent, or does the war go on forever? Should politics be waged like a competitive sport, or would it be better if people channeled their competitive natures on the tennis court, the football field, and the soccer pitch? (Or, possibly even in business?)