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Sports Riots & Political Fetish

How can we make sense of crazy sports riots like the ones that went down last week in Vancouver? How can people get so “up in arms” over a game, while being so resigned about things that really matter?

What is fetish?

I had always thought of a fetish as, more or less, something that someone is peculiarly “into”. A person with a foot fetish is someone who is “into” feet — probably with sexual overtones. Reading Stewart Hall recently, I was introduced to a more complex definition. The basic idea is that a fetish object is something a person fixates on in place of something forbidden. For example, when sexual organs are covered, hidden, and not talked about—and perhaps associated with concepts like sin—this amounts to something of a suppression of sexuality. Within a culture that practices this suppression, it becomes taboo to fixate upon sexual organs. However, sexuality cannot ever be fully suppressed. The mind may latch onto another object to stand in for what is taboo. This is the fetish object. (This process typically happens subconsciously.)

The brain’s system of cognitive associations helps to facilitate this possibility. The sexual fetish object becomes neurologically connected to sexual feelings; these feelings trigger thoughts of the object, and thoughts of the object trigger sexual feelings. (Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran even suggests that foot fetishes may be particularly common because the region of the brain that processes sexual sensation is right next to the region that processes feeling in the feet.)

Related to the fetish object is the idea of the transitional object. The idea is that small children cling to transitional objects (aka comfort objects) such as blankets, stuffed animals, or pacifiers as a substitute for the mother-child bond. This happens in a stage when the baby is learning boundaries between self and everything else. During this stage, separation from mother can feel upsetting. The transitional object helps the child gain some sense of security and control in her absence.

Political suppression

What does this have to do with politics? Well, if politics is taboo— the cliché claims—might it share with sexual taboos this pattern in which suppressed urges latch onto less taboo, more socially sanctioned objects? (It’s important to note that neither sex nor politics is universally taboo across cultures.)

For this to be so, politics would have to be something more than an elective activity. Politics would have to be something of a primal instinct; something of a hardwired instinctual desire that could perhaps&—like sex—be redirected and partially suppressed, but never fully extinguished. I suspect that politics is something like this. I suspect that the idea that politics could ever be only an elective activity for self-selecting participants is a somewhat peculiar product of our modern society; and that a primal political instinct permeates everything at a level comparable to sex-drive, and that it is suppressed in comparable ways too.

It becomes necessary now to briefly breakdown what I mean by politics. Politics has everything to do with power. Politics is the space and engagement between competing wills. A group may have an identity and goals that it maintains and achieves without any politics per se. These goals become political when they come into tension with the will of another group or power. (In my Populism & Hegemony series I have mostly addressed political struggle at the group level—among and between groups—but there certainly exists a level of interpersonal politics within groups as well; where individual wills come into conflict with each other over status or over particular disputes.)

When we define the political instinct as the basic will to power, then the claim that “a primal political instinct permeates everything at a level comparable to sex-drive” seems quite reasonable. Furthermore, an explanation starts to emerge for why politics can perhaps be just as taboo as sex.

Perhaps we suppress the reality of politics—of conflicting wills—for similar reasons that we suppress the reality of sex. Primal instincts are powerful, dangerous and unpredictable — and sometimes uncontrollably mutinous against the rational manager/captain whom we strongly prefer to keep at the helm of the ship. Indeed, when a person expresses “too much” anger, he or she is said to “lose control.” And when a person is caught in unsanctioned sexual behavior, he or she may penitently describe the action as “a moment of weakness” — inferring that some stronger, primal, untamed, animalistic desire temporarily seized the controls.

The central reason why political wills can be dangerous and unpredictable is because of the likely wrath and retribution of the powerful, which may be provoked if political wills are fully expressed instead of suppressed. Thus, self-suppression of one’s own political will is a survival strategy. Many exploited employees stay at the same shitty job for decades, many exploited women stay in bad relationships, many slaves stay obedient to masters, many citizens walk in step to the marching orders of authoritarian regimes, etc.

Self-suppression of political will is probably easier to pull off convincingly when it becomes second nature; when it is an unconscious process. A self-consciously disgruntled worker who has to constantly bite her tongue in the presence of her boss may be less likely to get a promotion than her coworker who self-consciously “believes” in the mission of the company. The desire to please and ingratiate oneself to one’s “superiors” is a valid individual survival strategy. And such an authority-pleasing disposition facilitates the internalization of dominant narratives (e.g. workers who rally behind laissez-faire capitalism).

Political fetish objects

When political will is suppressed—to the point where an individual is not even aware of having a political will—that does not mean it disappears. A frustrated will is likely to produce a frustrated person, who may grow angry and bitter without understanding the underlying reasons for these feelings. Such a person may find “objects” to attach these feelings to.

If suppressed sexual urges express themselves through foot fetishes, what are the expressions of the suppressed will to power? Like sexual fetish objects, political fetish objects are probably various and plentiful.

Competitive sports are an obvious place to start. Sports can be fun and good for your health, but perhaps they can also serve as political fetish objects. While overt expression of aggression is typically a faux pas, a competitive football game is typically seen as good fun. It seems likely—and certainly it has been argued before—that part of the appeal of competitive physical sports is in their ability to fulfill primal instincts and vent aggression. The competition between rival forces is consciously “only a game”, but it may be accomplishing other unconscious purposes. Could it be that when we play sports, we can become primed for the aggressive contestation of wills that we typically suppress?

Sports may serve as especially potent political fetish objects in their appeal to group-oriented instincts. We identify with the team we play with, or the team we’re rooting for. We project our identities and our group-oriented instincts onto the team. Add to this the invocation of national identities and regional identities that is typical of national sports, and you have a recipe for fanaticism. Indeed, the word fan is short for fanatic. Fanaticism is a phenomenon that happens within groups and group identities. We want to signal our belonging in the “group”. We do this in all sorts of ways every day in all the various groups we identify with. Fanaticism assumes comic proportions in sports; loyal fans enter a kind of within-group competition to outdo each other’s team spirit (body paint, anyone?). Fans will tend to act more and more extreme in signaling loyalty to the group identity.

Add to this the hype that goes with a BIG game—and add a little alcohol, of course—and is it really so hard to see how a “sports riot” might happen?

Let’s review the ingredients:

  • The suppression of political will
  • Enter sports as political fetish object on which to focus would-be political energy.
  • Sports invoke group identities (e.g. regional, national), triggering powerful group-oriented instincts.
  • Fans are egged on to outdo each other’s extremities, to signal belonging in the group identity.
  • People are wasted.

This is certainly not to justify such mindlessly destructive behavior as we saw last week in Vancouver — but rather to try to understand it. More thoughts from me later this week on other possible kinds of political fetish objects, and on how grassroots change agents might engage with this pattern that I’m clumsily attempting to name here. (Would love thoughts and suggestions for further reading in the comments section below.)

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