When there is conflict between two sides, there is the unfortunate effect of painting one side as a heroic victor and the other as a victim worthy of empathy. Every conflict can easily become Ohio State versus Michigan, Real Madrid versus Barcelona, Penguins versus Flyers: the good guys versus the bad guys, and vice versa.
While this concept works beautifully in sports, this is a dynamic that we should reject in the political arena. Conflict here is not a clear-cut battle of good-versus-evil, and in trying to draw these lines we lose sight of the whole picture. We miss the forest for the trees. This is a dangerous path for a society to follow.
Sports often Mirror Life
In the United States, the Super Bowl is an annual event that draws over 100 million viewers. Last year, fans of the Patriots and Falcons had the luxury of cheering for their own side in the Super Bowl, with everyone else in the viewing audience asking themselves the question of who to cheer for – after all, what fun is watching a game when you have no stake?
Rivalries make this question easy: Saints fans root against the Falcons; Jets fans root against the Patriots. Fantasy football has introduced the dynamic of people rooting for their most productive players. For example someone may cheer for the Patriots to beat the Falcons because LeGarrette Blount’s 18 touchdowns helped them win their fantasy league. It’s also perfectly all right to not choose a side and just hope for a good game – any fans in this area would have found themselves thoroughly satisfied with last year’s Super Bowl.
German and Argentinian fans in the 2014 World Cup Final were in the same position, with similar incentives in place for fans from other places. For example, the city-wide support Argentina garnered in Barcelona (where I was at the time of the match) due to the fans’ love of Lionel Messi’s brilliant play for their hometown Barça created an amazing atmosphere. Lionel Messi jerseys adorned the streets of Spain on that day in the same manner as Brady and Gronk jerseys on Super Bowl Sunday in New England.
Fans don’t bear consequences they face for not choosing a side: it is, at the end of the day, just a game between two teams that aren’t theirs – either way, life goes on. When it comes to conflicts such as the violent interruption of a white nationalist protest, citizens face the same dilemma faced by the fans in the previous example. This is obviously more egregious and condemnable.
In this case, however, both sides pose a threat to a peaceful way of life for ordinary citizens. The threat level posed by each side will feel different to people with different views, but this is beside the point. Picking a side instead of condemning both ends of the battle outright sets a dangerous precedent going forward. Violence on the “far-left” being met by violence on the “far-right” and vice versa can only lead to escalation, as we saw in Charlottesville with the violence growing worse by the hour and culminating in loss of life. Violence from advocates of tyranny being met by violent advocates of tyranny does not display a linguistic chasm and is a far more accurate way of describing the events in Charlottesville.
Lessons from Transition
Studying in Prague, I’m aware of the fact that local political discourse often treats the Nazi and Soviet occupying monsters as equivalent horrors. This is not the case in the United States at the moment. The failure to understand the false duality in the current clash of the ideological offspring of Soviet Socialism and National Socialism has had a significant disparate impact on the contemporary political climate.
The 20th century history of Central and Eastern Europe should be instructive for understanding the current political climate in the United States. Two conflicting ideologies perpetuating an identical cycle of violent action follwed by escalating violent reaction should be treated as such rather than being seen as distant cousin ideologies. They advocate equally destructive ideologies. This crucial point cannot be missed because they define themselves in opposition to the other.
Having personally had trouble telling the difference between identical twins in the real world, for the purpose of this metaphor imagine twin brothers in tournament final tennis match at Wimbledon. Participants are required to wear all-white, and therefore the brothers have identical clothing. The crowd, composed up of friends and strangers as well as eliminated competitors cheers for one brother against the other. A tennis player’s eye can tell them apart by their rackets – one brother prefers Wilson, the other uses a Babolat. This is a subtle difference, noticeable to only those with intimate knowledge. But you can tell them apart effortlessly because one of them has bleached their hair.