Several years ago I went to a talk at the Dallas Philosopher’s Forum, and the speaker spoke about enemies — why we make them, and why we keep them. Around that time I also finished reading Lee Harris’ “Civilization and Its Enemies,” which talks about the existence of enemies, and the consequences for a society that denies their existence (in short: they don’t last long). The speaker at the DPF was a psychologist, and claimed that making enemies was learned, and had no biological context at all. This both ignores the fact that all social animals treat members of the same species, but different groups, as enemies, as well as ignores the fact that if the idea of having enemies is merely learned, then it begs the question of how such an idea could have come about in the first place. The only explanation could be that it just came out of nothing at all, or perhaps that it comes about when people got together into groups. Of course, this accepts the completely discredited anthropological theories of Rousseau — but his ideas are unfortunately still believed by most liberals, either overtly or implicitly.
Enemies came about when the first creature defended its territory against another. This goes as far back at least to the lobe-finned fish, from which evolved all the land vertebrates — amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Modern-day male gobies are brightly colored in order to advertise to other gobies that they are healthy, in order to avoid a fight with other male gobies. But when you have two equally-matched gobies, you will get a fight. But the bright colors — and the dances of the gobies — are much more often used in a ritualistic manner, to avoid violence. This prevents the gobies from getting hurt, while maintaining their territories. And when used with females, it allows the females access to the males so that breeding can occur. Thus, this ritual both avoids violence, and allows for breeding. It is no coincidence that the colors and the dances of the gobies are beautiful.
What we can learn from this is that enemies came first, and then the ability to deflect enemies through ritual came later. It also shows that the concept of an enemy has its origins in or most ancient of ancestors. But the ability to avoid violence among enemies also evolved only shortly after. Only when we acknowledge these facts will we be able to do something about the problem.
The ancient Greeks understood that ritual was needed in order to create great cities and cultures. How else can you get over 100,000 people to live together, except you create some sorts of bonds among them beyond those of the family? Thus, the Greeks creates athletics — competition — in order to maintain order. By deflecting the need to have an enemy onto a ritual scapegoat — an opposing player or team from the one you are rooting for — you both fulfill our need to have an enemy, while deflecting that need into something less destructive, and in fact downright productive. The Greeks too invented the Olympics, maintaining peaceful competition among the city-states.
Here in the United States, sports manages to do the same thing. If you live in Dallas, you can support the Dallas sports teams. Thus, if Dallas plays, say, Pittsburgh, in football, then the Dallas fan can ritualistically hate Pittsburgh, the enemy. But when the game is over, the hatred is over too. The hatred occurred in a safe play space, and is appropriate only within that play-space of the watching of the game. Before the game, or when the game is over, nobody from Dallas is hating Pittsburgh, or fighting with people who are. Thus, a country of almost 300 million people is able to live together, cooperating and competing with each other. Now, this is still not a perfect system — it works very well in the U.S., but it is not uncommon for English soccer fans as a game to yell to German soccer fans that it was they, the British, who won the war. And soccer fans are infamous for getting into fights with fans of the opposing team. This is a general breakdown of the ritual system, and needs to be repaired to make sure it continues to perform its proper function. But still, World Cup Soccer and the Olympics have helped to maintain a certain level of peace among nations. We may find that hard to believe, with what has happened in the West in the 20th Century, and even now with the War on Terror, but the fact of the matter is that as a percentage of deaths in the West by war, the West is a far, far less violent place than any tribal situation — tribes in South America and New Guinea typically lose 40-60% of their young men a year to war. The West only lost 2% of the same population throughout the 20th century. This is in no small part due to the civilizing effects of athletics.
The worst thing that could happen, then, would be for our sports to become politicized. For when sports becomes politicized, the unifying ritual itself breaks down. Indeed, the politicization of sports in any way should be considered the canary in the coalmine–if and when it happens, the society is in danger of increasing political violence.