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Politics as Football: Colliding Worlds?

2,100 Words


This is Part 1 of a new series, Polar Opposites?, a series looking at contemporary political polarisation in the Western World. I hope you enjoy!


As parts of the series are published, you can find them under the Polar Opposites? tab at the top of the screen.

 

A couple years ago, I had the great joy of going with my brother to my first English Premier League football match. Having supported West Ham United FC since I was a young boy, I was finally getting the chance to see them play! Game-day arrived and my brother and I trekked from his house to the stadium. As we approached the stadium, we were joined by a steady stream of fans as we all slowly converged on the lighted stadium in the distance. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement as crowds of fans began singing and the pre-game buzz rose outside the stands. Eventually, and not before we’d bought ourselves some over-priced chips, we went through the ticket stalls and found our seats. Everything was set for an exhilarating evening of football! There was just one catch. We weren’t sitting with the West Ham fans.


You see, neither my brother nor I live in east London where West Ham have their home stadium. So instead, we were in my brother’s city watching West Ham play away from home against that city’s own premier league club. It turns out that unless you’re a committed, season-ticket carrying football fan, it’s very difficult to buy Away game tickets. So instead, we had been forced to buy tickets sitting with the home fans. So there I was, a lonely West Ham fan sitting amidst a sea of opposing supporters – what could go wrong?


Suffice it to say I was just a little bit apprehensive about being accidentally ‘discovered’ by the sea of people around me. Football fans are not known for their – how shall I put it – reasonableness when it comes to dealing with opposing fans. Thankfully, it was a bitterly cold evening. This meant I could safely hide my claret and blue West Ham kit underneath a couple layers of thick clothing. In this way, I maintained my personal integrity whilst minimising the chance I might provoke any conflict. Yet, what you wear on the outside is only half the story of being a fan; the other half is how you behave in the stands. And my brother was under strict orders to help restrain me in case West Ham scored. It simply wouldn’t do to be the only person jumping up and cheering in a stand surrounded by the other team (a top tip for societal peace and harmony, don’t rub it in people’s faces when you have won and they have lost). As it happens, I was in no danger of any of this as West Ham managed an impressive zero shots on target all game and comfortably lost 3-0. Despite the loss, I did enjoy the game and I was also in some ways glad that I didn’t have to deal with any awkwardness (or worse) had West Ham ended up scoring.


Yet, there was one thing I did find utterly nauseating about the game. That was the clear-as-daylight bias of the fans surrounding me. It felt like every time the referee made a decision that went against their team, tens of them would be up on their feet shouting and yelling various expletives at the referee. Meanwhile, I’d be biting my lips and whispering under my breath things like, “your player literally booted the ball out to the side-lines – of course it’s a West Ham throw-in!?!” It was no less infuriating when if at the next incident the referee made a decision against West Ham, it was all clapping and “good decision ref!” from those same supporters exclaiming abuse just minutes earlier!


But though the blatant bias of the fans around me was irksome enough, what I found even more galling was their behaviour towards the West Ham players. The amount of abuse and insults hurled at the other team – my team! – was ridiculous. When at one point a West Ham player was tackled in pretty nasty fashion near our stand, rather than sympathy, the player received nothing but taunts from the crowd around me. I was inwardly fuming that people couldn’t put their team differences aside to show some compassion and sympathy to a fellow human just because he played for a different team. Unfortunately, even as I was silently lecturing the opposition fans on the merits of good sportsmanship in my head, the most frustrating thing of all happened. Over on the other side of the stadium by the Away stand filled with West Ham supporters, a similar nasty tackle was made, but this time to one of the Home team’s players. And now it was the West Ham fans who I could see taunting and jibing the player on the ground. I sighed.


One of the most significant moments of my political consciousness came in the days immediately following the 2015 UK election. After two years volunteering at a Food Bank and another year volunteering with a homelessness campaign and outreach group, I was not happy with the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat ‘austerity’ Coalition that had been elected in 2010. This government essentially decided that due to the 2008 financial crash, Britain needed to slash government spending, particularly it seemed on welfare for the poorest and most vulnerable. The effect of this has been complicated, but one statistic that says a lot is that between 2008 and 2018, the Trussell Trust, the UK’s primary food bank charity, went from distributing 26,000 food parcels a year to distributing 1.3 million![1] The 2015 election fell in the middle of all this, and I was hopeful we would now reverse the mistakes of our past and put right the wrongs done by the cold-hearted Tory politicians. Suffice it to say the 2015 election did not go as planned. Not only did my beloved left-wing Labour Party lose seats, but the hated, right-wing Conservative Party gained enough seats to form a majority government without the centrist Liberal Democrats.


The morning after the election, myself and everyone around me at university was stunned. I had arranged that morning to see my brother and when I arrived, he too shared in my shock. We commiserated together for a bit, but then he mentioned in passing that a couple of our mutual friends had voted Conservative (or at least not Labour). While before my emotions had been a haze of disbelief, confusion and sorrow, as soon as he said this, I felt the anger boil up within me. Up until this point, Conservative voters had been a strange, amorphous blob – people out there somewhere, probably with nothing better to do with their lives than hate poor people. Now, I was being told that some of my friends – people I had liked and even thought highly of – had voted for…them! I was furious. What were they thinking?!? They must be either stupid, ignorant or just cold-hearted pure and simple – why else would someone vote for the Conservatives! My mind was made up and I proceeded to rant to my brother for goodness knows how long about how I was going to give them a piece of my mind when I next saw them. Suffice it to say that I’m glad I didn’t chance upon these friends or any other Conservative voters while I was in this mood.


Whether it was the emotional exhaustion from ranting or my own shock at seeing myself so angry, I finally began to calm down. Slowly but surely I began to come to my senses. Of the two mutual friends my brother had mentioned, one was one of the most genuine and thoughtful people I’d met at university and also a key figure in our homeless outreach group, while the other friend was one of the most hospitable, kind and considerate friends I’d made since arriving at university. Why was I not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt? I wanted to believe their political opinions were because of some major fault and suspicious trait they must have – surely they must hate poor people? But if anything my reaction evidenced clearly my own unwillingness to accept that I might be jumping to conclusions. Was it possible that someone else might think differently from me on one or several important and sensitive issues and it might not be because they were stupid, ignorant or cold-hearted?


In many ways, the comparatively mild friction in the aftermath of the 2015 UK election was just a precursor to the far more polarising and divisive votes in 2016. Brexit and Trump came like a wrecking ball through Anglo-Western democratic politics, overturning pretty much everyone’s expectations. In their aftermath, politics and public debate certainly feel like a football match. Debate looks like a shouting match between ‘fans’ rather than a reasonable discussion between citizens. What’s more, as football matches take place in stadiums where seating patterns reinforce fan identities, the news media, print media, and social media we consume for our political awareness take on a similar function for the politically engaged. It might be possible to interact ‘safely’ with fans of opposing teams outside the confines of the stadium, but woe to those who find themselves supporting their team in a stand where everyone else supports the other team. Much like I did at the West Ham game, if you find yourself in this position, it’s probably best to keep quiet and just try and enjoy the game.


Although I expect and perhaps even want a level of ‘banterous’ divisiveness and petty point-scoring (pun very much intended) in football, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with those same social dynamics becoming the norm in politics. It’s not that I think divides and political conflict are incompatible with democracy – quite the opposite! Particularly in British culture, we frequently seem to live under this misguided assumption that the sign of a healthy family, church, company or nation is the absence of conflict. However, in my experience, the absence of conflict is usually either the result of overbearing domination or a lack of meaningful differences. Under the former, conflict transforms into cynicism and passive aggression, while the latter usually means you are slowly sleepwalking into trouble! I earnestly believe a healthy society is not one without conflict but one which does conflict well.


This is why polarisation worries me – it’s a very poor way of managing conflict. Conflict is healthy when it gives meaningful voice to the different groups or people involved, and then establishes a status quo that is acceptable to as many of those voices as possible. Note that something can be acceptable without making people particularly happy; to quote the fictional Tyrion Lannister, “No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise.” Even when political issues appear binary and one side ‘has to lose’, this doesn’t mean the concerns and hopes of those on the ‘losing’ side can’t be addressed. For instance, though Remainers ‘lost’ the Brexit referendum, this doesn’t mean the UK government can’t address their real concerns about economic fragility and inter-ethnic harmony in post-Brexit Britain. Remainers will still probably be annoyed about leaving the EU, but at least they’ll have some assurance they’ve been listened to.


Polarisation, however, increasingly takes compromise off the table and makes ‘victory’ the sole end of political conflict. When this happens, unity is only ever forged through destruction of the other side leaving one side very happy and the other side distraught. And I was distraught after the 2015 election because politics for me, like football, had become all about winning. There were no redeeming features in the other side, and as far as I was concerned they were all stupid, ignorant, and/or brainwashed, perhaps even evil. And who wants to build a future that includes stupid, ignorant, brainwashed and evil people? Either they must change or some way to remove them from the public realm must be found.


It was in response to this worrying post-2016 trend that More in Common (MIC), an international think tank aiming “to strengthen democratic societies by countering social division and polarization,”[2] was established in 2017. MIC’s research teams in the USA, UK, France and Germany have published a range of studies on political polarisation, national identity, and perceptions within society. Their reports shed significant light on many contemporary political themes in Western democracies and are all well-worth a read. However, if you don’t have time to read 100+ page reports, then you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve done some of the reading for you! Throughout this series – Polar Opposites? – I will be exploring the main theme of MIC’s studies: polarisation – what it looks like, why it happens and what are we to do about it? I hope you enjoy.


References [1] https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/05/20/nothing-left-cupboards/austerity-welfare-cuts-and-right-food-uk [2] https://twitter.com/MiC_Global?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

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