Friday, November 15, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Athletics and the Rhetoric of Violence

In 1998, Deborah Tannen wrote The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words in which she rightfully calls into question the combative, dichotomized, win-at-any-cost rhetoric that often fills our culture (especially our mass media). Unfortunately, she erroneously labeled this practice "agonistic."

It should be clear from my penchant for exploring the term that agonism is an interest of mine, and I really regret that the most mainstream exposure it has gotten (as Tannen's book was more popular than academic) was a misrepresentation.

Arguing Penguins

Tannen mislabeled. What she describes is not agonism, but antagonism, but her mislabeling does not negate her observations. Through a series of specific examples from news shows and popular culture, Tannen establishes a pattern of antagonistic interaction that is definitely troubling.

At one point, she takes a close look at the rhetoric of athletics, maintaining that the way sports are talked about has changed because of what she calls "the argument culture."

Because an antagonistic interaction is only concerned with "winning" (as opposed to agonistic ones, which are dependent upon the interaction and process of debate itself), "sports announcers emphasize not the process of play but the outcome." Tannen ties this obsession with the win into the violence of sports. Media coverage (the slow-mo replays of hard hits, the emphasis on pain as it connects to a culture of "toughness") insists that the violence is a necessary component of a game well played:
That players are being physically hurt, it implies, is what gives the game significance, even though the rules prohibit the use of undue force. . . When viewers were shown the segments [of rough play] without commentary, they accurately judged the rough-play segment as more action-packed, enthusiastic, rough, and violent (and, not incidentally, more entertaining and enjoyable). But when they viewed the same segments with the commentary superimposed, their judgments were reversed. They saw what was actually normal play as rougher, more action-packed, and more enjoyable. The commentary shaped what they saw, overriding what they witnessed with their own eyes.
Tannen uses that last study to demonstrate the power announcers have over the audience's perceptions. We can be convinced that what we see is rough (and therefore meaningful and entertaining) or not based on what they say. It is the sports announcers that transmit the culture of the game onto the broader audience.

Questioning a Culture of Violence

A quick YouTube search will provide you with hundreds of compilations of football's "hardest hits" or the hockey "fights of the decade."

With the athletes' faces obscured by athletic wear and amidst the cheers of the stadium and the excited announcers, it can be hard to remember that those "hardest hits" are causing real damage to human bodies.

The NFL recently settled a class-action lawsuit brought by some of its players over concussions. The research coming out of the aftermath has some fans torn over whether they should keep supporting the game. And when NFL player Jovan Belcher tragically shot his girlfriend and himself in front of their infant, much of the discussion turned to the long-term mental impacts of the damage of the game.

Of course, we have a more recent discussion of locker room culture unfolding today. When Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins and alleged that he had been bullied and tormented by fellow player Richie Incognito, he opened up a much broader discussion about the culture of sports.

For a stunning explanation of why this culture of "toughness" matters, take a look at this Grantland post by Brian Phillips. The Martin-Incognito bullying scandal has extended the conversation of damage to athletes' bodies to damage of athletes' minds, and Phillips does an excellent job of demonstrating the link between the two:
 The brain is a part of the body. It's an organ. It's a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football, and sometimes — because it's unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. 
Athleticism is supposed to be a virtue, one tied into concepts of discipline, self-awareness, hard work, and natural skill. By stepping into the athletic arena, we have the opportunity to display the range of the human bodies' abilities. Our individual feats of athleticism become points of pride for our collective culture. That's why the Olympics is such a big event, and it's why the origin of the Olympics (athletics in ancient Greece) is tied so closely with virtues, pedagogical ideals, and rhetoric (as Debra Hawhee eloquently explores (and I wrote about here). 

Taking Hawhee's explanation of the close connection between rhetoric and athletics, it would make sense that the distortion of one (via the rise of Tannen's "argument culture") would manifest itself as a distortion in the other. What was once a display of virtue has instead become a display of cultural disease.

Not Just for Professional Athletes

The problem with athleticism does not end with the glitz of the million-dollar paychecks of professional athletes or even the dazzle of the Friday night lights for a high school team. It extends to our cultural understanding of fitness as a whole.

Culturally, we are very devoted to notions of fitness as a virtue for the same reasons that the ancient Greeks lauded athleticism: a fit body is typically a sign of dedication, hard work, self-discipline, and skill. A picture of some sculpted abs or a flexed bicep becomes an enthymeme for the virtue we're supposed to be seeking. You get the sculpted body because of the hard work, but it's the hard work we're supposed to be praising.

Tannen explains that when sports announcers shift from the action of the game itself to focusing primarily (or even entirely) on the outcome, our rhetoric devolves into violence.

The same thing has happened with personal fitness.

Instead of valuing the steps that it takes to maintain health, we value the end results. We cherish the six-pack abs over the miles of running or cycling or swimming it took to get them. If someone does put in the hard work but doesn't get the result, we don't consider it a "win" at all. It's abs or bust, baby.

A recent dust-up over comments from expensive activewear company Luluemon has brought this problem to the forefront. When the creator of the fancy pants disputed charges of poor quality clothes by shaming women's bodies as too big, he created a backlash. Rebecca Hains has led the charge against him with a popular petition and a demand that he rethink his understanding of health as beginning and ending with a certain body size:
“His brand is about providing products to women who want to be healthy,” she said. “He has a responsibility to understand what healthy is.”
Since we stopped valuing the process of fitness and started only valuing the end result, our personal discussions of "health" have devolved in much the same way Tannen is noting professional sports rhetoric has deteriorated. The messages we send to ourselves to get "healthy" are often violent.

In the name of making ourselves healthier, many of us are committing acts of violence against our own minds and bodies. 

This can most readily be seen in several examples of "fitspo," the images and phrases people use to motivate themselves to get fit. While the idea sounds innocuous at worst and productive at best, there are actually several kinds of fitspo that enact violence.

Kevin Moore has a great article explaining just how dangerous some of these fitspo messages can be. "No limits. No excuses." That's a common theme that is absolutely false. Your body has limits there are excuses. If you don't listen to those limits, you risk injury and a much longer (or even impossible) path to your fitness goals.

Perhaps nothing has demonstrated this as clearly as the joke of putting fitspo messages over pictures of people drinking:

Taking these out of the realm of "health" and putting them in the context of a vice like drinking, we recognize the messages for what they really are: damaging.

Health is not about the finished product, but we live in a culture where our rhetoric is so heavily dichotomized that we can't handle the middle ground. It seems inconceivable that someone could have flat abs and be unhealthy or that someone could be less than sculpted and an athlete. By collapsing a very complex narrative about personal image, biology, body size, and fitness into a simple thin=healthy=good, fat=unhealthy=bad dichotomy, we ignore the process for the product, and we fall into a culture of violent, harmful words and actions--violence we end up enacting upon ourselves.

P.S.- If you're looking for some body-positive fitness and health inspiration that doesn't fall into this trap, I've started collecting images on a Pinterest board. I also recommend reading Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss and Fit and Feminist.

Photo: Adam Arroyo 


  1. I fondly remember reading Tannen first year of Uni.

    I especially enjoyed the last part of this post. Have you by any chance read this? Would love to read your thoughts on it:

  2. I hadn't seen that. Thanks for sharing it!

    The author's argument is probably the most eloquent connection between the health-as-morality standard, mental health, and fitness that I've seen.

    I've always been baffled at the fitness as moral obligation narrative when we so clearly celebrate vice/danger in so many other aspects of our culture (alcohol, sex, daredevil stunts).

    I am especially baffled by people who spread that narrative (health=moral responsibility) but then balk at people who are trying to enact that. The Luluemon debacle is a good example. Some commenters are calling yoga pants on a size-12 body a "crime against humanity." But if those people have a moral obligation to be healthy, shouldn't we be celebrating athletic wear that fits their bodies and gives them the chance to enact that "obligation"? Their hypocrisy demonstrates that it's not really about health (or morality for that matter) at all, but control.

  3. That said, I just read the comments and many of the more negative ones fall into the same fat shaming excuses I hear about health and morality a lot. But I was interested in the commenter who brought up personal health choices like vaccination as a moral issue because of the impact they have on others. I do think that there are some complications to the argument.