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Your Opponent is Not Your Enemy

Jul 22, 2021

by Charlie Firestone

reprinted from the Montecito Journal, July 22, 2021

As Tokyo gears up for the 2021 version of the 2020 Olympics, and calls proliferate to boycott the 2024 Beijing Olympics, it’s time to evaluate the role of sports in society. Actually, the ancient Olympics were the first instance of sports diplomacy, as the city-states called a truce to allow athletes to travel to the games. Instances abound in more modern days when sports contests have lessened tensions between countries, from ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970’s to the North and South Koreans marching under the same banner in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

On a more domestic plane, athletes have shown a way for grown adults to handle differences.

When baseball superstar Bryce Harper got hit in the face with a 97 MPH fastball earlier this year, thank goodness he was all right physically. But what was even more outstanding was his mental take. The ball was not thrown at him intentionally, obviously, and he shrugged it off as he came out of the game. No charging the mound, no emptying of the benches, no ongoing vendetta. Rather, after the game, Harper texted the clearly distraught pitcher that he understood that the errant pitch was an accident and offered to talk if the pitcher had trouble getting over it.

No doubt there are unwritten rules in baseball and other sports that police situations like getting hit in the head. Yes, the star of the other team was plunked in the next game. All understood, and nothing more happened. The point is that in sports, the players — the good ones — respect their competition, and understand that they are just opponents, not the enemy. As Scarlett said, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Contrast that with the distrust, incivility and venom that is characterizing some of politics today. Poll after poll has shown that the members of both political parties believe that the other party is incapable of leading the country and, too often, mistake political opposition as the enemy. According to the Pew Research Center, 55% of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” when compared with other Americans; 47% of Democrats say the same about Republicans, and each thinks the other party as “too extreme.” Majorities of each party do not believe in the same values, or even the same facts.

In his 2012 book, Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes suggests that the world of a decade ago, but even more so now, could be divided between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists play by the rules, win some and lose some, but defend current institutions as legitimate even if flawed. Insurrectionists believe the system is broken, so delegitimizing its institutions is commendable.

The ensuing polarization, according to Eli Finkel and 14 other professors in Science Magazine, is best described as “political secularization,” characterized by “othering, aversion, and moralization.” Political adversaries are not just opponents to be debated and fairly contested, they are the enemy. And not just the enemy but an inhuman or immoral one that has to be defeated at all costs.

Two Vanderbilt University scholars found in one study that 70% of members of one party considered those of the other party at a lower level of human evolution than their own. And if the opponent is not human, it is only logical that the moral principles that come with humanity will not apply.