I read an article yesterday (here) which purports to be a professional footballer (soccer player, for US readers) moaning about the poor standards of commentary produced by former professional footballers. Now, I am not a football fan, so bear with me. His main point seems to be that even though these former players know the enormous amount of strategic thought and regimentation that goes into the preparation for a game, they prefer to report it as if little of this goes on, as if each player is far more responsible for his choices than he really is.
What are the reasons for this? Have these former players forgotten their training? Are they too lazy to try and convey it? I doubt it. I thought the reason might be more complicated, but more interesting.
I think British sports fans like to see their players as individual geniuses, not chess pieces on a giant green chess board. In the same way, we seem to prefer to think of scientists having individual blinding moments of inspiration, rather than making gradual discoveries, eked out after years of intense study, collaboratively building on the work of others.
And, of course, the media being what it is, we are served up exactly what we want to see or read. The news industry shapes events to suit our prejudices.
As humans, we seem to have an instinct to make a story out of everything. We need a villain, a hero, a victim, and a crisis. We have little patterns – shortcuts – which help us understand our complicated world. These patterns go from tiny – have you ever heard anyone described as a ‘devout protestant’? – to vast. For example, I very often hear Africa described as if every one of the residents of that enormous and varied continent are permanently on the brink of starvation.
Good causes can compound the problem by using these patterns ‘for the right reasons’, to help them raise money. It helps for victims to be passive, grateful and virtuous – the embodiment of the Victorian ‘deserving poor’ – untouched by the frailties we see in all other human beings.
It is easy to blame the media for all this, of course, but perhaps the world is too complicated to understand any other way. Ultimately, we get the press we want and the government we deserve.