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Spectatoritis

August 30, 2014

NB: This article was, ironically, written a fair while back.

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It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Theodore Roosevelt, “in the arena” (part of “Citizenship in a Republic; an amazing speech, 1898?)

Fantastic finals match at Wimbledon. Djokovic vs. Federer. Epic 5 setter. One for the record books the newspapers. A match to mash your teeth over missing. Well, I must confess, I wish I’d got round to watching the whole match. What a spectacle it would have been. I wish I’d seen it. Same with any great duel.

But there are times when I get a distinct sense of discomfort, such as when the TV commentator notes there are over 80,000 watching a rugby league match where around 30 men run around, throw a ball, and smash into each other. Now, I don’t watch rugby league, but the appeal isn’t impossible to see – there’s something truly fascinating about watching the best of the best in action. I do it with top level chess, for instance.

But when you take a step back, its a surreal thing. There are 2 groups. Doers and viewers. And one group – not even taking into account all those people watching their games from home – is far, far larger than the other.

During such moments I think back to an article I read about Spectatoritis, a book by J.B. Nash from 1938. In the first half of the 20th century, leisure time had steadily increased, and Nash argued that because Americans had never had such swathes of leisure, they had not developed a “philosophy of leisure” – a matter for another post. Without this philosophy, they fell victim to spectatoritis. Nash:

The machine age has, of course, already supplied an unexampled wealth of leisure and what happens? The average man who has time on his hands turns out to be a spectator, a watcher of somebody else, merely because that is the easiest thing. He becomes a victim of spectatoritis—a blanket description to cover all kinds of passive amusement, an entering into the handiest activity merely to escape boredom. Instead of expressing, he is willing to sit back and have his leisure time pursuits slapped on to him like mustard plasters—external, temporary, and, in the end, “dust in the mouth.

Far from Nash being some obsolete writer from the late 1930s, however, I’d argue his points must be continually remembered in the modern age. The capacity for leisure, and perhaps its realisation, is greater than ever. The average worker – if they wished to live at the poverty line – in some studies could have over 70 hours of leisure a week (Gittinomics is my source, if my memory holds).

BUT, its not just a case of us watching more sport and indulging in more traditional passive activities. The insidious thing is how old activities have changed. Take the new American notion of megachurches. An “experience” to be consumed, rather than “created” – in the notion of Catholicism – with the consecration of the wine and bread. There’s no communion, no ‘peace be upon you’ , no participation of any kind. Its entirely passive.

Or, listen to the original article for a bit: (bolded emphasis mine)

“A current trend in the building of new middle and upper class suburban homes is to include a “theater room,” a windowless room complete with large, movie theater-like chairs, a speaker system, and a big screen television. This is another one of those things that seems odd when you take a step back…a whole room in the house dedicated just to watching stuff. We’ve gone from having parlors for making conversation, to rumpus or recreation rooms for playing games, to rooms in which people sit silently side-by-side in the dark.

More than anything, the internet has contributed to the spread of spectatoritis. Online interactions are particularly insidious because they provide people with the feeling that they are actively participating in something, while in reality it is just another form of passive amusement. The main form of “activity” in modern life is the expression of personal preference. Liking or disliking. While formerly you could only be a fan of sports teams, you can now become a “fan” of Dominos Pizza, presidential candidates, even “sleeping.” I find it amusing that some websites have buttons in the response section of articles that allow people to upvote or downvote readers’ comments. So if you’re too lazy to write your own stuff, and it’s too much of a burden to even generate your own comment, you can still “participate” by showing your allegiance to someone else’s idea. But giving things thumbs up or thumbs down is not real participation. Why? Because such participation is “external, temporary, dust in the mouth.” [as Nash says] Because it doesn’t involve any risk, any putting of your own skin in the game. Because it doesn’t change anything in you or in the world.”

These matters are bread and butter, fundamentals that ought to be resounding in every person’s mind right now. I have never in my life liked or disliked a comment on Facebook or anywhere. I will – if I truly have anything worth saying and the article is worthy of attention – say it, or I’ll sit and ponder. Either way, I will think, not falsely ‘participate’ and have all thought go flying away on the current of passivity.
This is particularly the sort of situation which youth like myself tend to face. They ‘participate’ through intangible, superficial interactions. Want to change the world and build a dam in Africa? Like the link! Don’t do any planning, or take action, just like it. Much better to start small instead with real action. I wholly agree with the sentiments of this International Public Speaking Competition winner’s speech.

When you’re just ‘liking’ a comment you’re not distinguishing between different elements of what people say. You’re not distinguishing between the correct, and the incorrect. I love the speech Citizenship in a Republic by Theodore Roosevelt. If I had to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ I’d jump at ‘like’ But some of “Teddy’s” racial views are rightly outdated. He’s probably sexist too. You’ll never get a full picture by ‘liking’ because ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ are a false dichotomy. And if you want real change, then you want to increase society’s actual capacity (supply side economics) . To do that you need, you’ll need a deep understanding of issues. Beyond basics…

Take the Australian federal budget. Let’s assume it must be fixed. Do you ‘like’ the idea of cutting spending or raising taxes? Which will it be?

Neither. Ever heard of ‘tax expenditures’ ? Probably not. Let me give you a hint. Superannuation concessions cost approximately $35 billion a year for the Australian government. They also give a very large % of the benefit to the rich. That’s right – redistribution towards the wealthy. And you know our coming age pension crisis that’s cause for a structural budget emergency in the coming decades? Growth in taking advantage of superannuation means superannuation concessions are going to overtake pension costs within a few years on current trends!

You won’t possibly know that from liking ‘great big new tax’ or hating it.
But let’s step down from the mount of nations and budgets for a moment. There’s nothing wrong with passive entertainment, in moderation. I told you I review high level chess games. I’ll tell you I’m watching a mock trial this evening. I read newspapers, watch some TV… I consume. But I actually play chess myself, I’m that mock trial team’s pseudo-coach, I write articles like those of a newspaper at times… I create, I hope. But let me be clear – there’s NO problem with passive entertainment.

It only becomes a problem when instead of being a supplement to your life—an occasional relaxing indulgence–passive amusements become asubstitution, a way to feel better about something you personally lack.

Take the military. William Deresiewicz recently wrote an interesting article about changing perceptions of the military,

“The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal. In the Second World War, everybody fought. Soldiers were not remote figures to most of us; they were us. Now, instead of sharing the burden, we sentimentalize it. It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them. This is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service…”

And this is the real danger of spectatoritis – that we experience the virtues of others, without having to cultivate them ourselves.

We need not be men and women of character and virtue it seems, so long as we ‘feel’ we are while watching a show. But there’s a problem. You’ll feel invigorated and ready for an hour, but that feeling shall seep away, and the world will be utterly the same.

Now, let me return to the highest ivory tower of self-righteousness I can find. What do I recommend?

Every man and woman should have at least one recreational pursuit in life where they have skin in the game, where they are in the arena, and not in the stands. One thing in which they are a doer, rather than a viewer. A creator, rather than a consumer.

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2 Comments
  1. mattdanza permalink

    Reblogged this on ABF Skate Shop and commented:
    As a man who returned to skateboarding at 40 years old after at least a decade of feeling sick from spectatoritis, I love this. I think part of what makes some people uncomfortable with skateboarding and skateboarders is they may be unknowingly suffering from Spectatoritis. But skateboarding isn’t about watching, its about doing!

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