Thursday, January 29, 2015
[Comic title: Super Bowl; alt text: My hobby: Pretending to miss the sarcasm when people show off their lack of interest in football by talking about 'sportsball' and acting excited to find someone else who's interested, then acting confused when they try to clarify.]
What the fuck is this smarmy piece of shit comic and why the fuck am I reading it?
Seriously: did I miss a memo somewhere? As I've written extensively about in my reviews of the latest comics, XKCD has just been aggressively mediocre recently. It's been difficult to come up with 1000 words to write about for each one, but I committed to maintaining this blog when Carl abandoned it, and I always stick to my commitments. But even having written 1000 words about each XKCD comic for many years, I don't think I could tell you anything about any of them. But that won't be true of this one. This one will stick in my memory. This is the sort of toxic smarminess that will keep me up at night for years.
I don't dislike sports. I don't find sports mania annoying because I don't know much about sports. [Edit to add clarity: I actually am reasonably familiar with the rules of most of the popular sports in America. My sole regret in this world is that I still don't understand the sport of cricket.] I don't even mind watching sports, so long as I can be assured that no sports fans will be nearby when it happens.
Sports mania represents some of humanity's most base impulses: namely, violent tribalism. Sports fans regularly riot after sporting events, either to celebrate "their" victory or mourn "their" loss. This is not harmless enthusiasm. They cause property damage and public unrest for no reason more worthy than that a group of overpaid athletes failed to outperform another group of overpaid athletes. The stakes are kept artificially high in football, ensuring that fan enthusiasm remains at a dangerous peak throughout the season, thus ensuring that riots are more likely.
For some reason, though, we encourage this behavior as a society. A victorious team regularly imports hundreds of thousands of people into the downtown core of their home city to have an officially sanctioned parade. Buildings both public and private proudly display their sports colors for the world to see. This violent, destructive tribalism is celebrated as something that "brings the city together" or some such bullshit. And it's true: bonding over our hatred of the Other as been a popular activity throughout human history.
Comic 1480 is asking us to just try to understand and accept an impulse we should be trying to stamp out of society. We live in the future. Microsoft is making some phenomenally dorky AR goggles. Google is making self-driving cars. We're taking actual good pictures of Pluto and Ceres. We landed on a fucking comet. Are we not civilized enough to find violent tribalism a deplorable and base impulse rather than something to rally entire cities behind?
It's not as if sports fans are a rare minority, struggling to be heard. You can't throw a stick without hitting a sports fan even in otherwise progressive cities like Seattle. This isn't one of those moments in the Nerd Empowerment Film genre so popular in the nineties, where the popular kid makes an effort to understand the nerd's eccentric hobby. There is no magical moment of bonding and understanding that dawns. At best you get temporarily accepted into the tribe, so long as you continue to smile and nod, and so long as you don't indicate that you like anything about the enemy tribes.
And make no mistake: we're in a worst-case scenario this year. Whether or not the allegations have any basis in reality, the Patriots have become embroiled in a cheating and corruption scandal. For Seahawks fans, they are no longer simply the Other, who must be destroyed to prove that Our Tribe Is The Best Tribe. They are a corrupt and evil Other. If the Seahawks (who, let me remind you, are a group of overpaid athletes, many of whom are not native to the city and who would gladly play elsewhere if the pay were right or the situation were different, and who do not have any meaningful interaction or connection with the vast majority of their fans) fail to achieve victory over the Patriots (ditto), the Seahawks fans will react with not just tribal outrage that their gods have fallen, but with moral outrage that their gods have fallen to demons. If the Seahawks achieve victory, they will have conquered the demons of corruption. In either case, when the inevitable riot occurs, it will only be newsworthy if the police treat them as harshly as they treat demonstrators agitating for free speech. The damage and disruption to the city is already a foregone conclusion. The question is not "will it happen?" but "how bad will it be?"
And here we have this comic smugly assuming a position of moral superiority, chastising those among us who attempt to make their displeasure with this violent tribalism known by raising their voice above the din. "You need to listen," it says. "You need to be nice. It's not nice to try to find commonality with others who feel that these violent impulses have no place in a civilized society." It's smarm. It's weaponized niceness. It's moral cowardice masquerading as moral superiority. And for someone like Randall, an avatar of nerd culture, a man who champions progress both societal and scientific, telling those who are looking for like-minded friends that they are morally inferior is not just in poor taste. It's a betrayal.