About cheering, countries, culture and stuffs.

Read this digression in portuguese

The soccer world cup just ended. One team got the title, the others cried and life goes on with all its meddling. And amidst all games, people were cheering. Lots of people were cheering. A whole bunch of people were cheering. Cheering for a smaller bunch of guys to run after a sphere and kick it away from them, inside a determined area being protected by another guy from the opposite team.

Now, this is not a problem of what the sport itself actually is because if you think rationally about ANY sport, it’ll sound so ridiculously dumb that you’ll wonder how the hell people dare to practice it in public and even make a living out of it (really, give it a try).

The thing that I wonder about is the cheering part. More specifically, the cheering for a team. Why is it that people cheer for a team?

Now, why people cheer at all may not be completely clear, but I guess the need to feel being part of something bigger and the social benefits that cheering brings works quite well. Cheering can give all sorts of social interactivity and can also make people feel part of a community. Depending on the community and the event people go for cheering, it’s also a way to diminish social differences and could also be a way of proving yourself and your point of view. Maybe prove that you’re part of the correct ones, who made the choice to support the winners. There’s also the empathy people feel for the competitors.

But still, cheering for a team never made much sense for me. And the reason is that a team is not a fixed set of people. Unlike an individual person, a team’s composition can change from season to season. A team’s composition can change in the middle of the season. There are a lot of factors that dictates a team’s composition, among which are included members’ cohesion, complementarity, health and, really important, teams’ financial situation (and maybe prestige). Yes, teams’, and not team’s financial situation, because another team may make a better offer for a player and suddenly the player changed teams! Oh, how simple was that?

Teams will change composition as time passes by. A centenary team is not the same now as it was on its creation. Its composition changed completely. Now, it’s likely possible some may say that there’s a “hardcore” that is always within the team, no matter its composition, and that’s what keeps people cheering. There’s something that defines a team that is independent of who’s in the team. Almost like how there’s something that defines you as you, independent of your biological self. Something like a soul. And that’s what connects supporters to the team.

But I don’t buy it.

A team is made of and by people. There may be a sub-group among those people who preached about what the core of the team is, their motto or whatever. Anything from “always and forever the best” or “perseverance and team work” or any generic motivational phrase like that. Maybe a team is known for its friendly atmosphere, or for how fiercely they keep pushing, or for always losing, whatever. The thing is, there’s no guarantee that future generations of the team will be able to live up to that motto nor that they’ll care about it. It’s possible, I agree, but there’s no guarantee. After a few generations, you could end up with a composition that just can’t care about the team’s motto and is there because they just want to play and earn by doing that. After a few generations, that hardcore that defined the team may very well be so shadowed that you can’t really find it if you pay attention.

Could this be like when you say to someone you’ve known for a while that they’ve changed? You feel like this person is not the same person you knew. Maybe a traumatic event changed the way this person reacts and interacts with others, I don’t know. Could a team’s core being shadowed be like when we say that a person’s soul has changed? I’m not too sure because with the person, you still can be sure about his/her identity. DNA test or fingerprint checking are two methods. But for a team? Their name? Their uniform? Their emblem? Do these really carry any intrinsic identity? Well, maybe it does in some interpretation, but not in the same way as a DNA carries the identity of a person. By this I mean that the team creates the emblem and builds the identity connection, whereas the DNA is the identity generator itself. The direction of causality if reversed. And I’m pretty sure that teams changes their names, uniforms and maybe even their emblems along the way without a problem, but your DNA? I’m sorry but I’m afraid that doing such a thing may not be of your best interest.

So what identifies a team? Well, I bet people who cheer don’t even care about it that much. Maybe they see a team as a black box. People punctualize the teams and they see them as just one cohesive thing. Or almost that. A team can be seem as a black box, though it’s not as black as the name implies and it’s blackness is not the same for everybody. Its blackness is relative. And here I mean it in the term of the actor-network theory (aka ANT). A team is a black box since there is(are) a heterogeneous network(s) enclosed in it that people don’t quite grasp its entirety. Or they don’t care, specially when it’s working how it should (for a team, it means winning). But this black-box is neither black nor closed. It’s not black because it doesn’t always work as it should and it’s not closed because it’s content keeps changing. The actors that make up the networks keeps changing. If the actors change, so does the translations, thus changing the networks and the black-box. But it’s like people don’t really care about how the changes inside the box changes the box itself. It’s like the box is not completely black, because people know, to some extend, how the team works (or should work), but it’s black enough for people to not be able to discern (or care about) the differences on the box itself. They know what has changed, they (think they) know whether the change was for best or for worst, but they still see the black box (that is now a different one) as the same black box. It’s still the same dot which output should still be victories.

Putting in non-sociological terms, for supporters, changing the team’s members doesn’t change the team itself in a broader sense. It’s as if the team was an entity on its own and people cheer for this entity. But I’m not really sure that’s how things work. Because people get mad when the star of the team leaves and goes to the rival team. And this pretty much destroys the idea of black box, punctualization or “team in a broader sense”. So, is a team a black box and people cheer for black boxes?

“Well”, you say, “in the soccer world cup the teams represents a country so people cheer for their own country”.

In other words, in this case, the essence of the team, its hardcore, is its nationality. Yes, ok. Sounds good.

But what does that even mean? What is a nation? Or a country, whatever. I’m not after a semantic discussion so I’ll treat both words as synonym (and I guess you can include National State in the bag too). Now, there are a lot of details and complications when dealing with countries in legal terms. So much that there’s not even a consensus on the number of countries in the world as there are countries that are recognized by the majority of other countries but not all of them. There are lots of resources explaining these complications, but for a brief exposition of some of them, is England a country? What about Taiwan? Hong Kong? Puerto Rico? Scotland? Well, none of them are countries. England and Scotland may be referred to as countries, but they are countries that are part of another country, namely, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which also includes Wales and, surprisingly, Northern Ireland), and they’re actually not sovereign states. Taking from the always helpful Wikipedia, country refers to sovereign state. A sovereign state is a nonphysical juridical entity of the international legal system that is represented by one centralized government that has supreme independent authority over a geographic area. And the countries that make up The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are not sovereign states. We also have micronations, country-like country that aren’t country, country-unlike country that are country and probably other weird stuff out there that makes defining a country a really, really troublesome matter that you probably don’t want to mess with. Here’s a nice video that explains all the mess in a nice way.

Anyway, using a legal definition is probably not what we want in the context we’re dealing here, right? What we’re talking about is the national spirit! That bond that makes us see the neighbor as equal! That bond that unites people within a huge area for the same goal! That bond that only Johnny Bra Guile can represent for good old ‘Murica!

Go home and be a family man!What really is that thing that binds people from the same country together? Culture? Language? Looks? Sure that for smaller countries it could be the case. A country that is as small as a state can have a pretty homogeneous culture, language and citizens appearance. But for bigger countries, specially continental ones like US, China, Brazil and a few others, its hard to accept it so easily. There’s regionalism for the three items. Can you say that the same language is spoken in every part of the country? Sure English is spoken throughout US, but does it sound the same everywhere? Accents, word usage, slang, different regions have their own. Some are so unique that may sound like a different language to a foreigner. The same goes for culture and for looks. So what else could it be? The fact that the same set of laws and other legal institutions apply for all citizens? Well, that’s also not true everywhere, specially if you live in a country full of corruption and impunity. Maybe it’s the food they eat?

Thinking about it, maybe there’s a minimum threshold of proficiency that a person needs to show in both cultural knowledge and language to be accepted as a citizen by other citizens. Maybe being legally accepted as a citizen is a plus, but not the deal setter. But this doesn’t really explain why someone from one extreme of the country is able to see someone from the other extreme as an equal (in terms of nationality). Sure they both will (I hope) speak the same language, albeit with different accent, and I’m pretty sure they’d be able to have a conversation normally, as they know there are differences in the way they talk the same language, but what about cultural knowledge? How much culture do people from opposite coasts share? I mean, how many country-wide custom and knowledge are there? What about people from different social class? Can you say that someone from the middle class has the same cultural knowledge as someone from the lower class? Well, I guess a good path is trying to define what is this culture we’re talking about.

Let’s define culture by borrowing the anthropological definition. Now, I’m no anthropologist so don’t take my word on this, but from the many definitions you can find, sounds fair to define it as shared/common knowledge and the expected behavior and interactions derived from that knowledge. (For various definitions taken from various authors, you can check this link)

Those who share the same knowledge and behave in similar ways pertain to the same culture. Obviously there are various degrees or layers here. You have knowledge and behaviors that crosses legal country boarders, like how in most western countries it’s a shared knowledge that dogs are nice companions that we should not eat while it’s all right to eat cow meat. We have knowledge and behaviors that don’t cross legal country boarders, like how it’s normal for men to use skirts in Scotland (is it a country or not?) or to practice the siesta in some countries. And we can keep getting more and more specific until we reach subcultures which are knowledge and behaviors that are constrained in smaller groups of people, with some even requiring new entrants to take a test to prove their worth (aka: professions). Yes, each profession can be considered a subculture because they each have their own shared knowledge and as professionals, they’re expected to have follow certain behavioral rules. This may be easier to see in lawyers and doctors, but it’s still applicable to other professions. And to other kinds of sub-group, like fandom.

Now I’m not here to digress about different degrees of layers of culture and how to categorize them. The thing is that there’s probably a layer that encompass a whole country. There’s a set of shared knowledge and behavioral pattern that everybody in the country recognizes and accepts it as being representative of an average citizen of their country and that’s also somehow unique to them. Or is there? It’s hard to say with confidence that there is. But even in our so globalized world where more and more a culture is being globally adopted, countries still internalize these global culture and adapts their own culture to it and it to their own culture, keeping the end result, somehow, unique. That’s how corporations that acts more like a global corporation works. At least that’s how they can sell their homogeneous product throughout the world, adapting it, albeit as minimally as possible so to minimize cost increase, and making it more easily accepted in countries with different cultures.

So if we assume that this layer of culture actually exists, we solved the problem. This layer is the glue that binds people from the same country together. Although this glue sticks less to some people than others, as long as the glue is smeared on someone enough that anyone can see it, they’re considered a fellow national citizen. Of course defining what exactly is in this glue that binds people from around a country is hard to pinpoint. It’s a problem pretty similar to that of defining a country but in a much larger scale because there are millions of people and finding what set of knowledge and behavior patterns are accepted by all of them is close to impossible. You have issues about flexibility, unawareness of their own culture, obviously the sheer amount of people.

[Does this sounds like a completely generic solution that actually isn’t a solution at all? Yes, it does. Because that’s exactly what this is. But let’s keep going.]

One thing is for sure, culture can be created, modified and learned, being language the most obvious example.

And what if we apply this concept of layer of culture to teams? The thing that makes people cheer for different teams is this layer of culture that is different between different teams. This layer is created around the team and it’s taught to others. Those who accept it and enjoys it will adhere to the glue and become a supporter. And as this layer becomes stronger, it also detaches from the team and becomes independent of the team and, therefore, from its composition.

Or does it? Can there be such a thing as a standalone culture? Does that even make any sense? A culture that is able to change itself without external influences? A culture that is free of any products (be this product its creator or its creation)? I’m not quite sure about this, maybe there’s another way we could follow.

One question that could use an answer is whether technology is a product of culture. And I’d say that it is, though it’s a product from a more specific layer. But the consequence of this statement is important because this means that culture affects the products it creates but also that the products themselves can affect culture. It’s a two way road (though mobility is not the same in both directions).

For instance, variations in culture can affect the direction of technological development. As people become more concerned about global warming, technology development shifts toward greener options. But technological development can also affect culture because with new technology comes new knowledge. Take cellphones as example. Lots of new knowledge was acquired with the introduction of cellphones (and later with smartphones), which also affected the behavior of people, thus changing culture itself.

With a two-way road between culture and its related product(s), it makes more sense that people are able to cheer for an ever-changing team. A layer of culture is created after the team and it’s spread out, creating the whole group of supporters. The duo culture-product and the two-way road between them is created. Now, changes in the product (the team formation) will affect the layer of culture, though it won’t necessarily extinguish it (unless the product itself is extinguished). Likewise, changes in the culture cause changes in the team, though this way is likely narrower than the other.

So in the end, what there is is not a hardcore that supporters identify with and that remains unchanged throughout time and space. It’s a layer of culture that can change along with changes in the team. This kind of answers the problem I had with people cheering for a team that can change its members, but this doesn’t explains in a satisfactory way a lot of behaviors that some supporters have, but I’ll leave them to another digression.

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