I can’t say that I went out of my way to immerse myself in the media frenzy over golf star Annika Sorenstam playing with the men late last week, so I could have missed it. But in all the discussion of the greater significance of the event, I don’t think I heard anybody get to the heart of the social and cultural meaning of what Annika Sorenstam did. That I didn’t suggests to me that our American media culture (a term susceptible to many definitions, of course, and an abstraction to boot) is virtually incapable even of entertaining or perhaps even conceiving of the meaning in the terms that seem to me perfectly obvious and sensible.
Let me jump ahead of myself to suggest that the fact that our culture has such difficulty recognizing meanings that seem perfectly obvious to some of us might also help to explain why our culture seems to take seriously the idea that humankind would do better living in peace than in constant conflict. That’s a pretty long leap, I confess, and I’m constrained to admit that some of it is intuitive; I haven’t worked through all the logical connections yet, but I’m pretty sure they’ll hold together.
So stick with me. I’m writing on a holiday, another day our culture seems to me to misconstrue. There should be at least an element in the conscious remembrance of those who have died in military service of a determination to make sure that Americans are not called on to die in the service of causes that are less than worthy of their willingness to sacrifice. Instead, it often becomes close to a celebration of the current conflict, with a strong undercurrent of making sure there will always be a supply of young people willing (preferably) but at least ready and able to die in future wars. I detect a whiff, in America’s way with Memorial Day, of the conscious celebration of death.
Backyard barbecues in celebration of nothing more than a Monday off work, with not a trace of historical or patriotic remembrance are more socially constructive, in my view.
ANNIKA THE INDIVIDUALIST
As persistently as Annika Sorenstam herself resisted the categorization that various avatars of media popular culture tried to subject her to, you would think that a few people might have gotten a clue. To be sure, she didn’t articulate her beliefs in an especially sustained way; she simply dropped clues. They were almost universally missed.
They wanted to make her a representative of women, or perhaps American women, or perhaps women athletes or women golfers, or people born in other countries who have chosen to live in the United States for now. They (that ever-handy "they" on whom we can blame everything) wanted to make the golf match a metaphor for the current position of women (or women golfers, etc, etc), for the current status of sports as an American obsession of cultural significance, for the resistance of the culture to full equality for despised minorities, and on and on, ad absurdum.
Annika herself expressed surprise, and probably genuine surprise, at the intensity of media interest. She tried to insist that she wasn’t a role model or a representative or a symbol or a metaphor or a cultural signifier. She was just a very good woman golfer who had nothing left to demonstrate to herself or to others in competition with other women and wanted to see how she would do playing against men. She got an opportunity to do so and took it. That’s it. No deep social meaning.
But there is a deep social meaning to the way Annika Sorenstam chose to breach mostly informal or cultural barriers and play with the men. Like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the first woman to do it more than 50 years ago, she did it as a talented individual person rather than as a representative of some larger group. Both Babe and Annika seem to have been so comfortable within their own skins and their own identity that they almost didn’t recognize consciously the social significance of their actions. Being an individual and acting like an individual is for some people so natural as breathing, and not something to which they give a lot of introspective thought.
The apparent paradox is that by operating as an individual rather than as a political symbol, she may well have done more to open up opportunities for other women golfers than if she had undertaken the tournament as a conscious or self-conscious test case. Once she understood that the media frenzy could not be avoided, she simply focused on her playing despite the emotional pressure. The first day’s 71 showed she could play with the boys, and do so with dignity and grace. The second day’s 74 was disappointing, but the upshot was that anybody who looked at the situation would have to acknowledge that if she wanted to she could do respectably on the men’s tour probably not a dominant repeat winner, but a solid and probably improving player.
And once she established that, she announced that she had no intention of trying to crack the men’s tour on a regular basis, that she had benefited from the experience and would go back to the ladies’ tour.
An individualist to the core, to the end.
Note that in cultural terms, what most of what the media wanted to do was to make Annika Sorenstam a member or representative of a tribe. The instinct or inclination toward tribalism must be very deep in the human psyche-soul-spirit-whatever. We moderns, who are supposed to have graduated beyond tribalism into civilization (we’re speaking in generalizations here, and excepting the wise writer-detached-observer from the category, which can be dangerous), still seem to want to divide into tribes by gender, race, ethnic origin, language, occupation, enthusiasm, sexual preference, etc.) and pin our self-identity, sometimes quite narrowly and parochially, as members of a group a tribe.
Tribalism can be attractive, an easy way to gain identity, perhaps even a sense of self-worth and pride as a member of a group. But tribalism tends to be very narrow and to demand fairly complete obedience on the part of tribe members. In conflicts (and Steven A. LeBlanc’s new book, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, which I haven’t finished yet, is just the latest to affirm that simpler, "primitive" societies were marked by battle and organized war whenever control of scarce resources or territory became an issue, which was often) a tribe member is supposed to support his tribe, right or wrong. Indeed, having the notion of a sense of right and wrong, detached or independent from the interests of the tribe, is difficult even to entertain or imagine in a strictly tribal culture.
The trouble with tribalism, in short, is that it tends to be accompanied by parochial vision, constant conflict, and a difficulty in developing the ability to view "the other" the tribe on the other side of the hill, or the other side of the world, or of the ideological or religious divide with understanding, sympathy or anything representing empathy. Viewing an "other" as fundamentally different from and generally inferior to you facilitates being able view them as possibly subhuman and therefore being more willing to kill them on behalf of the interests of your tribe, or the greater glory of the cause (socialism, racialism, democracy, religious purity, Americanism, self-defense), of course.
So how do you transcend tribalism, leading to the possibility of a civilization or culture with wider, broader sympathies, willing or even eager to work out peaceful resolutions to conflicts rather than being ready to do battle at the drop of an insult? There’s a respectable school of thought that it is necessary to encourage people to have broader sympathies, to identify with humanity as a whole rather than with the tribe or category into which you happen to be born or into which society (that handy abstraction) wants to push you? Only by seeing ourselves as humans in that larger sense, beyond nationalism or tribalism, as "citizens of the world," or people whose rejection of their own tribe is so deep that they might even have a tendency to identify automatically with the foe of the moment, can we hope to get beyond petty and grand conflicts.
Many people believe this, or something like it, quite sincerely, and are usually on the right side of the matter when it comes to current issues involving war and peace. But I believe the more promising way of transcending tribalism is through individualism, through encouraging people to think of themselves as individuals first and foremost and therefore capable of assuming responsibility for their lives and the consequences of their choices, and worthy of being treated with dignity simply because they are individuals, even before they have earned that respect and as members of tribes or groups essentially as secondary or even simply descriptive characteristics.
It is people with a sense of themselves as individual people, people with a certain amount of self-esteem and confidence, who tend to push boundaries, make discoveries, create new patterns or works of art, think outside the box, and therefore create breakthroughs from which others can ultimately benefit. Again, it might seem paradoxical to some, but people operating in what they view as their own self-interest, at least in a system in which they have to trade value for value with other equally independent individuals, turn out to be those who often benefit humankind or at least some significant portion thereof, in the most practical and concrete ways. As long as they’re trading rather than fighting, people can serve their own interests best by taking into account the interests of others, which requires a broader perspective, a capacity for understanding and sympathy with people of different backgrounds.
I would argue that having a solid individualist sense of oneself and having the kind of broader, more tolerant emotional capacity to understand others whose experiences and values are different is not only possible. It may be that the person with a solid sense of himself or herself as an individual is best situated to develop that broader understanding. Perhaps a secure individualist feels less threatened by the "other" than somebody who yearns to achieve identity through a group, through being a member, through surrendering a part of yourself and therefore a part of your eagerness for independent thought and judgment to a group or tribe.
If individualism and generally reciprocal (if not entirely free and voluntary) trade are the key (or even a significant key) to developing broader sympathies with others and resolving differences in interest or perception relatively peacefully, then American culture’s response to Annika Sorenstam’s big adventure might suggest we are a long way away from even beginning to understand a sensible path to peace.
Suppose that the path lies through what some might view as an unfortunate or paradoxical detour, a well-developed and culturally encouraged sense of individualism as the first step toward transcending tribalism. If our culture can’t even recognize that the glory of Annika Sorenstam is that she is an individual on a path of defining herself even more as an individual, how can it understand, let alone celebrate, individualism as a key to civilization, progress, broader intellectual and cultural sympathies, and ultimately toward the possibility of peace rather than conflict as the defining quality of our species?