Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Positive Push

Every significant action or statement in human history has been met with at least some negative criticism.  It is impossible to take an action without inspiring a reaction (and of course, that's how it should be; we wouldn't want to live in a world where any one person unilaterally did the thinking for all others).  And now, especially in the era of mass media, anyone who disseminates a message to any kind of an audience must be ready for some kind of a negative response.  It's easier than it's every been to broadcast (or at least narrowcast) something, but it's even easier to issue a criticism to something that has been broadcast.  For most of American history, if someone wanted to issue a public response to a public figure, they would either have to stand on a soapbox, or else they would have to mail a letter to a newspaper and hope it was published.  By the latter part of the 20th Century, you could call a talk radio show.  By the tail end of that century, you could write something online.  And now in the social networking era, anyone with a Twitter account may function as a public figure, and anyone with a Twitter account may criticise a public figure.

So if statements or actions inspire negative reactions, and we have more statements and public actions than ever being made, I'm comfortable asserting that our culture is more negative than it's ever been.  I don't want to oversimplify matters.  I'm well aware that for all the hand wringing in recent years over the supposed loss of "civility," there has never been a society where dissension has always been expressed with perfect civility.  But again, the key to my assertion is quantity.  The incivility is not necessarily more objectionable than in the past, it's just that there is more to be uncivil about.

And that's why I was intrigued to read about the existence of something called the Bills Mafia.  The Bills Mafia is a loosely organized group of Buffalo Bills fans--an organization that started on Twitter and now exists in real life.  The origin of the Bills Mafia is directly resultant from the cesspool of aforementioned Internet negativity.  A couple years ago a Bills player wrote something stupid on Twitter, then an ESPN reporter used the same platform to mock the player, and then a group of Bills fans used the same platform to mock the ESPN reporter.  All parties have since moved on, but the Bills Mafia remains.  And now the organization forswears negativity.  Grantland author Ben Austen writes: "Thomas DeLaus, a 24-year-old front-end supervisor at Walmart, and Nick Primerano, 31, who sells communications systems to the federal government, broke down the ethos of the group, and really of the Bills faithful more generally.
"It's been a rough decade," Thomas said.
"But we're a positive push for growth," Nick chimed in.
"The hashtag can't be used for negativity."
"No matter what, we're about team."
"Whether wide right … "
"And no matter what happens at 'The Ralph' tomorrow … "
"It doesn't matter if it's zero degrees at the game … "
"We back the players."
"Community," said Thomas.
"Once Bills Mafia, always Bills Mafia."
The "wide right" quote is a reference to a missed field goal over 20 years ago that cost the Bills their best shot at a Super Bowl championship.  Austen writes about how Bills fans treated Scott Norwood, who missed that kick: "Rather than try to murder the real Scott Norwood, Buffalonians embraced him when the team returned from the 1991 Super Bowl. At a rally held for the team in downtown's Niagara Square, 30,000 fans chanted for Norwood to come to the dais. "I know I've never felt more loved than right now," a weeping Norwood told the crowd."

One thing that used to bother me immensely as a young sports fan was hearing fans of my local teams criticise players for the local teams.  I couldn't reconcile how you could like a team and not like guys who played for that team.  Packers fans have a reputation for being among the best, if not the best in professional sports (decades long waiting list for season tickets, undying loyalty, etc...).  But that doesn't mean that they have always loved individual players unconditionally.  The likes of Tony Mandarich and Terrell Buckley--high draft picks that held out for big contracts and then woefully underperformed--could tell you otherwise. 

Now, one could certainly make the case that many athletes who are booed deserve to be booed, and that it is valid for fans to criticise athletes if the criticism is fair and is not "personal."  That may be, but how efficacious is such action?  It certainly has little, if any, bearing on how a team's personnel department or coaching staff manage a roster.  Fans would probably argue that it presents a psychological release, that tweeting venomous statements about, say, Jermichael Finley after he drops passes is more personally satisfying than not tweeting anything.

But reading Austen's article, I get the impression that being a member of the Buffalo Bills mafia, which means "backing the players" even when the players don't deserve such support, is highly satisfying.  One might counter that this should not be so, that to blithely and happily accept years of more losses than wins, to remain irrationally optimistic, and to cheer for underperformers is foolish.  But a counter to that counter is that to be a sports fan is inherently foolish to begin with, so one might as well choose to be foolishly happy.

This is not to suggest that a sports fan should apply such a mentality in all areas of their life and never utter a negative sentiment in any context.  As I stated at the outset, we wouldn't want to live in a world where anyone could take action of any sort without any fear of reprisal.  But perhaps we need to find a way to better choose not only how, but when, to allocate our right to make reprisals. 

It could be that an entity like the "Bills Mafia" is a cultural aberration--a geographically isolated pocket of irrational loyalists.  Or it could be that it is representative of the beginning of a trend--a response to a saturation of negativity now weighing heavily on all of our discourse.


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