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Society and Soccer Teams

kjmason's picture



So I started thinking about life. About jobs and respect. About responsibility to self and to society. About the student who goes to class everyday getting good grades because she has been told that is right and good of children to do that. About her little brother who goes to school and gets into fights and gets detention because that’s what his best bud does. How much of our actions, habitual and unrevised, are even our own?



Let me try to make this point slightly more clear. I won’t do William James’s squirrel is to metaphysical disputes analogy justice but I will try to be as creative as possible…




Maya walks into class one day and her best friend Heather has a giant bruise on her eye. Maya of course, concerned for her friend asks why Heather has this bruise. Heather replies, “I got hit in the face with a soccer ball during a game”. Upon further inquiry about this soccer thing that Heather has been into, Maya decides she wants to play. Girls on the soccer team refer to things as “beast” when normal people would use the word “good”, they like going to pubs and other sports games and they spit and like being very rowdy in public. Maya, through hanging out with the soccer team begins to adapt these habits of her peers very quickly both in an attempt to fit in but also to try new things. She continues to hang with the team, until one day during a vicious game, Maya shatters her femur and is no longer allowed to play. Over time she becomes less and less a member of the team. She no longer goes to the sports pubs or games with the team and she moves on to a new group of friends. She continues to spit in public, something she gets scorned for because it’s “unladylike” but she continues none-the-less. She also uses the word “beast” to describe anything good despite the fact that most people are only confused by the word choice.

Taking Peirce’s essay, “The Fixation of Belief” and synthesizing it with James’s essay, “Habit”, we can see why Maya’s type of behaviour is so common. To paraphrase, Peirce asserts that because doubt is an uncomfortable emotion when one doubts they are forced to find a “truth”, or something they believe to be true. He even goes as far as to explain that often, people will believe things that are incongruous with other beliefs because it’s more comfortable than re-evaluating. James asserts that habit can be a simplifying tool in our lives, but when it goes unrevised its pragmatic effect may be diminished. So in thinking about these two ideas I thought to see habit as a form of truth. A habit that one adopts after childhood is something she believes to be advantageous in some way. Maya’s habits that she acquired through her relationship with the soccer team (spitting, partying and using group specific slang) were beneficial to her during her time with the soccer team. She was the strange new girl, but after showing the rest of the girls that she can and will behave just like them to fit in, she was suddenly accepted into the group. This change was forced because the discomfort Maya experienced in being “different” in this tight group of friends was of a greater level (of discomfort) than that created by having to assimilate new habits. Maya was experiencing discomfort emotionally, so she was forced to find a new truth, which in this case, took the form of habit. When she was no longer friends with the same group, she kept some of the habits she had developed through the friendship. These habits were kept because the discomfort created by society, for example, in response to her new habit of spitting, is less than the discomfort Maya would experience in trying to get rid of her habit. Since oftentimes habits are easier to create than to break. This is why a lot of people rely on making new habits to replace old ones when trying to break the old habit. These habits stay with Maya and become a part of who she is. She may stop spitting when she begins dating a new guy, he says it’s repulsive, etc. but until she is forced to confront the fact that this habit is unappealing outside of her former friend group she will continue to exhibit it.    


Now lets move away from the simple squirrel example and begin to put this in terms of metaphysics (OR NOT!). Our metaphysics is society: Maya’s soccer team on a bigger scale and from a more triangulated approach. Lets go with another (over)simplified example: Jeff. Jeff is a young man (between 20 and 25) living in Philadelphia, right out of college, trying to make it into the ever-crowded business world. Television (think soccer team) shows him how businessmen dress and act. They wear suits, they drive nice but modest cars, they are the steady reliable type, they have stable healthy relationships and they go to the bar after work, have one drink (maybe with a colleague) and leave to finish up what didn’t get done at work. So Jeff buys a nice but modest car, some suits and adapts these habits that he has observed through the media. He never questions whether he likes his sensible car, his sensible girlfriend, his sensible suits, they become part of his habitual performance of the person society has casted him to be. That is to say in taking this “autopilot” approach to his life, Jeff becomes ignorantly blissful most the time and is only plagued by occasional bouts of inexplicable depression. 

Many people have asked, why is depression so much more common in Western society? Because we are not writing our own lives people!!! (sorry if the triple exclamation mark seems unprofessional) Most “happy” Americans live their lives subscribing to non-true habits (non true meaning not in accordance with their desires or visions of themselves independent of societal pressure to fit a cookie cutter mold). So the doctor’s prescription? Live in a hut in the woods and avoid society and soccer teams.






Anne Dalke's picture

"Since doubt is unpleasant..."

So, kj, I have to begin by asking you about your opening image: it MUST be from Valparaíso, where I spent some weeks during my sabbatical a few years ago, and where I first began doing some of the thinking that eventually became this course. I was exploring in particular, then, the experiences of Henry James, Sr: his claim that "the natural inheritance of any one who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters."

So the first (analytic, not informative) question I have for you is how much you think the depression you describe above as "so much more common in Western society" (and perhaps traceable to the experience of what you call "non true," that is "not in accordance with their desires or visions of themselves independent of societal pressure") might be specific to, or particularly exacerbated by, the particular environment in which we find ourselves here: the hothouse of a small, intense liberal arts college, where a premium is placed on performance? I'm thinking here of some of Paul Grobstein's observations about the relationship between depression and analytic/ academic/ intellectual work: that it can offer, for example, a danger in "thinking too much," in spending too much time reflecting; see also James's BMC talk on "The Gospel of Relaxation," upcoming in our class discussion this week, regarding "the over-contracted person," and her "over-tense and excited habit of mind."

Your stories of the “autopilot” approach to life, of "habitual performance," of the danger of each of us becoming "the person society has cast us to be," are powerful ones, and certainly operate as contemporary examples of precisely the sorts of dangers William James has been warning us against all semester, perhaps most clearly in "The Ph.D. Octopus," where he asks whether "individuality with us" is "going to count for nothing unless stamped and licensed and authenticated by some title-giving machine."

What puzzles me though, is your ending by offering, as "the doctor's prescription" and response to this dilemma, the option of living in a hut in the woods. The NYTimes just featured a series of men (pointedly, not women) who have chosen that option: see Embracing a Life of Solitude. But I'd like to explore with you some alternative to the two extremes of being either a man in a gray-flannel suit, or lighting out for the territories. James (as per his critique of Hegel) would surely also have urged you beyond this stark (and so false and revisable) binary.

You yourself already provided one very strong step in that direction, in the posting in your commonplace book which questioned the need to educate us into the practice of doubting:

"Since doubt is unpleasant and education encourages us to doubt the hypothesis and the words on the pages of every book we are given, is this another way that education is merely a conditioning of the mind to do what it doesn't do willfully. Further funneling of the experience of thought?"

I don't know what exactly I think the answer is to this question. Peirce asserts that doubt is just as natural to the human mind as belief, but if in fact it is, then why do we need to be taught to doubt and question in school? Also why is it a recognizably less pleasant thought to doubt than to believe? Does the pleasantness of a thought lend insight into our mind's willingness to perform that process? When are we taught to doubt? Is it the first time we tell a lie?

Can I nudge you to go on thinking towards an answer to this question....?