November 23, 2004

The Not-So-Hidden History of the Pacers-Pistons Incident

In a Philadelphia Inquirer front-page story this morning, we get the inevitable take on the Pacers-Pistons-fans brawl: it’s a sign of the times, a mirror to society. Followed by the inevitable declaration by an expert that it’s a consequence of too much violence on television and in the movies, resulting in desensitization.

My grandmother used to snort when she saw certain paintings in a museum, feeling that any child could have painted the modern art she was seeing. Well, any ignoramus could serve up the conclusion that the fan-player brawl was the result of mass-media depictions of violence. I could write some free-floating quotations to that effect and give them to reporters so that they could use them in reference to any current or future incidences of violence. That soldier in the mosque? Video games, I’m sure of it. That hunter in the tree stand? Video games. Or television. One of them. Take your pick, whatever feels good. It’s like the doctor tapping a knee to demonstrate a reflex. Chronicle of an expertise foretold.

Chronicle of an expertise based on nothing.

Instead try starting with some attention to the specifics of the incident and proceed from the assumption that its key triggers rest in the individuals who made sovereign choices about their own actions. Ron Artest. The fan who threw the beer. The fans who came on the court. The players who felt a need (pretty reasonably, in my opinion) to back Artest up.

The problem here for the experts, or the superficial hook that sustains the Inquirer story, is that this approach treats this incident as just an incident, not as a pattern. Which strikes me as a basic responsibility for any “expert” who wants to speak authoritatively about recurring patterns, about social structures. Not, “What does this one isolated incident mean,” but, “Is it happening more often?” No evidence that it is, really.. You don’t have to have a systematic explanation for a single idiosyncratic case, or even a handful of them. Human beings see patterns because that's part of the architecture of our intelligence--but an expert has to do better than just give in to his primate brain. Even if you just want to do a rich treatment of the meaning and symbolics of the incident, be mindful of its idiosyncracy unless you want to demonstrate that it's more than that.

If individual responsibility—still the core conceptual underpinning of our view of criminality and accountability, even after a century of challenges of various kinds—will not suffice, move on to what we know about crowds, complexity and emergence. A human crowd is probably always one tipping point away from a riot or chaos: it is a complex system poised to phase change from one tempo of activity to the next. This isn’t just the abstract insight that complexity studies provide to us, but also the specific insight that a history of human crowds or mobs can provide. You could start a riot in a church with a sufficient sense of the cultural and rhetorical provocations that would move a crowd from one state to another. Sports fans with alcohol in them and testosterone at the ready are easier by far to tip into mass action.

If neither the highly specific, individualized explanation nor the generic systems-based explanation will do, then try a little cultural and social history, specifically of fans and sports. A global perspective on that history is especially devastating to the proposition that there is a tie between recent trends in mass media and violence in fan culture, but let’s bow to American exceptionalism and stay within the borders of the United States. Take a gander at this Sports Illustrated timeline, which doesn’t even cover more local or regional contexts like minor leagues, intramural sports, and so on. Did "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Gunsmoke" spur two fans to attack Jimmy Piersall? Violence within the stands, or even between fans and players, is an old story in the United States. Not an eternal one, but certainly one that has deep and complex connections with 19th Century processes of urbanization, industrialization, and massification.

Thinking about cultural history also allows to recognize that from small acorns mighty oaks do grow. Every American city has a slightly different fan culture which has complex organic ties to the cultural identity of its home community, incubating slowly over a span of decades. Each successive incident or moment in that history—which may come from a “tipping point”, almost accidentally—becomes a structured memory among local fans, and influences their sense of subsequent identity and resulting practice in a way far more profoundly important than something as generic as “television violence”. Eagles fans sometimes act like assholes because isolated cases of assholery over the years have been lovingly and pridefully recounted by later fans, forming a kind of instructional manual about the culture of being an Eagles fan that guides people who weren’t even alive when some of the storied legacies of local fandom first unfolded. It probably just took a couple of guys chucking ice at Santa Claus to get fifty or sixty guys to do it, but once it was done and commented on and retold a thousand times, it became a legend that constituted cultural practice forever forward. There are definitely some echoes of this in the local cultural history of Detroit fandom and Detroit's cultural history in general. "Disco Demolition Night" anyone? Hell Night, anyone?

Throw in some of the cultural shifts narrowly and specifically within basketball—the underlying posturing of the players, the racial and economic gap between players and fans, the iconography that surrounds figures like Bryant and Iverson vs. the iconography of Bird, Johnson and Jordan, and you begin to build a pretty good composite understanding of what happened that night. Media violence enters that picture in such a peripheral, attenuated way that to bring it up at all is a miscarriage of expertise, a comfort food for the ignorant who want easy scapegoats to point at for everything that discomforts them.