Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Basketball and society

This is a thoughtful post, a look inside my mind if you like, but it is quite long. You have been warned.. :p

(PS. If you like this sort of thing, I would suggest reading some dystopian literature, e.g. 1984, Brave New World, or, more accessibly, The Hunger Games)

Recently I was invited to watch a basketball match with some of the older children from my project. Having never watched a proper match before, of course, I went along to see what it was like. If you have ever seen basketball in American films, it is essentially that, for 2 hours or so, complete with blaring music and embarrassing mascots. Overall, it was a reasonably fun evening, especially once I had actually figured out the rules.

There was a rather stark contrast between the role of men and women during the evening. The men are all colossal, as you would expect in a game where tall players have an advantage, and spend their time (fully clothed) showing off their sporting ability. The women, however, are petite and frankly barely dressed, so as to improve the appeal of their dancing and cheerleading, which, though skillful, really did appear to be aimed at a male audience (if you catch my drift).

This got me thinking. How is it that the ideals for each gender are so different in this environment? Could it be that, in pursuit of athletic greatness, men are naturally destined to be more aggressive and competitive, while women are better suited to being fleeting entertainment in a highly suggestive manner? Or is it that the expectation that this is how both genders will behave has shaped our own expectations of ourselves and our concept of what is normal behaviour?

This brings me to a question which has actually been on my mind for a while. If somebody has an interest solely because of outside influences and societal pressure, does that make it less valid than an interest that started with no apparent cause? For example, some who likes the same pop group as everyone else might well find the group attractive mostly because they have been encouraged to do so, compared with someone who has an internally-developped interest in collecting certain items, despite no encouragement to do so. Is there a difference in validity between the two interests, even when both are equally strong?

Note - some people are more naturally inclined towards some behaviours than others, for example taking the extreme example of a disorder like autism, which affects behaviour and preferences, independent from traditional external sources like parenting style or peer pressure, though the disorder itself may have had an initial biological cause. Those of you who may have studied these sorts of topics are quite free to correct me, but I do not subscribe to the school of thought that says that every aspect of a person can be explained by a specific external influence. It is all a lot more vague than that, there are behaviours that can be more easily explained as a result of a certain event, and others that do not appear to be as a direct result of a specific event or events, and that is the difference I'm contemplating.

I personally have a great interest in languages, and it feels entirely sincere and innate to me, yet I cannot help wondering whether or not the fact that language is quite a female-dominated area of study has influenced me - do I like languages partly because it is acceptable for me within our society to like languages, rather than aspiring to a more male-dominated area? This question was quite relevant during my A-levels, where half of my classes were mostly female (languages) and half most male (maths and sciences). I could not help wondering whether it is the expectations of ourselves and those around us that push us in a certain direction, while we feel that our 'choices' really are independent and not predetermined.

And even with that being the case, would it make a difference if I decided to work in this field under strong influences such as a language-positive environment (like Luxembourg), or under a language-negative environment (like the UK)? Does the fact that my interest developed in the more improbable environment make it more or less valid?

What about people who make massive life decisions based on perceived 'sincere' interests, for example religion? I don't think I need to point out that specific religions are taught depending on the society that you are in, so you are much more likely to grow up considering yourself an adherent of religion A if you are within a culture that encourages it, than in a society that teaches religion B. So, although religion feels like a personal decision, in a lot of cases, it is down to the society more than the individual, and therefore one could say that decisions based on beliefs such as these are actually arbitrary, because had that person been born into a different family, they would have made a different decision. Yet, these beliefs feel entirely un-arbitrary and sincere for the individual.

I suppose that is actually the case for most if not every decision we make, and though consciously justifying a certain decision to ourselves serves to make it seem more valid, in the end it is all based on our environment and conditioning, even for those who have a non-societal influence like a behavioural disorder, which can still be considered external. Whether or not we know exactly why someone has a certain interest, it remains true that it is fundamentally the result of some influence, and so is equally as valid or invalid an interest, regardless of the origin. The illusion of our independence of thought and of our own decision making is a comforting one, and a necessary one, because although our lives are not completely random and some aspects of ourselves are predetermined based on what events we have experienced, we ultimately have the ability to think critically and to make changes that can have a positive impact, and that is significantly more important than whether or not that action can be attributed to a previous influence or whether it is considered a 'valid' and independent choice.

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