The Social Construction of Brutality

February 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Super. It’s Superbowl Sunday. On the front page of the New York Times Review section is an article by the wife of former NFL safety Rob Kelly. The title is “Football Destroyed My Husband’s Mind.” Mood swings, paranoia, depression, irrationality. “Often he would forget to eat. I’d find full bowls of cereal left around the house, on bookshelves or the fireplace mantel.” It’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of concussions and other physical insults to the brain.  

The kickoff today is at 6:30.

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Construction Job. In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckman describe how behaviors that start as a one-off – let’s meet for lunch tomorrow at 1:00 – can become institutionalized as regular practices. It turns into the Tuesday one o’clock lunch – external to the people involved. As more people become a part of it, its reality becomes more and more solid, literally, with buildings and equipment as well as rules and scheduling. We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.
                                                                               
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Imagine That. Last year, after a Penn State student died during a fraternity hazing, Lisa Wade tried to reframe the whole argument.

Imagine a world in which everything was the same about higher education except there have never been Greek organizations. An 18-year-old waltzes into a dean’s office and says, “I want to start an exclusive club on campus that doesn’t allow women and serves mostly white and privileged students and we’re going to throw parties all the time that are illegal, and at these parties, all the bad stuff that happens on campus is going to happen disproportionately. What do you think?”

By “bad stuff” she means rape and less criminal kinds of sexual coercion, drunkenness, physical and psychological intimidation, and brutality resulting in injury, sometimes hospitalization, and the occasional death.

Some people preferred to imagine Lisa being raped or killed for suggesting that their fraternities led to rape and brutality. 

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Zero-based Reality Construction. In “zero-based budgeting” no part of an organization has its budget automatically renewed. Instead, budgeteers ask of each item, “Is this necessary? What does it contribute to our goals?”

Imagine a world with no football. A group of athletes puts forward a proposal for a new sport to be played by school teams and professionals. It cost a lot of money – money that most schools will not recoup. Many who play at the collegiate level and nearly all those who play professionally will live the rest of their lives with some pain and injury. Many will suffer permanent brain injury. Even those who play only in high school are at risk. Should we get started on making this a national institution?

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What’s done is done and cannot be undone. Institutions once constructed cannot be unconstructed, at least not quickly and only with great difficulty. Even if everyone agreed that fraternities or football are toxic institutions, nobody can imagine how do get rid of them. So instead, we get minor adjustments – rules about helmets and hits and heads, rules about drinking (requiring “third-party vendors”) or rush (reducing it from eight weeks to six). [Inside Higher Ed]

But there is no such agreement that these institutions do more harm than good, certainly not on fraternities and probably not on football. Millions of us watch football and suffer no apparent harm. What happens to the players is, well, too bad. But that’s the way it is. What can you do?

Enjoy the game.

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