Dead or Alive?

No… I’m not going to write about “wanted” posters, but about the awareness of being alive.  What sparked this was a New York Times article about how Grande Prix racing had gone from a sport that killed drivers every year on a predictable basis to one that seldom sees fatalities, thanks to the improved safety technology incorporated in the race cars… and how its public profile has dropped in the American media.

Every so often my wife and I may glance at a story or an ad or something that depicts so-called extreme sports.  Almost invariably, even when she says not a word, I know what she’s thinking.  She can’t understand why anyone would engage in something that dangerous, and she thinks they’re idiots for doing so.

My attitude is a bit different. Not only do I think they’re foolish, but I tend to feel sorry for them. Anyone who can only feel alive when risking death and annihilation, or who can only find a thrill or meaning in life in such circumstances, most likely isn’t truly alive most of the time anyway.  Many of those individuals, interestingly enough, claim that the rest of us aren’t truly alive because we don’t understand what it is to be alive in the face of danger.

Obviously, we’re all different, but I’d like to think that it shouldn’t take the imminent threat of death to feel alive, but what bothers both of us even more than that is the apparently growing popularity of such “sports”… where, like the crowds in the Roman Coliseum or the Circus Maximus, everyone roars when there’s a death or a crash.  But then, some Republicans roar when a governor boasts about the executions in his state. I’m all too aware that life can be fragile, and that no one so far has managed to get out of it alive, but I find it a sad commentary on humanity that bystanders and voyeurs can get a thrill or pleasure out of death and destruction.

Oh… I know that tendency has been around throughout history, and that less than two generations ago in parts of the United States, lynching was a spectator sport.  I’m also more than casually aware that death is, sooner or later, potentially all too close to most military personnel… but shouldn’t death be thought of as a reluctant necessity rather than with excitement or as entertainment?

And what does it say about us as a culture that the more violent forms of “entertainment” seem to be the most popular?

Dead or alive…?


10 thoughts on “Dead or Alive?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    “popular” is about as useful as it was to evaluate the market value of the original Star Trek series by its ratings – which were low, but misleading because those that watched had, or would have later, more than the average amount of disposable income.

    “popular” is just a popular (read pandering) word for mediocre. Smart people don’t travel in mobs…but smart people are only the right-hand third or so of the bell curve, a small minority…and some of them aren’t exactly full-spectrum smart.

    I wonder though, how much of the ancient (Greek) Olympic games were potentially deadly…it does occur to me that there are other parallels between the present situation and Rome’s decline that some might choose to draw. Competition to encourage and celebrate different forms of excellence, even those not obviously productive in and of themselves, is one thing; blood sport, another entirely. Risk is unavoidable, but should be managed where possible (as the racing example shows).

    Close calls – everyone should have a few…but such reminders of the value and vitality of life shouldn’t be the only reminders that are effective, nor become an addiction (possible, I suppose, in that addiction could presumably occur without external chemicals, just with the brain’s own chemistry being abused).

  2. Sam says:

    I once read somewhere that the Roman bloodsports were a way for the government to appease/control the mob. That in a way the mob was the biggest threat to the government moreso than any external one.

    I have a number of thoughts on this subject but for now I’d say that I think that when these tendencies are properly channelled there is a place for these sorts of people in society. They are our astronauts and explorers. People who thrive on risk-taking but ideally are in control of it.

    For my part I’m someone who doesn’t cross the road if I can avoid it so I admire those who can throw themselves into things without being paralysed by fear.

  3. Robert The Addled says:

    I recently re-read a novel “Slow Train to Arcturus” (I’m fairly sure I spelled that wrong) that re-iterated that those with a predisposition to the ‘risky’ tended to be those who ended up pushing forward the frontiers.

    Even without PHYSICAL risk – the cutting edge technology and newest developments are being made by those who get a thrill by experimenting and attempting the previously impossible. It was once believed that speeds of 50 or 100 miles an hour would kill a human with the shock, yet cars, trains, and planes routinely exceed this. Risk that has been tamed is ‘normal’ – Risk takers are required to effect changes to society.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    I’d distinguish between pursuing a challenge or objective that might be risky, and pursuing risk for thrills or entertainment.

    I was thinking that some people may not be expressing that distinction well; but the thought got more troubling when it morphed into perhaps they’re not even _considering_ that distinction well. If someone is going to put their (anatomy) on the line, they ought to at least be clear with themselves about why they’re doing it.

    1. Sam says:

      I get the distinction you’re suggesting up to a point. However my thinking is that a person who enjoys/thrives on risk-taking and has learned to balance that personality trait out with a modicum of common sense is more likely to be able to be decisive in high-risk situations than someone who never strays out of their comfort zone if they can avoid it.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        We need to stray (or be pushed) out of our comfort zones from time to time, to improve our survival abilities (among other reasons). I won’t argue that. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t _have_ comfort zones unless they too were in some sense a survival trait.

  5. Brian says:

    On 3 August 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed west from Palos de la Frontera in search of the riches of the Orient. I’m sure the word ‘fool’ may have been used a few times by those who were aware of what he planned. I did not bring this up to debate the positive and negative consequences of this action. Instead, I wonder whether the motivation of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and human achievement and endurance (like Armstrong et. al., did as well) is similar in some of the people today but their outlet is just different.

  6. Joe says:

    One could argue quite convincingly that it’s going to get worse. It takes attention span to appreciate the depth of beauty. Instead fast changing cartoons are training children for shorter and shorter attention spans. Mobile devices and “multitasking” are increasing these trends. People experience cartoon like emotions, and it takes more and more to stimulate them. I was shocked to hear Chris Hedges speaking about the injuries suffered by “actresses” in the movie industry that makes more money than Hollywood. Apparently their audience demands this.

    Most people live pretty meaningless lives doing things they do not really care about but have been trained for. Crushing debt guarantees their compliance and fake personality “professionalism”. When they get home, exhausted they switch on a box (TV/Xbox) or go into a loud box (disco) in which they cannot speak. Having spent most of the day feeling very little, people desire to experience some feeling.

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that there are connections between our behavior as a nation — pouring the lives of our young soldiers into wars over 1/3 of them now find meaningless, state sanctioned torture, executions without trial, imprisonment without trial, impunity for the powerful who violate our laws, and increased inequality — and an increased feeling of futility among the population. The Romans pacified the plebs with the Coliseum (which involved sex and violence), we do it with porn, extreme sports, movies, “ghetto” “music”, etc.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      I could agree with you up to a point. But multitasking has practical uses, not just distracting from deeper reflection. “Crushing debt” can be avoided, by just refusing to keep up with the consumption of others.

      As long as it’s a volunteer force, determining what wars are meaningful ultimately reduces to a retention or recruiting issue; those will eventually fall off if enough agree that it’s meaningless. And be careful: it’s not _just_ which conflicts, it’s also how one goes about them. If one is unwilling to do what’s needed to win (Rumsfeld and Iraq), or if careful examination proves that there’s no meaningful definition of winning (perhaps Afghanistan, although I’m not so sure there), those should probably be avoided. But an element of “you break it, you bought it” also applies; leaving for the sake of leaving, if it sets up a worse problem five or ten years down the line, is also problematic.

      Where non-US citizens, captured abroad, belligerent but not covered by the Geneva Convention (“unlawful combatants”) are concerned, my only interest is that our own people don’t damage themselves by doing more than is necessary. Water boarding is _not_ physically torture (although when done to someone whose fate is not in their own hands, one might well argue that it’s psychological torture…which doesn’t much bother me). I don’t mind the least intrusive _effective_ interrogation of such persons, and I don’t mind if they’re held for the duration of a conflict that may last the rest of their lives, nor if they’re executed by the verdict of a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. They’d still get more due process than they granted their victims. However, Abu Ghraib was a disgrace, not for “torture”, but for being out of control, sloppy, gratuitous, inefficient, and too easy propaganda for our adversaries without any clear benefit gained.

      OTOH, targeting US citizens, even those making war against us from abroad, seems very slippery-slope to me. I do know that the bad guys are much worse than most of us hear about, so I’m not quick to say it should _never_ happen, but it should certainly not become a trend. I hope that at the very least, in a relatively few years, the review process leading to that sort of decision will be disclosed. Likewise, “rendition” to those with less scruples than ourselves (those not unwilling to do more than the least necessary) seems to me to be morally bankrupt; keeping one’s own hands clean by letting someone else do the dirty work is just lying to oneself. But in the end, I care about life outside our borders only insofar as it’s in some sense in our interests for it to continue to exist, or at least for us not to pay the price of getting rid of it.

      You want more equal outcomes? Get people to give up the emptiest of their distractions and work to improve their lives. It’s not the business of any government to provide that; it’s only the business of government to avoid creating additional unequal barriers. Thus, I think that integrating public schools, or the military, was necessary; but integrating purely private institutions violates freedom of association, because that freedom includes the freedom _not_ to associate. I don’t imagine I’d choose to attend some group that followed a policy discriminating on anything other than conduct. But while it’s perhaps necessary as a short (now not so short) term corrective measure, I don’t like enforcing non-discriminatory behavior on private institutions; it generates a backlash, that may not speed the desired end result (where very very few people persist in making counterproductive distinctions). It also is one of those measures that while nominally seeking fairness, simply perpetuates the notion of groups pitted against groups over the notion of merely lots of varied individuals.

      I guess you could say I’m nearly a libertarian (minimum intervention, and due process when intervention can’t be avoided) where US citizens are concerned, but I’m more inclined to favor the benefits of dead enemies (dead people don’t fight back) where foreign belligerents are involved, although even there, I acknowledge that being a little selective has its practical merits.

  7. Linda van der Pal says:

    This makes me wonder if Randall Munroe read the same article:

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