Real ____ would never do that!

June 20, 2011

I just returned from a glorious five days
spent motorcycling through Washington and Oregon.  We crossed the
border into the United States last Sunday and then headed over the
Cascade Mountains, wound our way down to northern Oregon, then meandered
through the central part of the state, before heading back north up the
Oregon Coast, and catching a ferry back to Vancouver Island from Port
Angeles, WA last night.  All in all, a fantastic trip.  We saw some
absolutely spectacular scenery, from the majestic snow-capped Cascades
to the rolling farm country of central Oregon, to rainforests, to lush
forests along the Columbia River, to the beauty of winding roads along
the Pacific Ocean.  Simply incredible.

And, of course, as good Canadians, we
made sure to find a pub somewhere on Monday and Wednesday to catch games
six and seven of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Vancouver Canucks
and the Boston Bruins.  Both times, we would have been better off
staying on our bikes as the Canucks were abysmal and embarrassing in
their capitulation to the Bruins.  Even more embarrassing than the play of the Canucks themselves, as you have no doubt heard by now, was the behaviour of some Vancouver residents
who spent the hours following the game seven loss rioting, burning,
looting, destroying, fighting, and who knows what else in a a display of
petulant and boorish behaviour such as our country does not often see
on such a scale.

Unsurprisingly, the social  media world
has been abuzz since Wednesday night with condemnations, explanations,
and apologies pouring in from a variety of sources (two of the better
ones, in my biased opinion, were written by friends of mine here and here).
 I have to admit, my first response to hearing the news of the riots
back home, was something bordering on apathy.  Perhaps it’s because I am
not a native British Columbian and don’t have a strong sense of
personal identity tied up with the city of Vancouver.  Perhaps it’s
because I don’t really like the Canucks.  Or, perhaps it’s because
people behaving badly is rarely surprising.  For all of its
self-understanding as a paradisiacal city that is the envy of the world,
Vancouver is, last time I checked, populated by human beings,
and human beings, wherever they live, are prone to stupid and
destructive behaviour—especially when you throw 100 000 of them together
into a single place, add a generous mix of alcohol, testosterone, and
media-fuelled tribalism centred on a sports team.  The only thing
shocking about Wednesday night, from my perspective, was that people
were shocked by it.

As I sifted through my clogged blog aggregator back at home last night, I
couldn’t help but notice how desperate people were to convince others
(and themselves?) that the Wednesday rioters were not “real”
Vancouverites.  As I reflected upon this theme, it occurred to me that,
structurally, these apologies for the city of Vancouver were virtually
identical to what I came across researching the new atheism for my
masters thesis a few years back.

Apologists for God/religion often
attempted to explain away violent behaviour perpetrated in the name of
God/religion as not in any way motivated by “real” religion.  ”Real
Christians” would never do some of the atrocious things that they have
been charged with historically.  Similarly, atheists tried to explain
away the behaviour of people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc as not
“real” atheism (in fact—hooray!—why don’t we just declare that the
behaviour of these tyrants was, in fact, a kind of religious response!).
 ”Real atheists,” like “real Christians” (and “real Vancouverites,
presumably), were virtuous, kind, progressive, rational, compassionate,
and decent.

It’s an understandable strategy, after
all.  If people we are identified with do things we don’t like or that
embarrass us and our group, we simply define them as not really
belonging to our group.  Whatever else might be said, it certainly has
simplicity to commend it as a strategy.  After all, it’s much easier to
declare people who behave badly as illegitimate than to say
that their behaviour as incongruous with our group’s values, or what our
group aspires to be.  But, of course, declaring people not to be real
____ is never entirely successful.   “Real ____” sometimes do really bad
things, whether we want them to or not.  It doesn’t make them less
“real” or legitimate members of the group, it just means that the group
includes people who behave badly.

In truth, what we are saying when we say that “real ____” don’t do x or y is that we really, really wish
that these people who represent us, however tenuously the connection,
would behave better.  The word “real” is a synonym for “good” or “the
kind I like.”  The statement “real Vancouverites” (or “real Christians”
or “real atheists) wouldn’t do x or y turns out to be
little more than an expression of our ideals for the group we belong to
combined with, perhaps, a thinly veiled claim that we and people like us
are the true exemplars of what “real ____” are like.  But that’s a bit
more complicated, and not as easy to fit into a headline.  And it
doesn’t make us feel as virtuous.  It does, however, have the benefit of
more closely resembling the truth.

Originally posted at Rumblings.