Hard not to notice that the Rio Olympics have begun. They’re everywhere. In the papers. On TV and radio. All over the net and social media. As if that were not enough sports for summer 2016, just prior to the launch of the Olympics, Europe had wrapped up several huge sporting events: the European Soccer Championship, the European Track and Field Championship, the Wimbledon Grand Slam Tennis Tournament, and the Tour de France. As an American living in Europe right now it’s hard not to notice how much energy is being put into cheering for the home team. National flags fly everywhere: from people’s homes, cars, offices, and of course in the sports venues themselves. Even at Wimbledon, the partisanship of the British audience for their guy, Andy Murray, was stunning.
Don’t get me wrong. I love sports and my stiff joints tell me I’ve watched more TV in the last weeks than I should have. I too feel an emotional pull for the teams and athletes from the countries I have the deepest connections to. (Born and raised in America, I work frequently in Germany. I’m married to a native Swiss, and my parents grew up in Greece.)
My extensive tuning in to sports events feels different this year. Not so much entertainment or a chance to admire human bodies performing feats that seem near impossible, my viewership feels more like a fleeing into forgetting, indulging in a few hours of ignoring all the serious issues humankind faces right now.
Maybe we millions of viewers need a break from the stress of just those issues. Even so, in the context of today’s world, I can’t count identification with a nation-state as a step toward health. Because hidden in every declaration of “Hooray for the Americans/Germans/Brits/French/Portuguese” is the implied: “And down with the others.”
Exclusive loyalty to one’s group has been the source of violence and threats and consequently of fear and distress throughout the ages. The Bastille Day attack on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, and the several recent attacks in Germany show the bluntness of acting on such motivations. More than a third of the individuals killed in Nice supposedly in support of the Islamic State were Muslims; and the victims in Germany whose lives wavered in the balance after being bludgeoned by a 17-year old Afghan refugee purportedly similarly supporting the Islamic State are from Hong Kong.
An incident that occurred in Brussels shortly after the March 23 terrorist attacks there illustrates additional dangers of identity proclamations. The square in front of the stock exchange, the Place de la Bourse, had quickly become the symbolic rallying point for people wanting to pay their respects to those who had been killed, many of whom were holding signs and banners proclaiming “Je suis Bruxelles” (modeled of course on the slogan “Je suis Paris” of the previous November, and both on the tweet “Je suis Charlie” of the previous January).
On the Sunday after the Brussels attacks, a large group of men clad in black calling themselves Casuals United Belgium (after the British football hooligan group), carried banners against the Islamic State that included obscenities, shouted Nazi slogans, and trampled parts of the shrine. The police—who were out in great number because of the ongoing attempt to foil additional attacks and locate the terrorists’ collaborators―quickly intervened by forcing everyone to leave the area.
It’s impossible to guess at all of the various demonstrators’ intentions. Still, we can assume that those with “Je suis Bruxelles” signs were trying to pay homage to the victims by showing solidarity with them and their families, and that those shouting the Nazi slogans and “death to Arabs” were trying to disrupt the ability of certain other individuals to honor the victims. This worked. A large number of Belgian residents with immigrant background turned around (even before they were stopped by the police), feeling distinctly in danger and in any case unwelcome to commemorate the victims publicly. They were not allowed by the Neonazis, to say: Je suis Bruxelles, even when they indeed lived there. To put it into the terminology of trauma studies: would-be co-witnesses to those who died traumatically were silenced.
I’m not sure I can get behind slogans like “Je suis Bruxelles” because they not only don’t make common sense, they also invite their negation, as this sad scene in Brussels demonstrates. And yet, I do believe that the only way forward for Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, the EU, the USA for that matter, is solidarity, an easing of the lines we’ve been so busy drawing, of the distinctions we’ve been so busy making. We don’t need a reinforcement of them. We need to create alliances among all folk who believe that violence is wrong.
Creating alliances and working productively together as a heterogenous group is hard. A first step is deciding to think about other people and not just the self and one’s closest associates. A second is to identify with others, not as them, that is, to be careful not to appropriate others’ specific identities, as cultural theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has so compellingly explained. Believing that all lives matter can lead us to a third step of witnessing to the injustice around us and taking concrete actions to end it.
That’s hard to do if you’re rooting too loudly for the home team—something we all might want to remember from our recliners as we watch the Olympics.
Irene Kacandes is the Dartmouth Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature and a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project