When big things happen in football, it’s always worthwhile to gather an outside opinion especially if that outsider is able to break down various takes and opinions on the matter. It’s safe to say that Jack Grealish’s assault by a Birmingham City fan was a rather ‘big thing’ and that it needed an outside opinion to properly dissect and discuss the matter.
With that in mind, today I was joined on an extra episode of the Holtecast by Jon Mackenzie. Initially, I did want to break down, with Jon, some of the societal factors that could have led to Jack Grealish’s attack - but I noticed this morning that Jon had analysed various media takes on the matter in his weekly newsletter. Thus, I thought it a better idea to have a general chat about some of the philosophy behind the opinions of these pundits and examine some of the deeper meaning behind the incident.
This episode of Holtecast Extra? It might not be your cup of tea - but I found it to be a very rewarding and enlightening and that was pretty much down to Jon’s eloquence on the matter - with various angles being discussed at length. There is an embed below to listen and it has been attached to the Holtecast RSS feed for the podcast app of your choice. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!
The below was taken from Issue 10 of Jon Mackenzie’s newsletter:
I’ve had a few ideas percolating in my mind this week that I wanted to link together somehow in this week’s Thought of the Week but it hasn’t really happened.
On the one hand, Manchester United’s ‘giant slaying’ of Paris Saint-Germain threw up all of the usual questions about VAR. It’s been a while since I re-thought through my take on VAR and I will do it sometime. But at the moment, I suspect we’ve all got VAR exhaustion.
Also, the gap between how Manchester United’s lucky win against PSG was reported versus their unlucky loss to Arsenal was pretty fascinating but, then again, I’m biased against Manchester United so no one will want to read my thoughts on that. We’re also somewhat xG-ed out too so I will leave my ruminations about ‘regression to the mean’—possibly the most empty phrase floating around Football Twitter at the moment—for another week.
Then there is the curious pontificating that is going on with respect to ‘social media’ by various grandees from the industries. This is something that has been around for a while. You’ll see some journalist or other ruminating today about how social media is the cause of all the ills in society.
That’s fine, I suppose. We all have our bugbears and we all have our shonky sociological arguments cobbled together from nowhere in particular.
But then a Birmingham City fan invaded the pitch in the Birmingham Derby and lamped Aston Villa player Jack Grealish and things went into overdrive.
Consider this, for example:
“In social media: Lack of respect for The Other. Lack of empathy for the neighbour. Extreme views as the only ones possible. Did you really think that was staying in Social Media? Social Media is us. And the most stupid of us are taking it all into the real world too..”
Now, you know me: I’m all for the introduction of philosophical terminology into football discourse. So Balague’s bold introduction of ‘The Other’ into a tweet about Jack Grealish warms my heart.
But when it comes to diagnosing societies ills through a blanketing of ‘Social Media’, I’ll admit my eyes begin to glaze over.
Not because I don’t think social media isn’t a useful heuristic device by which to judge society—it certainly has impacted us in ways many of which we are still to discover no doubt. And not because I think that the opposite argument is true—that acts of violence pre-date social media—and anyone suggesting otherwise is wrong.
I think it’s because the logical ordering of these sorts of approaches seem intrinsically misjudged.
I’m a Marxist. Well, sort of. What I mean by this is that I think that the best way to read history is through the lens that Marx gave us. Marx suggests that we should read history by interpreting the underlying conditions that run beneath the surface of this history, trying to unearth the ‘material conditions’ that prompt history to go in a certain direction.
This may sound complicated but it isn’t. Essesntially, he’s saying, there are fundamental structures that impel history on its way. We shouldn’t be looking at individual moments or people, we should be looking for structural realities that are so pervasive that we often don’t see them. These material conditions will be things like technology, labour, capital goods.
An example here might be the invention of the printing press. Once written material became easily reproducible, it was only a matter of time before literacy became widespread which, in turn, set history off in a particular course.
‘Aha!’ you might say. ‘So you do think social media could be a cause in historical development!’
Yes, I do. But that isn’t to say that we can just say ‘Social media!’ and run away, happy in the knowledge that solid sociological critique has been achieved.
As a Marxist, when I come to evaluate the Jack Grealish assault, first and foremost in my mind will be the question: ‘What material conditions have led us to this point?’
Now for Balague (and perhaps others working within the media who, it must be noted, face online abuse on a daily basis), their immediate thought process goes something like this: social media shows us that people are more rude now; this is likely because they can hide behind a cloak of anonymity; but emboldened, they now feel safe coming out in public and translating this nastiness into physical violence.
You might find this sort of argument compelling. I do not. I get lost somewhere between the bit about being emboldened by anonymity shifting to becoming a person willing to jump over an advertising hoarding, slamming a footballer one in the face and then getting banned from stadiums for the rest of their life.
Where do we go for a better explanation of the material conditions for this sea change then? Well, if you’re Jonathan Wilson or John Nicholson—both smart guys whose opinions I respect—then we look at the economic conditions.
Wilson writes: ‘Identifying causes is never straightforward, and this is perhaps not the place to do so, but some inter related issues are perhaps worth highlighting. The first is the austerity policy pursued by the Conservatives in their three administrations since 2010 (until 2015 in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, from 2015-17 in sole power and since 2017 as a minority government). Education and health are in crisis, there have been major cutbacks to the police and social services, welfare and benefits have been slashed and the result is fury and hopelessness with a stretched and demotivated police force that is struggling to cope.’
Similarly, Nicholson: ‘When you have a society that is hugely divided between the haves and have nots, when you isolate and economically deprive a significant swathe of society, people slowly lose any investment in that society and once that happens, all bets are off. It’s easy to decry and to tell them to have more respect, but you can only kick people for so long before they’ll kick you back, one way or another, no matter how much you tell them they shouldn’t.’
Now, implicitly, these sorts of arguments feel much more rigorous than Balague’s Other-baiting of Social Media. It makes more sense that a sustained economic programme of austerity would create the conditions within which this sort of behaviour might be explicable.
But even still, it seems to me that there are leaps of logic that exist in the interstices of the various shifts in the argument here. Perhaps the offender is a person who feels disenfranchised with the society he finds himself either because he has been left behind by the financial imbalances that have left hard-working people woefully underpaid or because he feels lost in a Great Britain that no longer feels ‘Great’ nor his.
Or perhaps he just really hates Jack Grealish because the best player in the Championship plays for a rival team, he was drunk and is probably not a nice person?
I don’t mean this to sound patronising. I really do think there is something to these sorts of arguments about societal decline. I am a Marxist after all…
But just because there are clearly material conditions operating behind the scenes within the present day, doesn’t mean to say they are always the operative ones in any given situation. For all we know, the Grealish Lamper was a comfortably-off remain voter…
In fact, what really confuses me about this whole narrative approach is that, until a couple of years ago, the dominant narrative about football-going supporters was that they were gentrified. Are we now living in a world where gentrified fans are turning to on-pitch violence to stave of their dissatisfaction with the world?
I hate making these sorts of arguments. I’m trying to show up the potential inconsistencies of the lines of reasoning rather than come across as a dick.
This thought has meandered a little. Here’s where I’m going to conclude: I sometimes wonder if these sorts of pieces say more about the people writing them than anything else. Of course, how else can we write but from a context. But if I see any disenfranchisement going on here, it’s on the part of the people writing, who live in a world that they once saw as progressive and outward-facing showing itself up to be precisely the opposite.
No doubt these people will be shown up to be on the right side of history. But forgive me for taking their sociological exegesis with a pinch of salt.
By Jon Mackenzie