Have you ever wondered about where our beliefs come from? What drives the way we frame the events we witness? What impact our worldview has on our actions? What meaning can we ascribe to our actions? How do behaviours become normalised and adopted by masses?
I was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day. I witnessed a mass, coordinated, synchronous, costumed display of standing and clapping and waving of wide-brimmed sun hats. Seemingly, all it took to make the best part of 65,000 members of the human race join this activity was a request from the ground announcer over the Public Address system.
Shane Warne, 52 years old, one of the best bowlers ever to play the game, had ‘died suddenly,’ like so many others recently, earlier in the year. His player number was 350 – i.e. he was the 350th player to earn a test ‘cap’ to play for Australia. So, through some tortured logic resembling numerology, at ten minutes to four o’clock, or “3:50” pm, the players and crowd engaged in a brief display of clapping and waving a particular type of sun hat preferred by the late spin bowler.
Shane Warne is, sadly, dead. He couldn’t witness and appreciate the clapping or the hat-waving. So why did all those people clap? “To show their appreciation of his bowling skills,” I hear you say. Well, we did that every time he took a wicket, didn’t we? “OK then, to show others that we loved him, and we miss him.” Sure, but will those ‘others’ do anything different, or help us, or receive help from us, in any way? I don’t think so. At best, anyone who had felt alone in their sorrow about Warne’s death might have gained some comfort from the fact that thousands of other people were clapping.
So why did you clap, really? Because someone told you to, and because everyone else was doing it, and Warnie was a good bloke, and you needed to stretch your legs after sitting for so long?
Good blokes die every day. The proper place for grief, and remembrance, and celebration is at funerals, wakes, and private, intimate moments, alone, or with those who knew the deceased. There have already been many of these opportunities for cricket fans to honour Warne’s memory. Those who wanted to actively remember Shane Warne deliberately went out of their way to watch the tribute shows, watch the funeral service, in their own time, with friends and family or alone in their grief for a life ended too soon. For me, I cried over my coffee on the morning the news broke, and I couldn’t bear to watch the tributes.
This MCG affair was different. On command, at a precise moment, 65,000 people who had bought tickets to a cricket match stood up and clapped and waved their hats. That is a powerful demonstration of how people can be convinced to do something quite without any rhyme or reason. Why 3:50 pm? Why not in the 52nd over, given he died age 52, or when the score passes 23, given that was the number he wore on his shirt? Why not at the precise moment when he was found dead?
Why wave a hat? Why not swing a stump around like he did on the balcony at Trent Bridge? Why not swig a beer or light a cigarette? Warnie liked those, too.
The answer? Because someone (we don’t know who, because we never asked) told you to. In truth, we are inclined to do what we are told.
This year will be the 15th annual ‘Pink Test,’ which has hijacked the Sydney Test match in the name of fundraising for breast cancer. Glenn McGrath used to play cricket for Australia. His wife the late Jane McGrath, whose favourite colour was pink, was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in 2008 at the age of 42. The McGrath Foundation was established in 2005, to ‘Provide supportive care nursing for the patients and families impacted by breast cancer.”
For up to 5 days, depending on how long the test match lasts, the Sydney Cricket Ground is adorned in pink. Because they are told to, spectators wear pink clothes, and buy pink merchandise. Because they are told to, the players wear a special pink set of ‘whites,’ and their bats have pink handle grips. The stumps are pink. Because they are told to, various survivors or supporters of those with breast cancer parade, in pink, on the ground at breaks in play. The pinkness of course is completely irrelevant.
If all it takes is a suggestion (or a command), to get thousands of people to stand up and wave a hat at a precise moment in time, or dress in pink, then the real question is what kind of worldview must one have to join in? What need or urge is satisfied by doing what everyone else is doing?
Almost everyone wants to do good. If something is promoted as being good, people will join in, often without really questioning. But look a little deeper, and the picture can change.
Is it an undisputed good to lecture cricket fans about breast cancer every year? Might that not be uncomfortable for those who have recently been diagnosed, or lost someone close? Why should paying customers have to hear about breast cancer? If they want to know about breast cancer, there are other ways. In any case, 15 years is a good run. Perhaps the ‘Pink Test’ will ‘die suddenly’ one day. I won’t miss it.
It is always right to stand up and worship a sportsman, even one known as “The King?” That honour might best be reserved for a true king, and perhaps not standing, but on one’s knees.
We seem to have a propensity to fall in line with suggestions, and directives even more so, without really thinking too hard.
But unless we think, we risk falling into compliance with directives that turn out not to be good for us, or for others. We have seen many examples of directives these past 3 years.
Stay six feet apart.
Don’t go to a wedding.
Shut down your business.
Don’t visit your mum.
Turn around at the state border.
Get a test.
Don’t get a test.
Isolate for 7 days.
Don’t go to the office.
Follow the arrows around the office.
Don’t wear a mask.
Wear a mask.
Don’t touch the football if it is kicked into the crowd.
Don’t do elective surgery.
Shut your church.
Don’t admit some people into your shop.
Don’t stand up to drink.
Don’t leave your home after 9pm.
Don’t go further than 5 km from your home.
Don’t play golf.
Don’t bother with vitamin D.
Stay inside, don’t get out in the sun.
Take this injection, and this one, and this one.
Don’t call us until you can’t breathe.
We should think about each and every suggestion, every directive, even (or perhaps especially) those that come with penalties for non-compliance. The world may have looked very different if we had.