Since I’m involved, however tangentially, with the golf business—I’m a caddie at a well-known Chicago golf course—and also a former graduate student with some passing familiarity with academia, I’ve been asked about Tiger Woods’ unfortunate holidays for at least a month. So here’s my bit, which I think of as following from the three salient facts I have about Tiger Woods based on the few times I have seen him in person and thousands of times on televion:
1. Tiger Woods has treated golf like a vocation since birth. I don’t know about you, but there’s very few people in the world who have known what they wanted to do since, essentially, attaining the ability to formulate the thought—and been able to do it. That is a very peculiar life.
2. Tiger Woods expands what’s humanly possible. He does things on the golf course nobody’s ever done before. I have seen a LOT of golf shots (somewhere in the hundreds of thousands), and I have seen Tiger Woods up close, and nobody I have ever seen hits it like Tiger. I begin with this point because I think not many are actually aware of how good (and how different from anyone else playing) he is.
3. Tiger Woods’ sex life is a great deal different than almost anyone else’s in the United States. I think everyone agrees on this.
Everyone is, for the most part, agreed on these three points. Everyone diverges immediately after these three points. The question posed by his critics is some version of this question:
Does Tiger’s difference make him better than anyone else?
The short answer is, when it comes to hitting a small ball, yes Tiger is better.
But the real question is something like this:
Does that difference mean he should be treated differently?
That’s almost a real question, and points toward the actual nub of the matter. But it doesn’t actually get there, because it is a question that begs its own answer. You might as well ask, were not the question risible in the context of what might be a domestic violence situation, “When did you stop beating your wife?” In other words, what do you mean by the question? It’s the sort of thing you ask ten-year-olds when you are trying to enforce some behavioral standard—it’s a rote response you yourself probably learned by being at the receiving end of such a question. The answer expected is “No,” but if the answer is expected that means this sentence isn’t an actual inquiry but rather a coercive instrument. Still, behind that coercive intent it’s still possible to recognize a genuine curiosity. To get at it, though, means asking the question differently. I propose asking it like a logician:
Does #3 above follow from #1 and #2?
That is, if we are really about trying to understand Tiger, and not just shuffle him off to celebrity jail or whatever—I’m interested here in the way in which anthropologists talk about the function of celebrity culture to regulate our own behavior—then what we are interested in is whether Tiger Woods’ different abilities and biography are a necessary or sufficient cause of whatever his social life actually is. To put it another way,
Do #1, 2, and 3 form a syllogism or not?
On one level #3 does necessarily follow from #1 and 2. Without the wealth and famed amassed by the operation of 1 and 2, TW probably ends up in the military and nobody gives a damn.
But if that’s the answer then the question must be bad, because that isn’t really what we want. What we want is something like this:
Would ANYBODY, given Tiger’s circumstances, do the same?
Here we’ve made some actual progress, I think. This is the flip side of the coercive, “treating him differently” question. What still matters about it, though, is that it is ultimately what we could call a “normative” question: that is, it is about determining social rules and roles. Notice that is a variation of Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which itself is merely a restatement of the Sermon on the Mount: “do unto others as you would have done …” Nietzscheans and/or Marxists would describe all of this as historically-bound: we ask questions like this because we are in a Judeo-Christian society much concerned with laws and regulations, perhaps primarily in order to make sure goods get where they have to on time. That doesn’t mean that Tiger Woods’ problem is of world-historical interest. That is, though, a cop-out, because you can always presuppose some other planet, some other society, where things are done differently. If we are serious about asking the question, though, maybe we can ask it better. Like this, say:
Does a single-minded pursuit of a goal imply sacrificing a “normal” life?
If it is asked like that, then it becomes obvious how stupid a question it is, because it is circular. We might as well ask, “are different people different?” Of course they are. But that gets us somewhere, and where that is lifts this whole matter out of the realm of tawdry supermarket tabloids. Because what we are really talking about when we talk about Tiger Woods isn’t gossip or even the important question of marriage.
What we are really talking about is the Tortoise and Hare.
Let me explain. Tiger has for years been the symbol of the New Economy: multicultural, cunning, and above all, professional. That was why his chief endorsers, once you got away from Nike and other sports-related companies, were ones like Accenture and American Express. The societal philosophy secreted through the pores of such companies—it never really got argued out—was something like this: let a few Supermen make huge advances, that will “move the median” so to speak. “A rising tide raises all boats.” That is the philosophy of the Hare and arguably it’s been the dominant idea in the Western industrialized democracies, with some minor quibbles, since the Eighties.
The other, contrary philosophy is that of the Tortoise: if you make the Supermen stick around, instead of letting them dash off as far as their whims will go, everyone’s lot in life improves. Sure, if you let the faster runners go someone will have a fast time, but that doesn’t get everyone there any faster—and some would say it might even slow things down. This hasn’t been a popular philosophy for quite some time now, perhaps since the 1950s, and some would say the 1930s. Maybe you get the idea now.
What gets people interested in talking about Tiger Woods, I’d submit, is the interest of talking about these two different philosophies, with the bonus of salacious details instead of boring talk about Chinese import taxes and the rest.