The recent victory at the US Open by Rafael Nadal threw up contradictory posts on my Twitter timeline. On the one hand, there were users whom I follow as Fedfans, who posted effusive congratulations to Nadal on gaining his 16th major. On the other hand, there were posts which reflected the renewed battle between fans of Federer and of Nadal, now that the peaceful co-existence, which developed during the years when neither player won a slam, has been replaced by intense rivalry and questions of legacy (i.e. of GOATness).
I posted a tweet claiming that a Fedal (a supporter of both Federer and Nadal) cannot support Federer to the same degree as a singularly-devoted Fedfan. I should have added ‘ceteris paribus’, but the 140 character limit forbade me, and, in any case, nobody picked me up on the refinements of argument. Instead, my claim was contested with raw grievance.
As such, in this short essay, I want to examine the Fedal phenomenon, its intellectual underpinnings and what it entails, and how it is different from the Fedfan idea.
The Fedal Question and the Idea of Truth
There is an important sense in which Fedals can exist with their coherence intact in a way in which, say, someone who believes in natural selection and takes the Creation story in the Bible as literally true cannot. For whereas the theory of evolution and the Book of Genesis cannot both be true, entailing that to hold both sets of belief is to fall into contradiction and inconsistency, the standard which guides a tennis fan’s choice of favourite player is not truth. Certainly, factual claims can be made about players, and these can be independently assessed and evaluated as true or false. But the realms of fact and of value are essentially distinct, and it is on the basis of a value judgement that we make the ultimate choice about which player(s) to support, where this choice lies outside the domain of truth and falsehood. In short, no amount of hard facts can ultimately determine our preference for our sporting idols. (As an aside, there are many examples on social media of people attempting to manipulate facts to prove that their preferred player is the GOAT. This attempt is, in principle, flawed because values cannot be derived from facts. Similarly, many tennis players and fans use the grand slam tally as the standard of greatness, but this is a convention rather than a proof, even though some correlation would be expected).
The fact that fans choose their favourite players on the basis of a judgement which cannot, in principle, be true or false (or cannot, to put it more broadly, be subject to the standards of reason) entails that there is nothing necessarily incoherent or contradictory about being a Fedal. Indeed, there are a number of reasons that a fan might provide for supporting both players. She might, for example, appreciate the two very different styles of tennis and the exceptional level at which both have been played. Related, she might value the clashing rivalry that has existed between the two players, which has impelled both to improve their games over time. Furthermore, she may be of the broadminded view that the sport of tennis is more important than any individual player, and that, in so far as this rivalry has taken the sport to new heights and is, therefore, an important means to an even more important end, the support of both players is warranted. There are, no doubt, many other such reasons that could be added, but the point is that the Fedal occupies, in theory, an intellectually valid standpoint.
Fedal and Fanaticism’s Bourgeoisification
There is, then, nothing necessarily contradictory about being a Fedal. No worrying self-divisions are required for that kind of fan to be able to watch Federer play Nadal in a grand slam final and to cheer on both players, eventually celebrating the victory of one and commiserating the defeat of the other. However, the ability to support with equanimity two fierce on-court rivals does reflect a certain type of psychology. I will now explore this in the context of the narrative of bourgeoisification.
The idea of a sports ‘fan’ is very much mainstream in modern society in a way in which the idea of a fanatic is not. One only needs to add the words ‘political’ or ‘religious’ to the term ‘fanaticism’, and the point becomes clear. A sports fanatic has less alarming connotations, but even this term points to obsessive behaviours and a lack of balance in life. A fanatical life is not deemed to be a particularly healthy life; it certainly would not meet Aristotle’s test of the “golden mean”.
The phenomenon of fanaticism is, historically, rooted in religion. The Puritans represent a good example of the phenomenon. If accounts are to be believed, their overriding obsession focused on the question of their own individual salvation. Ascetically performing good deeds in their vocation through rational (means-end) action derived, first and foremost, not from their desire to rid the world of evil and make it a better place, but from a psychological compulsion to publicly demonstrate their own individual state of grace – a disposition which required iron control of their natural self, which was made up, in part, of their passions, desires and emotions – aspects of the self that were seen as destructive, ‘fallen’, and bad. However, from the 17th century onwards, a fundamental change occurred in our understandings of the world, and as the religious worldview receded from the mainstream, a new picture of man began to emerge. Amongst many other things, man’s natural self was no longer seen as in need of repression. Rather, certain desires and emotions (the ‘interests’) were viewed instead as the engines of civilisation – as predictable, orderly and calm, and as the basis of a life and society organised by reason.
The kind of society that emerged has traits which are unmistakably bourgeois. But whereas the Puritans have been credited with unintentionally bringing about the bourgeois way of life, the differences between the two forms of identity are vast. The Puritan’s psychology consisted of a relentless “God versus the Devil” struggle, which manifested itself in obsessive devotion to a singular, transcendent cause. By contrast, the bourgeois mind is, first and foremost, rational and practical, and operates with a certain detached reflection in order to determine and help realise its interests. In other words, it is more worldly and prudent than metaphysical in bent. Secondly, it is not governed by intense, obsessive passions. Calm reflection oversees and keeps in check any potentially wayward and disruptive desires and drives, which exist alongside those that have been successfully cultivated and refined to meet the demands of civilised society. This does not mean that the bourgeois life is devoid of excitement or risk, but all such thrills occur within a context that is, as far as possible, secure, having been controlled and moderated by reason. Thirdly, the bourgeois mind does not bestow an absolute status on its choice of values and ends. It tends to pursue values which its society permits and upholds, and whereas some of these might be subject to moral criticism and, ultimately, rejection, those that are accepted are viewed as having a rightful space within a pluralist framework which, itself, is viewed as intrinsically legitimate. Put differently, the bourgeois mind believes that socially-accepted values ought to peacefully co-exist, and it eschews worldviews that order and interpret values in essentially antagonistic terms.
The significance of this potted story of bourgeoisification and the rise of the bourgeois mind, on the one hand, and the Fedal, on the other, should, I hope, be clear. The Fedal’s behaviour is eminently civilised, her loyalties essentially pluralist, and the obsessive devotion to a cause exhibited by the fanatic has given way to a worldly and rationally tempered passion for two sporting idols. In the Fedal, there is no “God versus the Devil” struggle but, rather (and to speak figuratively), an orderly pantheon in which each “deity” is given its due.
“No Man Can Serve Two Masters” – Matthew 6:24
Whereas bourgeoisification represents a dominant narrative from the age of religious fanaticism into the modern, secular world, this does not mean that fanaticism has been entirely replaced by more civilised variants. Examples of (sporting) fanaticism are legion, including, in particular, the number of devotees to Federer whose successes and failures are intrinsically tied to their well-being and happiness (or lack thereof). And whilst the age of Puritanism is over, there are similarities with our Puritan forebears that the Fedfan, generally speaking, displays. I will mention some now in order to highlight the differences between the Fedfan and the Fedal.
Firstly, in line with the quote from St Matthew’s Gospel which heads this section, the Fedfan is devoted only to one player. She might appreciate others, but Federer’s success is the most important thing to her (whether this is the most important thing in her life or just in terms of her sporting allegiances will vary between Fedfans).
Secondly, and related, the Fedfan’s identity is pinned on metaphysical principles. Federer’s victories provide her life with meaning, whereas his failures threaten to throw her into despair. This potentially turbulent instability is unknown to the civilised bourgeois (i.e. the Fedal) whose passions are relatively orderly and contained.
Thirdly, the Fedfan’s commitment to Federer is obsessive. It is driven by a burning passion which is essentially uncivilised. It is this passion which causes her to prioritise Federer’s tennis above the everyday world that society has constructed around her, with its timetables, routines, norms and obligations.
Finally, serious rivals to Federer are the Fedfan’s nemeses. They are equivalent to the Puritan’s Devil in that they threaten to extinguish all that is holy and good in her tennis world. Their destruction (i.e. sporting failure) is, therefore, one of her aims, which she tries to bring about by supporting any player that comes up against them.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the motivation for this essay stemmed from seeing on Twitter some Federer fans effusively congratulate Nadal on his recent grand slam victory, and my making the claim in response that a Fedal cannot support Federer to the same degree as a Fedfan, all other things being equal. To support my claim in more than 140 characters, I have examined the idea of bourgeoisification, and have claimed that this has been an important factor in creating individuals with ‘interests’ rather than existential obsessions and passions. I have associated the former kind of individual with the Fedal, and have contrasted this with the fanatical mind, setting out some similarities between the Fedfan and our Puritan forebears. All this said, I would be very happy to learn from a Fedal as to whether I have got any of this right, as it is a standpoint entirely alien to me!