Given the extremely thoughtful comment on the subject to my post on a positive argument for following the Canucks, I am long overdue in devoting a post to escapism. I will begin by responding directly to the issues raised in the comment (so read that first) before trying to sketch some of my own thoughts.
First off, while this notion that less-privileged people have more to escape from is definitely intuitive on a certain level, the stressed out American is not the image I would jump to when thinking of the ‘less-privileged’ – what I mean is that someone who is truly less privileged than anyone reading this blog is someone who does not have a couch or a TV to ‘sprawl out on’ and forget about the more important, but harder-to-face, problems in their life. Somewhat tangentially, the way the comparison was phrased made me think about how this notion that the privileged have the least to escape from is potentially a deep-seated cultural bias in the secular West. In traditional Judaism, the understanding is that the more righteously one lives one’s life, the harder it is to maintain (this is generally conceived of as an Evil Inclination or Satan trying harder to waylay the righteous individual). Under such a model, it may in fact be that escapism is a function of privilege, though it would not be the type of privilege that I was referring to, but rather ‘ethical privilege’. Of course then the picture of the stressed American would fall into the category or relatively unprivileged, as the willpower to face one’s life would be considered a privilege on this model.
I agree that we all need to relax, but I wonder how much that is bred into us by our society, with things such as long weekends, two-four month summer vacations for students, etc. The part of me that seeks of the most extreme version of any given argument says that there is simply too much work to do to repair a world that is teetering on catastrophic irreversible harm to afford to even allow people to play, and watch, games at all. While I am not going to go off following that line of thought at the drop of a hat – and the only justification for not doing so is that I am not strong enough – it is important to keep in mind.
There is also the issue of whether one can get the best of both worlds, in trying to align the messages that one’s choice of escapism (granting it as necessary to a certain extent) produces and the type of life one are trying to lead more generally. This seems like a worthy goal, and definitely adds a notch to the argument against watching sports. I think at a certain level this comes down to escapism needing to be a genuine escape, and so it is just not possible to advocate that everyone ‘escape’ by getting exercise and volunteering at soup kitchens (fill in your idea of the best use of your time outside of earning a living) if that is something that you need to push yourself to achieve.
I want to end on a philosophical note, by questioning the assumption I began with, namely that escapism is natural and therefore perfectly acceptable. As noted, what is natural depends on the society one is raised in (and currently lives in), and so much empirical research stands between me and any answer to that question worth listening to. But I will say that what one thinks of escapism boils down to what one thinks about taking time off, pushing oneself to one’s potential, and whether it is human nature to seek an escape. I think that the people that we generally consider to be role models – i.e. the people whose actions are truly praiseworthy to the highest degree – are those people who do not take time off, who pursue their goals and dreams relentlessly, not pausing for breath until they achieve them. While I think everyone would be able to do this a little better if society truly looked up to them instead of some of the current ‘role models’ this observation points to taking time off as something that, if necessary, should be monitored closely and tapered off to the extent possible as we grow as people. This ties in directly with the idea of pushing oneself (and getting others to push one) to one’s potential all the time. The individualism that infuses every aspect of this society makes it hard to push for a society in which communities strive for common goals at the expense of individual ones. In such a society, I do not see escapism featuring as prominently. Lastly, the notion of escapism being part of human nature is a topic unto itself, as the Pandora’s Box of issues connected to the normative value of a human tendency identified as ‘natural’ is long enough to write many books. I will just say that the mere fact that the need for relaxation or an escape is human nature in no way endorses it as a behaviour that we should cater to so readily in our lives.