The Discontinuous and Arbitrary Decisions of Sepp Blatter

Though not the first time, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has today garnered more media attention for his desire to sideline gay equality in football. In the same speech, the most powerful man in football then cemented his position as the ‘Boris Johnson’ (read as ‘bumbling idiot’ for anyone outside the UK) of the soccer world by celebrating the first full female member of the FIFA executive committee in the most patronising way one would think is possible:

Are there ladies in the room? Say something! You are always speaking at home, now you can speak here.”

It’s striking how backwards these comments sound, considering football is the most popular sport in the world. These kind of speeches wouldn’t look out of place in the stand-up comedy of the 70’s – the joke about women, especially, could come straight from an ancient routine about a bossy mother-in-law.

In all seriousness, Blatter is clearly not saying he is okay with homophobia or sexism. He’s not doing a great job of not saying these things, admittedly – skirting around the edges of as yet uncompleted social movements for humour is not particularly smart – but never the less, Blatter’s comments are not sincerely stated prejudices.

The problem with Blatter’s position, instead, is moral cowardice. As a tactical matter, you don’t go full out on the attack against racism whilst ignoring other forms of discrimination; it just doesn’t make sense to do that. All discrimination is formed the same way, consisting mainly of irrational opinions that stigmatise certain groups of people, so it is easy for the mental roots of one prejudice to support others. Exemplified by the fact that members of the EDL often aren’t fond of homosexuals, and rampant old-fashioned homophobes tend to think a woman’s place is in the kitchen.

This isn’t always the case, of course, but more often than not prejudice tends to be transferable in this way. Indeed, why wouldn’t it be? If one doesn’t feel a need to look at evidence or reason in forming a particular opinion about a particular group of people, then why would one need to do so when it comes to other potential prejudice? Once you discard explicit evidence as a motivator for forming belief in one area, it becomes a lot easier to do it when faced with adjacent, similar issues (just like any learned character trait – we are not rational machines, but a collection of personality traits).

This is the problem with any type of moral cowardice, whether sincere or tactical. Sincere moral cowardice (meaningfully ignoring certain prejudices) or tactical moral cowardice (allowing prejudice for now), have exactly the same counter-productive effect by allowing for discrimination, which in turn feeds back into encouraging all prejudice by implicitly stating that it isn’t the nature of prejudice itself that is the problem. So you not only implicitly fail to discourage prejudice itself, thus potentially hitting an infinite feedback loop, you also face the risk of successfully ‘influenced’ people falling back on old prejudice opinions once your campaigns have died down. After all, they haven’t understood that arbitrary prejudice is logically wrong – that wasn’t what your campaign was about – they’ve simply done as you told them in not being prejudice about that one area (while it is trendy, at least). Campaigning against one prejudice simply as a rule, rather than as a matter of principled understanding about making rational moral decisions, is a short term and fairly ineffective idea.

Evidence to back this kind of reasoning is generally difficult to come by; social science is not easy to ‘prove’. But we do have some firm evidence to fall back on – history tells us that only an all-out apocalyptic assault on the one prejudice in question (such as the suffragettes forced via ‘terrorism’ in the early-20th Century, or the civil rights movement through mass protest of the mid-20th Century) will overcome this huge structural issue that Blatter and FIFA seem to be falling foul of. But these are the kinds of historically effective events that can’t take place within sport.

Perhaps Blatter is advised by better ethicists than me, and has evidence which disagrees with the conclusion that encouraging or ignoring discontinuous moral opinions is the root cause of prejudice. I sincerely hope he does. The world’s biggest sport, after all, is an important battle ground in the fight against prejudice. I’m not confident that Blatter’s intentions are quite so pure, though.