Serena’s defenders in the 2018 US Open controversy thought they were fighting for women. Instead, they acquitted O.J. Simpson – again.
Of all the perks of our modern age, there is one that must be making Aristotle particularly happy if he is looking down on us in 2019: everything has, indeed, become political. The unprecedented affinity for debating – be it by tweeting, blogging, or “gramming” – even the most seemingly trivial aspects of our daily lives has finally enabled Aristotle’s zoon politikon – the human being – to achieve its full potential as a political animal.
When a politically alert society gets things wrong
One area that has been altered beyond recognition by the Twitter-era premise that everything can – and should – be questioned is sports. Often dismissed as pure entertainment with no empowering potential, sports have become an unlikely beneficiary - and vehicle - of the politically conscious society. This past summer, the U.S. women's soccer team was able to amass global support for its equal pay campaign that in a less politically conscious society would have likely never transcended the echo chamber of soccer fans. Thanks to examples like this, it seemed that the rise of a hyper-polemical society – within and outside of sports – was an unconditional triumph of reason.
But then, on 8 September 2018, Serena Williams tried to defend what was an unmistakable public display of unreason by appealing to our rawest emotions. The rational foundations of our hyper-polemical society were suddenly put to an immensely high-profile test, which immediately broke the tennis bubble and divided the world.
In the 2018 US Open final, Serena faced then-20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Throughout the match, she broke at least three fundamental rules of tennis – no coaching, no racket breaking, and no yelling at the umpire. For this, she duly received three code violations, which triggers the administrative forfeiture of a game (the equivalent of four points lost).
Even if Serena was right – how can we ever know? – in claiming that the umpire’s decision to follow the rules was on some level driven by misogyny, it would still not matter because the decision itself was the right one. The advantage of a politically alert society is that it provides a platform for discussing possible racist and misogynist motivations for inappropriate actions, not projecting said motivations with certainty to appropriate ones.
Beside the rejection of reason in the very premise of the pro-Serena camp, what really made this event undermine the rational foundations of our hyper-polemical society was that this rejection was often conscious. The International Tennis Federation’s official and thorough elaboration of the consistency between umpire Carlos Ramos’ decision and official tennis rules leaves little doubt that the penalties against Serena were warranted.
Unfortunately, this did not prevent the outpouring of arguments contesting the decision. Neither did it prevent arguments pointing to an alleged double standard of penalizing female players more harshly than male ones, despite numerous examples to the contrary – not least involving Ramos himself. And yet, while unfounded, these arguments are not the most problematic ones. The most disappointing rejection of the rational premise of our hyper-polemical society came from the non-negligible number of Serena defenders who recognize that she was wrong, and still go on to defend her.
Defying logic in the name of an illusory greater good
This peculiar reasoning rests upon the misguided assumption that every opportunity to raise awareness about gender-based injustice – even one where there is no injustice (gender-based or otherwise) to begin with – should be taken advantage of. In other words, if Serena decided to justify her actions by playing the “gender card”, then the train has already left the station. Progressives all around the world might as well jump on it and wittingly embrace a case of nonexistent (gender) discrimination to highlight the very real issue of gender discrimination.
This reasoning is dangerous. One of the most illuminating examples of its dangers can be derived from a scene in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a Netflix show that details the infamous double-homicide trial of the famous football player in 1995. Shortly after the not-guilty verdict had been announced, the camera pans to Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, reveling in his grand legal victory. But there is a catch. Always sharp and focused throughout the trial, Johnnie finally shows his emotional side. As he hears that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has opened an investigation into police mistreatment that he believes was sparked by the O.J. trial, he chuckles.
“That is the victory”, exclaims Cochran, implying that the actual victory in the case was secondary at best and no victory whatsoever at worst. While possibly accentuated for dramatic effect in the series, his reaction is consistent with the basic premise of his legal strategy in the trial. Cochran never disputed the prosecution’s claim that the DNA evidence proved Simpson’s guilt – because it most certainly did. Instead, he played what the show kept referring to as the “race card”. He used Simpson’s skin color to get him off the hook by portraying him as yet-another black victim of the LAPD’s well-established systemic racism.
The show gives no indication – and neither has the real Cochran – as to whether he ever believed his client was innocent. But that final line suggests that this was completely beside the point: Cochran was convinced that the case was much bigger than O.J. and saw himself as a fighter for the greater good – the noble goal of shedding light on structural racism in the police force.
The issue with Cochran’s reasoning – and the reasoning of parts of the pro-Serena camp – is not so much a moral one as it is a pragmatic one. There is a clear case to be made against the morality of lying about something in full awareness that you are on the wrong side of the truth (in the case of Serena’s defenders) and against all the available evidence (in Cochran’s case). The bigger question is whether the morally flexible calculation behind their actions was anywhere as well-calculated as they thought.
Does the presumed increase in social awareness about racial and gender injustices outweigh America’s loss of faith in the entire justice system (Cochran) and the severe loss of credibility of the feminist movement (Serena)? And did said social awareness increase in the first place? Two decades after the Simpson trial, African Americans are still being murdered by the police at an alarmingly high rate of double their share of the total population. Similarly, no specific steps have been taken to address double gender standards in tennis refereeing – and no consensus has been reached on whether they exist to begin with.
Beyond gender and race: the complexity of power dynamics
But the most disappointing logical fallacy by the self-declared feminists in the pro-Serena camp was their blatant disregard for the central notion of feminism (and postmodern theory in general): the concept of power dynamics. The idea that the outcome of our actions is always influenced by our status – whether we are conscious of this or not – can certainly be relevant to gender and race discussions. But gender and race are not the sole determinants of power in modern society, let alone in the unforgiving world of tennis.
Other types of status can be just as relevant. Start with Serena’s opponent on the other side of the net. Beside her status as a woman – an unlikely beneficiary of the alleged gender discrimination against Serena – Osaka was also a hitherto-unknown player contesting her first-ever grand slam final. If the main grievance of Serena and her supporters was the effect that Ramos’ warranted decision had on the outcome of the game, then they are beyond hypocritical in failing to acknowledge the effect that the unwarranted booing from a partisan audience following Serena’s outburst had on Osaka. Unlike Osaka, Serena was a former World No.1, one of the greatest female players in history, and ultimately, a national hero playing in front of a highly sympathetic domestic audience.
Adding “victim of discrimination” to this list of privileges simply defies logic. The similarities with O.J. are as clear as they are disturbing. O.J.’s legal defense rested upon the conspiracy theory that he had been framed by the same LAPD officers whose white neighborhood he lived in, whom he regularly played golf with, and who had failed to arrest him even once for his multiple instances of domestic abuse against the same woman he later allegedly murdered. But all this was made irrelevant by his skin color, just like all the facts in the Serena case were dwarfed by her gender.
In 2018, the abandonment of reason by Serena’s defenders did an enormous disservice to the feminist cause. The credibility of the feminist movement to point to any of the actual instances of gender discrimination that surround us on a daily basis has now been damaged. Misogynists around the world will always be able to say: “if they were wrong about Serena, who says they’re not wrong about everything else?” Aristotle would have surely hated to see his beacon of reason become a slave to misguided emotions.
Kristijan Fidanovski served as a former TIB assistant editor and now contributes regularly.