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Wayne Rooney lost his temper after the England match on Monday and tore into the referee with some foul-mouthed abuse.

Jermain Defoe, his team-mate, offered the classic excuse that this was just a consequence of his passion for the game:

I think Wayne’s temper is a good thing. He has that fire in his belly. If you take that away from him then he won’t be the same player.

Matthew Syed has a nice piece that questions this kind of simplistic psychological defence:

The idea that nastiness and aggression are a necessary adjunct to passion is not merely flawed, but deeply pernicious. Are we to believe that Roger Federer — a sportsman of great courtesy — lacks fervour? That Sir Bobby Charlton — a player who never received a booking for dissent — is a bit of a cold fish? Or would we rather say that these great athletes combine a passion no less ardent than Rooney’s but with the kind of civilising restraint that the England striker has yet to learn?

The reality is that respect for the referee and for opponents does not inhibit sporting passion any more than respect for a lover inhibits sexual passion.

Moral categories merely set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in the same way that the rules of sport set the boundaries of acceptable play. Justifying verbal abuse as a corollary of passion is no less silly than justifying cheating as a corollary of competitiveness. “Take away his inclination to defraud his competitors and you take away his mojo.”

He goes on to make the more general point that in order to be truly effective aggression needs to be channelled and controlled.

You only have to watch Rooney for a game or two to perceive that crude aggression has nothing to do with what makes him tick as a footballer. Quite the reverse. Rooney is among the greatest players in the world when his passion is under control, enabling him not merely to channel his competitive intensity, but also to decode the shifting kaleidoscope of players around him so as to pick out the perfect pass into the path of an on-running team-mate.

It is precisely at the moment when Rooney loses his head that we see him tearing around the pitch haphazardly, lunging dangerously and losing any semblance of his perceptual acuity. It is at precisely this moment that he morphs from footballing colossus into dangerous liability. As any psychologist could tell you, anger rarely sits easily with mental clarity or canny decision-making.

I should make this the first in a series of posts called ‘sporting lessons for life’, but I think there are a thousand books in the shops on that theme already…

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A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins changed the way the bulletin-board on his website functioned. He was shocked by the reactions left in the comment boxes, which were often abusive, angry, and even hysterical.

“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”.

Why is the internet a breeding ground for such venom? It’s not just the anonymity afforded to those who respond, or the speed with which the responses can be posted. It’s also the feedback mechanism that allows members of internet groups to reinforce for each other both their best convictions and their worst prejudices.

lights and crowds by gaspi *your guide.

James Harkin describes the process:

 The paradox of the “wisdom of online crowds” is that it only works in clubbable, relatively small groups of like-thinking minds. The reason why the richest and most productive audiences online are for the most arcane subjects – on the relationship between economics and law, for example, or how to care for cats – is because everyone involved feels part of an exclusive club dedicated to finding out more about the same thing.

However, it’s for exactly the same reason that many of these clubs can become breeding grounds for vicious tribalism. The brevity required for communication on Twitter does not lend itself to decorous etiquette, but neither is it the soul of wit to circulate snide, snarky tweets to an enthusiastic group of followers.

Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them.

When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader. 

So it’s hard to keep a website or blog running that will genuinely be a place of dialogue and discussion, rather than just a tribal meeting point.

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