Published July 14, 2021
The worst part of soccer is the acting. The game is blighted each time a player dives to try to draw a penalty or flops around in fake agony to milk the clock.
The problem is not confined to soccer. Basketball, for instance, also has notorious floppers. Although Americans tend to despise floppers, our political and cultural discourse increasingly consists of people taking dives.
A case in point is the response to a hypothetical posed by Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review. Dougherty wondered what the reaction might be if, instead of critical race theory, it was “the ‘new natural law’ theory that had escaped its obscurity from law schools and started gaining adherents throughout the high places in corporate America and educational systems.”
In response to this unlikely hypothetical, Yale University’s Jason Stanley dramatically dove to the metaphorical turf, clutching at his intersectionalities and declaring, “The call to replace CRT by ‘natural law’ is a dogwhistle to white Christian nationalism.”
This dog whistle is just his intellectual tinnitus, but he is not alone in believing that arguments can be won by accusing one’s opponent of participating in an expanding litany of oppressions. Many people have learned to find racism, sexism, and so on in anything, and to milk every bit of any identity of oppression they can plausibly claim.
For example, the Washington Post recently ran an article arguing that labeling food “exotic” “reinforces xenophobia and racism.” The column was the literary equivalent of a player rolling on the ground for five minutes after pretending to be fouled. If recipe books and restaurant reviews prompt that much drama, there is no way to avoid it on important topics.
Whatever the issue, from immigration to education to law enforcement, there is a parade of people taking a dive and crying foul, insisting the other side isn’t just wrong, but bigoted. What argument there is tends to be directed toward proving not that the other side is mistaken, but that they are bad people.
Some of those doing this may even believe it, just as there are athletes who seem to genuinely believe that even the most incidental contact is a foul against them. For example, voter ID requirements are widely popular, including with minority voters, but they are still denounced as racist voter suppression.
This sort of political flopping is mostly used by the left. There are attempts at it on the right, but the left is better at it because it has the sympathy of the big American institutions and industries, including academia, entertainment, corporate media, Big Tech, and even Big Business. The current social revolution is top-down—Black Lives Matter is brought to you by the Ivy League and multinational corporations waving rainbow flags.
Among the purposes of flopping is to obscure this power dynamic. Taking a dive allows those at the top to claim to be oppressed, or at least to claim to speak for the oppressed.
This serves their purposes, for flopping is not just about winning, or at least ending, argument. It is also a claim to moral superiority that legitimates the exercise of power.
Unjust injury demands redress. If one’s opponents are bigots, and if America was founded on racism and other sins, then the righteous (a.k.a. the woke) have a right to rule the rest of us, regardless of democratic outcomes.
The fight over critical race theory illustrates this. Activist educators are determined to teach it, regardless of what parents want or children need. When they are denied, they flop, dishonestly asserting that banning the teaching of CRT and its derivative ideas is a ban on teaching about slavery or segregation. They then use their supposed moral authority to justify attempts to continue teaching CRT despite parental objections and legal prohibitions.
As this shows, the flop is more than a play for sympathy. It is a play for power, and a justification for its use. Thus, in politics and culture, as in sports, squelching flopping requires that it not earn a foul call, no matter how theatrical the player’s fall and subsequent writhing. Indeed, taking a dive should be penalized.
Of course, there are real fouls, in politics as in soccer. Therefore, we also need an understanding of what constitutes cultural and political incidental contact. Just as soccer is a contact sport, in which not every bump or collision is a foul, so too in politics and culture.
The strongest guard against diving may be a culture that disdains it. Americans should make sure our scorn for flopping athletes extends to their political and cultural equivalents. They need to get up and play the game.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.