Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Wrestling Lessons

The most instructive four hours I ever spent, as far as mass psychology and mob mentality are concerned, were at an evening of professional wrestling matches in West Palm Beach.

Why was I there? I knew professional wrestling was phony and I had no interest in wrestling generally. As it happened, a young law clerk at the appellate court where I worked was a wrestling addict who illustrated that the word “fan” came from “fanatic”. He had ringside seats for the entire season, a girlfriend who apparently shared his enthusiasm, and a generosity that resulted in my being asked to come along for an evening.

If the night’s display was surreal, no less surreal was the fact that this particular young lawyer had ringside seats there. Law clerks (research and case analysis aides to judges) have an often deserved reputation for timidity. With a few exceptions they have chosen to avoid the hurly burly of practicing law competitively in favor of spending as many years of their lives as possible in a quiet courthouse cranny wrapped in Westlaw and Microsoft Word.

The wrestling fan was no exception. He embodied the cliché of the shy appellate court gnome who would not have lasted a month as what the gnomes themselves jokingly called a “real lawyer”. He was thin, awkward, meek, and hesitant. I thought it was amazing that he had even managed to get a girlfriend. I will leave the psychological analysis to you.

We arrived at the coliseum as part of a huge, noisy crowd which rose up the sides of the building in layer after layer of baseball caps, bulging jeans and T-shirts, and skirts and blouses overflowing with the results of high carbohydrate diets rich in beer.

When the announcer introduced the first wrestler, and the giant came striding toward the ring, resplendent in flowing red-white-and-blue cape and shining red boots, the audience – and in particular women – went into a frenzy of screaming and applause. Many had home made signs which they raised and waved. Some tried to throw themselves as living offerings into the path of the behemoth.

Obviously, this was a Good Guy. That was the first thing I learned: There is always a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, if not at the beginning of a match, by the end.

The contrast between good and evil was evident when a murderous roar of rage assailed the second competitor, who would presumably have been killed except for the intervention of security guards and a few wild lunges of his own at threatening fans. It was clear that one of the roles in this pretend world was that of macho audience member who physically attacks wrestler in the aisle – knowing that both parties will be kept from harm by the guards. He would never try such a thing alone with the wrestler in the parking lot, even plentifully lubricated by Budweiser.

It’s easy to see wrestling on TV, and so I don’t need to describe the well-rehearsed moves and throws and leaps and fake moans of pain. It is essentially a gymnastic display by stereotyped actors who earn their money not only for their thespian ability and charismatic qualities, but also for putting up with some rough treatment.

My education came from the audience’s reaction to the set piece they knew would occur in and around the ring. Because only the most severely retarded could have believed that the wrestling and the wrestler's personalities were real, most of the audience must enjoy not only the wrestlers' role-playing but also their own. They loved being caught up in, and becoming an active part of, this makebelieve world of supercharged drama.

As I said, there is always a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, just as there is in the White House propaganda of international relations. You even hear generals refer to “the bad guys”. Very profound.

In professional wrestling, what makes the Good Guy good and the Bad Guy bad?

First, appearance. The Good Guy is good looking and the Bad Guy usually looks bad, if not really ugly. A handsome or pleasant face marks a hero, while a homely, scowling face designates a villain. It helps if the villain appears foreign in some way, or of an unpopular race.

Second, reputation. The Good Guy is good primarily by designation. Also, the Good Guy often comes to the ring after fighting fairly in a previous match and being victimized by a sneaky villain. If he was victimized by the particular villain he's wrestling tonight, the element of revenge drives the crowd's expectations to tornadic proportions.

Third, demeanor. The hero will be confident and even cocky, but he is not as outrageously vain and boastful as his opposite number, who is likely to point repeatedly at himself to invite applause and then howl at the audience for not giving it. He is the embodiment of hubris. As far as the audience is concerned, the worst possible thing that can happen is that the villain is not brought down because of his pride and actually wins the match. He will be hated all the more next time.

At this point our moral training might lead us to expect that the hero abides by the rules and fights fair, while the villain breaks the rules and fights dirty. To a point that is true, but only to a point.

The most interesting thing I learned beyond the awesome effect of “good” and “bad” was that the Good Guy always starts out fighting fair but often gets hurt, and almost defeated, because the Bad Guy breaks the rules, ignores the referee, attacks unexpectedly from behind, uses illegal holds, and even resorts to furniture as a weapon. At the last moment – unless the Good Guy is scheduled for defeat that night – the hero gathers his strength and turns on the villain with even greater disrespect for the rules than the villain showed. Now it is the berserk Good Guy who cheats, ignores the referee, and dishes out unlawful punishment. The things he does would have marked the Bad Guy as the very personification of sadism, but torture is fine if the Good Guy does it.

Does this mean that the Good Guy has become the Bad Guy? No! That’s the fascinating point. The more the hero rains illegal violence on the villain, the louder the audience cheers. The Good Guy becomes a virtual whirlwind of venom, ignoring all laws and ethical standards, doing more outrageous things to the Bad Guy than were done to him, and the audience loves the Good Guy for it.

It is during this stage that a fourth characteristic shows itself:
Courage. The hero was brave even during agonizing setbacks, refusing to retreat or ask for mercy, staggering forward for more punishment even when he could hardly stand. Now that the tables have turned, we see that the boastful villain is a wretched coward. He cowers, begs, even tries to escape from the ring. Even now, though, he is treacherous: He may kneel and plead for mercy, only to put the hero off guard and attack him with an illegal blow from behind.

Good appearance, good reputation, an attractive and moderate demeanor, fair fighting until provoked, and courage. How are those reflected outside the wrestling arena, in the mob’s reaction to propaganda in international affairs?

(To be continued.)


Yves said...

To attend a wrestling performance would be my idea of hell, but with an intelligent guide playing Virgil, I'm more than happy to play Dante and enter this Inferno.

My favourite American TV programme is The Simpsons for its affectionate satire of what would be quite intolerable in real life. You have done the same in this.

MarcLord said...

I attended a wrestling night with an enthusiastic friend and neighbor, perhaps when I was 12. You have put to words many of the things I felt but was unequipped to clinically observe and dissect. Applying it to political and military themes, as I intuited back then, is natural.

I had a close-up encounter with one of the showmen. His torso and back were evenly covered with short white scars, like those you would get from the quick slice of a razor blade. As Iggy Pop once said of his shows, "You've got to give the people blood."

Fleming said...

MarcLord, I'm really glad you read this post. It's one of my favorites.

Your mention of the scars reminds me that when I was in First Grade a neighbor girl told me that her father was a professional wrestler and that he carried a razor hidden in his trunks so that if anybody really started hurting him he could get loose. Make of that what you will, it doesn't account for the scars you saw, which show realism in acting carried to the ultimate. . . short of "Rollerball" or gladiatorial combat. If things continue to degenerate in the US, I'm afraid those may be on the way.

MarcLord said...


I was a gladiator in a show called football. It was my job to hurt people, and I did it very well. Now I hurt, too.