Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lochte and Perception

Yes, Ryan Lochte lied to get himself out of a difficult situation and the lie (predictably) ended up getting him in worse trouble - also he'll probably have to pay his friend back $11,000, which will be tough when he loses most of his sponsorship money. That sucks and its dishonorable, but Ryan Lochte is really just the next in a long line of scapegoats created for the problems in Brazil.

I'm no expert on Brazilian affairs, but this really isn't about Brazil - every community and culture create their own scapegoats to avoid dealing with real, entrenched problems (if you're looking for an easy example: the US scapegoats party culture as a way of avoiding our dysfunctional attitudes towards drugs, alcohol, and sex).

In reality, Rio isn't a very safe place. The government had to take extraordinary measures just to bring their security up to a minimum acceptable level for an international athletic competition. They mobilized reserve military officers, cleaned out favellas, and basically cordoned off entire neighborhoods to give the Olympics clear access to the parts of the city they needed access to. It was like they created a city within the city (or, more correctly, four small cities with dedicated road and rail ways in between) to ensure that the global generalization of Rio as crime-ridden wouldn't be the story of the Olympics.

That is part of the reason why this Lochte lie is so infuriating to them - here's an actual made-up story that reinforces the stereotype. People deserve to be mad. That sucks, especially after all the work they went to. But it's a bit hypocritical to say Lochte is creating a false narrative about the safety of the games when really he's just creating a false perception about the already false narrative Brazil itself took to present a different face to the world.

If Rio was as safe a place as we're led to believe, none of those pre-Games precautions would've been necessary. Lochte, as wrong as he most certainly was/is, just presents a convenient scapegoat to avoid the larger, uncomfortable truth. The entitled American. The beauty of a scapegoat is that they're rarely 100% innocent, which makes it easier to pin all the blame on them. Before Lochte, in Brazil it was the favellas - the famous Rio slums - thus justifying the displacement of poor communities. Prior to that, the ongoing class tussle over who's more responsible for the spiraling economic inequality.

We saw the same thing with the World Cup in Brazil just two years ago - and those street protests led to huge corruption probes and the impeachment of the President. I found it ironic that an official spokeswoman this week said in a radio interview that the World Cup went off without any incidents - but I remember reading multiple first-person accounts from journalists that involved sprinting down closed streets under armed police protection while angry crowds launched homemade Molotov Cocktails at the special protection zones set up for World Cup participants, journalists, and fans.

It's a "king has no clothes" scenario - and the scapegoat provides the out.

Yes, four drunk swimmers messed up a gas station, tried to buy their way out of it and told a lie assuming their credibility would hold up and Rio was too poor to have decent video surveillance? That's not good, but it's not the makings of an international incident - as the Brazilian government and the US media would have us believe. It's a diversion - and not an unfamiliar one.

Our real problems are buried deep, and addressing them requires facing and enduring pain we'd rather just avoid. Putting all that drama, junk, and responsibility on someone else seems like a great deal. They become the villain, we excise our demons; life goes on.

Of course it doesn't, though. Because the pressure will just build up again and we'll need another outlet. One scapegoat can only survive so long, then we'll go looking for more. And more. It's as if we're addicted to denial and, at some point, there's not even enough left to get us high.

In the end, the real mistake is pinning fault on one person or a group instead of people taking a collective responsibility for the problems we've collectively created. I still use, "we," even though I'm not Brazilian and have never been there, simply because there is no limit to the scapegoating. It would be easy to oversimplify the other way - say "Rio is unsafe," and move along. I made a stupid, snide comment on Facebook about the whole thing the other day that played right into the danger stereotype in a way that just scapegoated Brazil rather than addressing the issue (part of the reason why I'm writing this longer piece - I need atonement). It's the same problem created by making Lochte just another spoiled athlete or boorish American athlete; we avoid claiming responsibility for our own severe lack of global understanding, empathy, and cameraderie, as well as our severe wealth of arrogance.

Blame someone else, I can pretend it's not my problem. I'm not an alcoholic because that other guy beats his wife every time he comes home drunk. We make "him" the villain to keep fooling ourselves into thinking we're not so bad. It's all about perspective - are we looking at the world in the easiest way for us, in ways that make us comfortable - or are we genuinely interested in tackling the real, entrenched problems that tend to bring us (all of us) down?

Gosh, personally, I'm just not sure - but I think the best course of action is to take responsibility first and dole it out later.

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