High School Basketball Heroes, Positive Mimesis, and How to Love Your Rival
I was raised to treat others how you’d want to be treated. – Jonathan Montanez, Varsity Basketball Player and My Personal Hero, Franklin High School
My Facebook homepage has been lit up with friends sharing this video with comments like:
Isn’t this amazing!
How cool is this?
This is what sports is all about.
And, my personal favorite – Damn…totally teared up over this!! =)
After seeing that last one I knew I had to watch. I teared up too. It’s an amazing story and mimetic theory helps me understand why this video is more than a just fleeting feel good story.
First, mimetic theory claims that basketball teams are no different than other human communities, which tend to form by scapegoating. We reinforce a sense of camaraderie by blaming and excluding those who seem different than us. A rivalry begins to form between us (our team of good guys) and them (their team of bad guys).
This is completely obvious in high school cliques. Popular kids exclude unpopular kids. Jocks exclude nerds. Pretty girls exclude ugly girls. The list goes on, but before we adults blame teenagers for their exclusionary practices, we need to realize this key point: teenagers learn to scapegoat from adults. In this sense, teenagers are second rate scapegoaters because they are so obvious in the ways they scapegoat one another. And we can’t blame them for that! They are still learning how to do it from the professional scapegoaters – adults! We model for teenagers how to scapegoat. We have this scapegoating thing nailed because we know how to dress it up in morality and conceal behind the veil of good and evil. Republicans versus Democrats. American versus Taliban. Rich versus Poor. Christian versus Muslim. Male versus female. And of course it all boils down to the perpetual rivalry that inspires the deepest enmity: Those who roll toilet paper “over” versus those who roll it “under.”
The good news is that we don’t have to scapegoat in order to build community. We can form community in ways that seek to include those who seem different.
It’s called positive mimesis, and it’s why the video made me tear up. Rivalries in high school sports are no joke. Fights often break out between rival schools. Those rivalries are often fostered by a sense of hyper-competitiveness modeled by coaches and parents. But the basketball players in the video above have a different kind of adult model in their coach, Peter Morales. Morales included Mitchell Markus, a student with special needs, on the basketball team. The tragic truth is that people with special needs are especially vulnerable to being scapegoated because they generally don’t have a defender. But here’s a coach claiming Mitchell as one of his own and encouraging him to participate as a member of the team. Morales models for his players how to form community in a way that leads to inclusion and compassion for those who are often scapegoated by the wider culture.
Then there’s Jonathan Montanez, the boy who became my hero. Jonathan plays basketball for the rival team in the video. As the story goes, Coach Morales put Mitchell into the game during the last few minutes. Mitchell had multiple attempts to score, but it wouldn’t go in. Then, with a few seconds left and his team losing by 15 points, Jonathan passed the ball to Mitchell for one last attempt. As fate would have it, Mitchell scored. When asked why he passed the ball to a member of the opposing team, Jonathan responded:
I was raised to treat others how you’d want to be treated.
It’s a simple and yet profound response that tears me up. We humans are always formed mimetically by what James Alison calls the “social other.” This includes parents, teachers, friends, coaches, movies, television, etc. Jonathan has been formed by a social other that leads him not to exclude others, but rather to treat others how he would want to be treated. This is risky because anytime we seek to include the other our community might turn against us. They could even label us a traitor. I don’t know how Jonathan’s coach or teammates responded to his attempt to treat another as he would want to be treated. The pass seems spontaneous in the video, but maybe they planned it. Either way, it was a beautiful example of positive mimesis.
(James discussing the “Social Other” for his Forgiving Victim adult education course.)