With Tiger Woods’ win at the Masters, he secured his fifth Green Jacket and the inched closer to the prospect that he is the best golfer of all time, if he isn’t there already. He might also be the last pillar of monoculture among increasingly refracted subcultures. He also secured himself as one of the most valuable sports stars in the world. Yet, it is our response to his ubiquitous cultural presence- and even his Masters victory- that reveals in us what we value.
Back when I taught History and Civics, I would start my class in the abstract. We’d look at why governments and people choose the laws and actions they choose. It was a big question that often confounded students because of the scope, but we boiled it down to the essential truth that what we do collectively and individually reveals what we value the most. We reversed engineered it. Our actions show what we value. Our values show what we think is right and wrong, our morals. Our morals are based on what we believe to be true about people, the universe, and the big picture of life.
Ie. The ancient Romans put people in the Coliseum to watch them fight (before it turned into bloodbaths). The Romans valued bravery and courage. They thought testing one’s body was the highest expression of morality because they did not necessarily believe in an afterlife. Their belief system was based on Greek gods who they could manipulate with actions. Ergo, their actions of bravery and courage reflected their views on their temporal and corporal lives. They may not have expressed this explicitly, but hundreds of years of culture showed what they valued the most via their actions (there are lots of examples, but this is the easiest).
So when we watch Tiger win again, it elicits in us all sorts of feelings and emotions that are tied deeply to our value system, our morals, and our beliefs. There are some who still castigate Tiger for his marital indiscretions. Others who see this victory as an exoneration of them. Those are people who value very different things but both see sports and personal lives as inextricably intertwined.
One of the reasons Tiger resonates with us so greatly- golf fan and non golf fan alike- is because Tiger is one of the few last vestiges of monoculture. There are few things that tie societies together in this day and age. Access to information via very personalized technological devices mean we can choose the content that forms our worldview and entertain us. I don’t have cable, but I do have an antenna. I watch a lot of broadcast TV and reruns. Some people stream Netflix or watch HBO.
Tiger came of age when information gates were kept by major media outlets. We accessed him together via the same channels. It created a common bond in us. As Culture became a plurality of subcultures, coinciding with Tiger’s professional demise, we collectively moved on to new golfers and new mediums. Then he came back and won. Then he won the Masters and all the feels of who we were once just a decade ago but eons culturally echoed through our mind and in our beings. We experienced him again, together.
So much has changed since last was the best golfer in the world, the foremost our cultural value systems. When his personal life hit the news, it dominated news cycles for weeks as information slowly leaked out. It was stoked by people who disliked him because he was a black man in a predominantly white man’s game or because he was a transcendent figure in a rather stoic game. It was also stoked by media who felt slighted by him for not being transparent with them, and by others because Tiger was just not a very nice person to many.
It was also stoked because the nature of his demise was a very public sex scandal. Sex always sells tabloids, but for Tiger, it was in the waning days of a monoculture at the precipice of unprecedented mass communication. Further, the conversations around sexual and relationship ethics have changed dramatically in ten years. Specifically, when Tiger was publicly shamed for infidelities, now marriage is viewed through the lens of expressive individualism, granting involvement only to those who participate in the marriage and anyone the married individuals choose to involve.
Our values have changed, as well as our morals- or at least stated morals. That’s why when Tiger won, the response was adulation, but also many felt conflicted. The thoughts and feelings they were challenging the thoughts and feelings they had nearly a decade ago during his public fall. We now see Tiger’s personal life as his, and if his mother, his ex-wife (and any romantic partner), and his kids have chosen to forgive him or not, we leave that with them, thus separating his personal failures from his professional.
We celebrate his athletic success, much like the Romans (or for a more updated view, Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech), because we believe the height of human achievement is overcoming obstacles with our bodies and minds. Tiger overcame his physical and mental injuries. For many it is hard to navigate the personal and professional because his personal failures are seen as direct catalysts in his professional failures. I contend it was the loss of his father, the only person he trusted, but also the person who made Tiger a difficult individual. Everything after his death was just the fallout. Still, with all we know about Tiger, it feels as if we cannot look past it- or worse, we see athletic achievement as a form of exoneration for his mistakes.
I think we can look to our current cultural values of social justice and mercy as a marker for how to accept the simultaneous good and bad of individuals and institutions. Their purveyors can be impatient, at times, considering the intricate systems that are desired to be changed. But they accept that good and bad are intertwined. That good and bad have always been linked and always will be. People have been being people since ever since people started creating more people.
In our haste to declare something good or bad or right or wrong, we have forgotten the great societies of our past and missed that they struggled with the very same things we do. We want progress and define it through justice, extracting our pound of flesh, and it seems as in Tiger’s case, that pound of flesh is bringing up his personal failures.
Maybe when we get that feeling to knock somebody off their pedestal, we can choose mercy? Mercy by definition is undeserved. It is the one value that can bring progress via healing. It is humble, rightfully knowing that none of us- or anyone ever in this world- have been perfect. Deep down we know any of us could make a huge blunder or already have.
Justice and Mercy work together hand in hand. In Tiger’s case, exacting justice is not ours to exact, so we are left choosing Mercy. Mercy is everyone’s to give. It promotes growth and health and progress. It celebrates others’ achievements and evaporates meaningless grudges.
You don’t have to like Tiger or care about golf. You can love Tiger and his fifth Masters victory. Both are okay. But however we decide to respond, and however our feelings react will reveal as much about us as those tabloids revealed about Tiger.