I grew up in Germany. Naturally, I was a soccer—–properly: fussball–fan. When we were kids, we played fussball, because that was what you played. There were other youth sports, of course, but I was only vaguely aware of them. Swimming, running, basketball, and handball were something you watched other people do on TV; fussball was what you played with the neighborhood kids outside.
We played fussball in any kind of weather, even in rain and thunderstorms. When a match was underway, nothing short of a major natural disaster (or a parent angry enough to actually come down to the pitch instead of just yelling from the apartment window) could end that match. We all played fussball every day, and naturally, we all thought we were going to be the one kid on the block good enough to make the Bundesliga, playing for our favorite team.
We had favorite teams, of course. Asking a kid about his favorite soccer team and getting an “I don’t have one” in return was as unheard of as asking someone their religion and receiving the same answer. Everybody had a favorite team. You wore their colors, knew the names of all the players down to the third tier reserve bench, watched their matches on Saturday afternoon TV, and got into fights with the kids who pledged allegiance to that other team, the local and traditional rival of your team (something that every sports team in the world seems to have.)
In our house, we were Schalke 04 fans. There was simply no debate about this. We wore the Royal Blue of Schalke 04, and we got into arguments with the neighbor kids who were dumb and misguided enough to like Bayern Muenchen, or 1.FC Koeln, or (worst of all) the blood enemies of Schalke, Borussia Dortmund. (My brother will to this day not speak the name of that team out loud, and instead use the traditional Schalke insult of referring to Dortmund as “Doofmund”, or “Eintracht Luedenscheid”. “Doof” means “dumb” or “thick” in German, and Luedenscheid is a small town near the location of Dortmund’s home stadium.)
We were Schalke fans, no doubt about it. I am now far removed from the fussball-crazed turf of my childhood home, and I only take a mild and passing interest in the trials and triumphs of Schalke o4 these days, but my brother is still part of the Royal Blue culture. He goes to most of the home and away games, and he’ll travel to Spain or Scotland to follow his team to important international matches. (His wife is very patient and also very tolerant–she takes care of their three kids while he’s out for two days on a bus trip to a fussball match halfway across Europe.)
It never really occurred to me just why we were so solidly in the Schalke camp from the time we could kick a ball and pronounce the name of the team. That was just the way things were. Schalke is no more successful than most of the other old fussball teams in the Bundesliga–in fact, they haven’t won the national championship in fifty years. There’s nothing about Schalke that makes them markedly different from, say, Bayern Muenchen, or even the loathed Borussia Dortmund. Every team has its own history, but all those histories are strikingly similar in many ways. Every team has its own culture, but those are just as similar.
These days I know precisely why we were Schalke fans, and the answer is quite simple: because our father was a Schalke fan, and he preached the gospel of Schalke to us when we were kids. He was a Schalke fan because our grandfather was a Schalke fan, too. We inherited a lifetime of tribal allegiance to a fussball team simply because our father and grandfather passed it on to us.
That got me to thinking: how many allegiances that are profoundly serious and integral to our lives are simply the way they are because we inherited them from our parents without question? How many beliefs and preferences we hold dear are merely factors of geography and familial heritage? If you grow up near Gelsenkirchen in Germany, chances are exceedingly high that you will be a.) a Catholic, b.) a Social Democrat, and c.) a Schalke 04 fan. If you grow up in the greater Boston area, chances are pretty good you’ll turn out a Red Sox fan. If you grow up in Baghdad or Tehran, chances are you’ll grow up a Muslim.
We like to think that we arrive at our convictions by choice, and that our particular choices are superior to all others. (Why else would we have picked them? And why else would our parents, the people we hold most dear in our youth, have picked them to pass down to us? Wouldn’t questioning the inherent superiority of those choices constitute a rejection of one’s own family history?) I did have the option of choosing allegiance to some other fussball team, or some other religion, of course, but how often do people go against the grain when it would mean that one’s entire family and circle of friends would consider it strange at best, and heretical at worst? (In the case of choosing Dortmund over Schalke, it would have been all the way at the heresy end of that scale in our house.)
How often, then, do we then use our rational faculties to not examine our beliefs, but instead rationalize our emotional preferences, and then tell ourselves that we would have arrived at the same conclusions anyway because of the superiority of our choices above all others–in sports, religion, political philosophy, or even consumer brands?
People don’t like to think of themselves as being led around by the nose. We all like to think we’re independent thinkers who arrived at our philosophies, beliefs, and preferences by way of reason and independent thinking. Too often, however, we’re either denying that we were led to those beliefs, or we’re telling ourselves that we would have ended up at that particular destination, anyway.
For some people, it’s heresy to even consider that their religion or sports team allegiance is largely an accident of geography. But when you think about it, it’s deplorable to see people argue with each other–or worse, kill each other–over matters that were largely decided by the location of their birth, and the preferences of their parents.