After a leisurely lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, looking out across the pool and beach, I found myself in the peculiar position of being unable to leave. The main entrance to the hotel was roped off, holding back fans and autograph hunters. The crowds were drawn to some tall, lean and fit young men, walking across the foyer to the coach waiting outside. Some of the men had nicely shorn hair, but the gap toothed smiles and wonky noses amongst the group told me these were no movie stars. I did not recognize any of the men, but the casual sporting wear finally gave it away. Those men were the Brazilian football team, staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, off to a training session on the eve of their friendly game against England.
Their bodies may be toned, and their manner relaxed in the style of the rich, pampered and lauded, but there was something distinctly ordinary about these men. And then it struck me. They are famous, and they have that attractiveness that comes from youth and physical fitness, but otherwise they are not handsome. Sport is a bastion of meritocracy. Maradona, Cruyff, and Rooney may have played the beautiful game, but their beauty was in their feet, not their faces. There may be stars like Beckham who are as effective as models as they are as midfielders, but they are the exception. Good looks is the exception for all humans. Ordinary people tend to look ordinary, which is as it should be. In a meritocracy, looks does not matter, but looks do matter in lots of ways in this world. That is why there are billboards showing off Beckham’s briefs, but we will never see one displaying Rooney’s jockey shorts. Is that fair?
There are lots of prejudices with names. Racism, sexism, ageism. Prejudice relating to looks has no name, but of course it exists. We are just not allowed to give it a name, because it is hard to simplify and categorize it. In sport, ability supposedly trumps all, not least because sport has become a business where results pay. But even in sport, that most meritocratic of activities, there is prejudice. Whilst racism is being kicked out of football, more insidious prejudice, like the cult of beauty, is sliding in. When Wimbledon paid more to the winners of the men’s singles than the women’s singles, Tony Blair felt necessary to take time out from starting wars to comment on the unfairness. He and the Williams sisters got their way, and the prize money was equaled up. But nobody can enforce parity in endorsements, where makers of pretty sportswear and jewelery want their wares to be be worn by athletes who are as pretty as they are successful. If the marketeers cannot have both, they will take trade-offs between the two. Money has helped the rise of meritocracy in sport. No fan dislikes a black footballer who scores a thirty goals a season for their team, and the nationality of a match winner is secondary to the joy of defeating a derby rival. Fans pay to see winners, and prizes go to the victors. Yet selling perfumes and lingerie also pays, and hence the rise of the pretty footballers like Beckham. Christiano Ronaldo is hence set to make a lot more money as a good-looking footballer than a goofy but talented individual like Ronaldinho ever will.
Fighting prejudice is important, but the problem with fighting prejudice is that the fight, even more than the prejudice, takes the line of least resistance. Quotas, laws, even the naming of prejudice is easy when the issue is one of black and white, or men and women. When prejudice is subtle, the crude techniques to fight it are powerless. Fashion models that complain about an obsession with size zero and unrealistic body images make a valuable point, but how far does the point go? A woman might have a great body that makes a dress look fabulous, whilst having a face like Carlos Tevez. Such a woman would have less chance of striding down a catwalk than a woman with a nice face but a fuller figure that makes more work for the designer. Why is this inequity tacitly accepted by our society? In a meritocracy your face would not matter, when the customers are supposedly looking at the goods, not the mannequin within them.
Actors are expected to look good. Why is this? It is because, no matter how much actors believe in ‘the method’, the profession of acting is as much about entertaining people as it is about truth, whether that be the truth of the emotion or any other truth. The truth that plenty of people do not look as good as actors takes second place to the truth that people like looking at good-looking people. But what if the audience did not want to look at blacks, or whites, or people of hues between? What if the audience did not want to look at men, or women, or people of a certain height, or age, or listen to people with a certain accent? One approach might be to make an audience looks, but this only begs the question of where prejudice stops, and choice begins.
The fight against prejudice has become much like the fight for organized labour. The evil is supposedly best waged through a union – a group of people with common cause who negotiate for better treatment. Whilst the model appeals because it may be effective, it is flawed. The world will never be fair just because one group of people gets a superior deal relative to another group of people, even if they are just seeking to get what they see others can get. The problem lies not in the disparity between groups, but the existence of groups judged by irrelevant and incidental properties. Pay somebody according to their talents and efforts at their job, not according to their looks or colour. People should be judged by what they do, and what they can do. Despite this simple truth, we accept that we live a world where people are well rewarded to wear clothes and to kick balls. Others spend their lives picking out the most valuable rubbish in heaps of trash. That unfairness is part of the fabric of our lives, so we have become blind to it. I do not much care if someone feels underpaid when winning a sporting tournament, just because they feel the opposite gender gets more for winning the ‘same’ competition, if the prize they get is millions of times more than will ever be earned by someone with the bad luck to be born into poverty. It is bad luck to be born a woman in a man’s world, but it is also bad luck to be born into a poor family in a world that favours the rich. It is wrong to treat women worse than men, but it is easier to set that straight. Tackling an easy challenge is of little merit when gross injustice surrounds us. Some born into this world never get the opportunity to learn a trade, never mind handle a tennis racquet. That is a prejudice too, but one so endemic to our way of life that it has no name.
We live in a world of prejudice. Prejudice based on where somebody is born, prejudice based on who somebody is born to, prejudice based on the colour of the skin they are born into, prejudice based on the wealth inherited from their forbears, prejudice based on their very skin and bones. The debate about prejudice is flawed. You cannot ask a union of people to fight against all prejudice. Any such group will just further their own ends. Unions look after their members, not after the good of all. Tipping the scales may seem like a route to fairness, but none of us are so simple for our lifechances to be only measured on the binary scales of the unions that fight prejudice. Obama is not a black man. Obama is a black-and-white man, yet even he is painted black to suit a polarized debate. There should have been no surprise, though justifiable outrage, when a majority of black Californians voted against gay marriage. The black agenda is the treatment of blacks, not gays, and only a minority will belong to both minority camps. Unions fight for the interests of their members, not for the interest of all.
Rather than measuring people on scales, seeking to equalize them and inevitably getting bored as we tire of the endless categories stretching from religion to sexual orientation, a better approach would be to bar every irrelevant measure. Only then would ugly people get a fair deal, and only then will we see a sustained effort to treat the children of the poor as well as the children of the rich. That is beyond us for now. To achieve it would take a striving for a true equality based on everyone being who they are, and not based on the union they belong to. That may not suit some of the union leaders, so whilst they claim to fight prejudice, they institutionalize prejudice at the same time. It is hard to fight against prejudice that has no name, but vital all the same. Prejudice will only be defeated when there are no unions of common cause any more – only the single union of all mankind with love and respect for all. But if we lived in a world like that, then the Brazilian footballers would not be so rich, and they would be as likely to ask for the autographs, as to give them.
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