Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 7 September 2023


Loss of civility leaves America in a pickle

The rise of a rather aggressive new sport is bringing out the worst in people, and indicative of a sharp decline in respect

The Times

Acouple of my daughters have fallen in with a rough crowd. In the local park on idle afternoons they get into fights with other knots of New Yorkers that can get ugly and occasionally result in interventions by the authorities. It’s painful, of course, but as a parent you always know it can happen if you live in New York long enough.

My girls haven’t become part of an urban street gang, swearing oaths in blood or subjecting themselves to violent initiation rituals. They have started playing pickleball.

If you haven’t heard of the sport that has swept America in the past couple of years, you will. It’s a scaled-down version of tennis, or a scaled-up version of ping-pong minus the table, with a court about a quarter the size of a tennis court, a low net, solid “paddles” rather than racquets, and hollow plastic balls.

It is the fastest-growing participation sport in America, played by an estimated 36 million people, up from just a few million five years ago. It’s popular with celebrities and there is a nascent professional league.

But there’s a problem: it is bringing out the very worst in everyone. Where my daughters play, there are frequent angry clashes. Long lines of picklers waiting their turn get vocal and even physical at any sign of slow play; serious picklers assert their priority over the neophytes and fun-seekers. There are often shouting matches between local residents whose quiet read on a park bench is rendered impossible by the insistent popping of paddle on ball. Local authorities have had to step in and even expel the sport from some parks where invasive picklers have painted over basketball territories.


The Great Pickleball Wars are reflective, I think, of something deeper that has gone very wrong in America over these past few years: a disintegration in civility. In public and private social interactions the normal rules of association have been replaced with something like Fight Club protocols. There’s a soul sickness that is eating away at the very bonds of community.

Am I overstating it? If this were happening only in this famously rough-edged city, you might say so. But cities across the country are grappling with the fallout, regulating it, disciplining the most contumacious participants, even banning it altogether. The pickleball crisis is national. So too is a much wider decline in basic expressions of mutual respect.

Polling suggests that large numbers of Americans now deeply dislike each other, ascribing bad faith and evil intent to people whose views they don’t share. As an academic paper a few years ago put it, “motive attribution asymmetry for love versus hate drives intractable conflict”. Through analysis of survey data, it tracked how hostile factions in America now see each other in the way Israelis and Palestinians do.

Of course, the tenor of modern politics is heavily to blame: the dramatic increase in polarisation of the past few decades has been turbocharged in the age of Trump. But it goes far beyond political discord. The kinds of daily interactions Americans report often have nothing to do with politics. I’m sure the pickleball antagonists where I live in a Democratic bastion of New York share the same view of Donald Trump, and it isn’t positive.

What we have instead is a social sickness that seems to render people more willing to openly confront each other, when in the past the restraints of discretion and civility held sway.

Covid dramatically exacerbated the problem. The panic induced by lockdowns and mask mandates encouraged us to see every social interaction as a potentially deadly one — and people retreated deeper into their own safe spaces.

My most powerful recollection of the pandemic was on one of my runs early in the days of plague. It was a cold spring morning and few people were venturing out.

As I jogged gently through Central Park, my mask pulled down so I could actually breathe but keeping my lumbering gait a very safe distance from any other human being, an enormous middle-aged woman in the distance bedecked in a veritable haberdashery of masks and doing what I supposed she thought was a “power walk”, bellowed at me: “Put your f***ing mask on, you f***ing asshole! Are you trying to kill me?”


In the same spirit of the modern social encounter, I was tempted to tell her that her diet, pitiably mitigated by a stroll in the park, would kill her way before any random germ I might shed within 50 yards of her.

Technology has also contributed to the phenomenon. The oxymoron that is “social media” and the personal technology that enables it has turned us all into solipsistic automatons glued to screens 12 hours a day, replacing basic human contact with electronic objectification.

The ascendancy of the culture wars has also made things much worse. It means all politics is personal now, so we don’t just disagree with each other, we see differing views on matters of sex and gender and race, for example, as personal affronts, even “threats to our safety”.

Two decades ago in Bowling Alone, the sociologist Robert Putnam first tracked the steady atomisation of American society. His book noted the curious and steep decline in the 1990s in membership of once-thriving bowling leagues, but also in so many other forms of association that — as Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed two centuries ago — characterised the lives of ordinary Americans.

Now, we have something different. Americans may still be Bowling Alone. But they are Pickleballing Together — and instead of forging social union, the experience seems to be making them realise only how much they detest each other.

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