For those of you who aren’t closely following the daily ebbs and flows in the ongoing culture wars, I envy you. Unfortunately, I regularly find myself analyzing the tit for tat engagements that are defining our cultural landscape and politics.
If you haven’t seen it, tennis great John McEnroe has recently stirred controversy after an interview he did with NPR. In that interview, after bringing up Serena Williams, the reporter asked McEnroe why he insists on referring to Serena Williams as the best female tennis player in the world. (Let’s just ignore the part where this same journalist recalled McEnroe’s career by referring to him as the best male tennis player in the world, but anyway)
McEnroe says Williams is the “best female player ever — no question.” He’s then asked why he needs to qualify that statement with a gender. “Well because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.”
That particular sound bite of his interview has since gone on to the stratosphere of media outrage. Stephen Colbert immediately confronted McEnroe with “you can’t be serious” on his late show over the statement. A panel of CBS reporters tag teamed McEnroe to get him to apologize for saying something apparently so outrageous. Steadfastly, he has refused to apologize for his beliefs on the subject.
It’s critical to note that McEnroe didn’t say a woman could never be the best player in the world, he just said that Serena Williams is not. He in fact said that one day it is entirely possible a woman could be the best player in the world.
But what about that statement alone is so offensive? Why is this an issue at all?
It’s an issue because feelings, not facts, are dominating how we approach biological differences between men and women, and it prevents us from having an honest conversation about anything. People want to say Serena Williams is the best player in the world and attack those who disagree because it feels good to think so. McEnroe, who was at one point was quite literally the best player in the world, gives an opinion that she is not, one that is likely influenced by a lifetime of professional expertise in that sport, and many feel he must be confronted and forced to apologize for believing it.
McEnroe is objectively a master in his craft. He has accrued a level of knowledge and expertise found only in those who commit a lifetime to their respective professions. The forces who shape our collective understanding of issues: journalists, pundits, and others in the media are, objectively, nowhere close to that. Not even in the same universe. And perhaps should not even be offering their opinions on the subject at all. Yet they feel entitled to do so because there is an overarching cultural narrative bending us all towards the notion that we must pretend that men and women are equal in all regards, and even an opinion that they may not be is heresy.
Because this is an organization dedicated to special operations, intelligence, and military affairs, and we think critically about national security, I must relate this to our world, where the subject of men and women serving equally in certain military occupations has been a hotly contentious issue. I bring this McEnroe discussion into the fold because it’s important to acknowledge the cultural factors at work across society at large, which ultimately influence even the military.
I would argue that attacking someone for simply expressing an opinion, especially from someone who is an expert in their field, is a dangerous precedent. That sort of mentality seeps into all corners of our society, and the military is no exception. Setting conditions that make it impossible to have an honest conversation about physiologic differences between men and women, and how those differences have to be addressed, sets the military up for failure, especially at a critical time like now while we navigate the complexities of integrating men and women into roles previously reserved only for men.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense