I’ve been thinking a fair amount about the criticism my hero, Arsene Wenger, has been enduring of late. He has been at Arsenal nearly 20 years and has produced a level of success that is clearly appreciated by the club. He’s done it through rich times and fallow times, rarely pointing a finger at the conditions or people who made his row a tough one to hoe. This season hasn’t produced the results that fans hoped for and that seemed possible at the outset of the season. This has resulted in somewhat mass hysteria and cries for bringing the end to his reign. He’s past it, he can’t change, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he has no way to learn it.
I pause to note that the baying has become quieter following two wins. (Two wins!)
Some of it is just typical of our times. We can connect with each other so immediately online at our best and, more notably, our worst moments. A little spark meets receptive tinder and the entire forest goes up in a great conflagration before we have a moment to think more circumspectly. We jump to conclusions well before the data is in. And media outlets play to our emotions intentionally, attaining clicks with outrageous headlines and conclusions, leading us down the path to frenzy.
Before, we might have done this in our heads or in small groups (imagine Piers Morgan only being disgruntled in a crowded bar), but now we can do it just about immediately with pretty much the Entire. Freaking. World.
Do we self-polarize at those moments? We’ve said it out loud, very much out loud, and so must we stick to our guns even if we later recognize maybe we overreacted, maybe we were premature (or wrong) in our conclusion?
We humans are judgmental. We have to be, of course. We must be able to judge dangerous or welcoming situations. To determine best use of our time and energies. To know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. You get the idea.
But humans have been shown to be notoriously lazy judges. We can’t thoroughly evaluate every single stimulus that comes our way and so we generalize. Our generalizations have often been demonstrated to be incorrect and unfair.
Some forms of generalization have been so proven to be so common, so dangerous and unfair that to discriminate on the basis of them is illegal in the United States. They are so common that they are subject to near-constant public discourse. Religious bias, racism, sexism, ageism, and so on. Even though we talk about them, think about them, brood about them, the lazy generalizations persist. It’s too easy to hide them, to ourselves and others, to couch them in acceptable terms. But the glass ceiling continues to bonk us ladies in the head, unemployment still disproportionately impacts black men, containment of Muslims becomes an ongoing political talking point.
Aside from the common “isms,” the illegal-to-act upon “isms,” we all still have to contend with perfectly legal but no-less-crippling perceptions by others.
I’ve experienced some examples in jobs I’ve had. In one company, a company full of quants and professors, I was considered a strong, smart business person but not a person who could understand the deeper points of finance. I left that job and came to another. Viola! I was immediately perceived as a smart finance person, but not a business person. Had I changed? I would argue not. But the perception of me was no less real. Were these perceptions truly crippling? Maybe not egregiously, but it’s reasonable to believe that they had an impact on the kind of assignments I was considered for.
In one job, I was appreciated by my boss but considered by the larger band of judgers to be too buttoned down in building product. Why couldn’t I go faster, be more nimble? Then a regime change occurred in the company. I was appreciated by my new boss but suddenly I was re-cast by the larger band of judgers as a wild-eyed terrorist who shot first and asked questions later. Had I changed? I would argue that I exhibited a balanced and productive combination of thoughtfulness and decisiveness at both points in time. But perception is reality. (Now, where did I lay that pipe bomb?)
The above examples demonstrate the obvious reality quite well: Perception is probably as much about the Perceivers as it is about the Perceived.
Arsene Wenger is examined as thoroughly as any famous human on earth. You wonder when looking at him: is it better to have the full case about you laid out in the public eye where you can’t avoid seeing it, or is it better to not know what people are thinking, to not be aware that their biases have shaped their perception of you, how you may be limited by them?
Some of the criticism of Wenger is based on actual flaws. Who among us is without them? But most of it is based on biases. The biases against him are often based on ignorance (does a talk show host like Piers Morgan really have the expertise to critique Arsene Wenger as a manager?), based on our best hopes and greatest disappointments that seek shoulders to carry blame, based on jealousy (see poster child Jose Mourinho) and, quite clearly, based on age bias.
As with all perception, it’s all too easy to fall into a lazy trap when thinking about age. It is generalized that old people are wise. It is also said that they are rigid, unable to change. Neither of these generalizations is universally true. It is true that some older people (and some younger people) are quite wise. It’s true that some older people (and some younger people) are rigid.
The only thing that is unquestionably true that most older people have had more experiences.
Experience. It just means you’ve seen a lot. Not always, but hopefully, you’ve learned from it. The mistakes and the successes, not only yours, but others’. Maybe you don’t learn how to handle every new situation because of the previous ones, but for people who pay attention over time, those experiences can be helpful in spotting a situation on its way to becoming a big mistake.
People of my generation, for example, witnessed 8-track for playing music. The iPod it was not, but someone thought it was a good enough idea to invest in making it publicly available. The thing about it that improved upon a vinyl record was that it could stand up to a wild dance party without skipping. And if I remember correctly, it could be played louder. But it had a serious, serious flaw. It would stop right in the middle of a song to change tracks.
I was given an all-in-one stereo when I graduated from high school that could play a vinyl record, a cassette tape, or 8-track cassette. I had exactly one album for the 8-track player, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty.
The local Cinema where I worked that summer–as a ticket and concessions salesperson, projectionist, and janitor–also had an 8-track player. I brought in my only cassette and played it when I was cleaning the theatre during the day. My mother reminded me recently how I had been scolded by my boss because I left the cassette in. It was playing in the theater loudly before a Disney movie. An irate parent called the manager to complain about the song that was playing at top volume.
You take Sally and I’ll take Sue
There ain’t no difference between the two
Cocaine, running all ’round my brain
Ah, youth. You’re not completely stupid, but you could use some experience.
Now even in those ancient times, it was completely obvious that the point of music is music. Music that stops in the middle and then carries on is not good for anything, except maybe when you have nothing else available to entertain you when you’re removing the residue of spilled coke and popcorn from the floor of the cinema. (Management note: you could have done a better job here, too, Mademoiselle Youth.)
I fervently believe that experiencing 8-track has helped me recognize metaphorical 8-track in the making so that I can do the right thing: STOP IT. What the world does not need now is more 8-track.
I’m completely confident that Arsene Wenger is wise. Not because he is old, but because he is intelligent. I’m completely confident that Arsene Wenger is not rigid, far from it. He has been presented with plenty of injury opportunities to cobble good out of a very tough situation. He may do so carefully, but it’s clearly with great creativity. I am completely confident that he is experienced. He has been a master of learning across decades, managing hundreds of talented athletes and situations.
People try to foist managerial 8-track upon him as if it’s the greatest new invention in the world: Buy now; any “world class” player will do. Buy now; Guy X is injured for two months. Buy now; Guy Y is going to the African Cup of Nations for six weeks every other year. And it’s not just about buying players over which Arsene Wenger is questioned, and advised. It’s how he combines them together, how he trains them, how he evaluates them, on and on.
Walking in someone else’s moccasins is a great idea if you can do it. But if you can’t, before you spout off, it’s good to understand if those moccasins have been made unavailable to you because you’re just not qualified to wear them. In those moments, the world is better served if you just produce silence. Because when you produce sound, you are almost always producing the sound of 8-track.
Funny thing about ageism. As unfair as it may be, it’s also very, very fair. One moment you’re young, vibrant, and being stopped from conquering the world by fogeys who can’t change, who can’t recognize the amazingness of your idea. The next moment, you’re the fogey who can spot 8-track from twenty paces but cannot understand the difference between Snapchat and Instagram.
And so we must all dig beneath the surface.