Alan Hansen and the Growing Impossibility of Opinion-Formation

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Alan Hansen was stung to death by wasps yesterday after chastising them for not being old enough to have developed stingers. This can only be a good thing for Match of the Day, but let us consider the legacy of this man.

Match of the Day is a programme famous for the poor quality of its analysis, and Hansen, as its leading pundit, must be credited as the primary sculptor of this void. The poor quality of the analysis occurs on two levels: (1) none of the pundits ever actually say anything of interest about the game. The majority of the ‘analysis’ of every match is Alan Shearer or Michael Owen or someone saying what he sees. The pundits are for the most part bland men who appear to have been hired precisely for their very blandness. The exceptions are of course Mark Lawrenson, who manages somehow to be almost compelling in the magnitude of his resignation to an unrelentingly cruel and boring universe, a resignation so great that it has become a determination to pull every last scrap of joy down with him; and Hansen himself, a figure who comes across not so much simply as a bland man as King Bland, a sinisterly dad-like figure who seems determined to enforce a culture of sensible uninsightfulness upon his television family.

Of course, if you expose a television audience to such dullness every week, they are bound to notice it, even if they’re never especially likely to tune out, since it happens in between the football highlights. Nevertheless, they’re still going to complain, which is why we end up with poor quality of analysis level (2), the pundits’ half-hearted attempts to have opinions about something, which always come across as empty and somehow arbitrary, as if an opinion was just a purely frictionless, subjective leap into the void. Hansen is, of course, the programme’s main go-to guy for these sort of non-opinions.

Now that Hansen will (soon… although, for all that, not quite soon enough) be gone, will that mean his MOTD empire of blandness collapses all around Lineker et al as soon as he stops being there to hold it up? Unfortunately, this is unlikely. Hansen is not just one particularly brilliant man who has taken it upon himself to make watching the football slightly more boring for everyone else and, through sheer exuberance and force of will, succeeded: he is the exemplar of a trend. We are no longer a culture that is able to have a football highlights programme that contains insightful analysis.

Why is this? Maybe it starts with ‘money’. Maybe somebody somewhere doesn’t dare upset anyone by having a proper opinion. Perhaps this is why they sometimes get Michael Owen, an overgrown milk monitor of a man who looks as if he’s never had an opinion in his life, in as a pundit. I don’t know though. I think the ultimate source of the problem must be on level (1) as above, but if we thought that exhausted it all, we would think we could just do something like, say in this example, ‘take all the money out’ (or whatever) and thus easily fix the problem. The more profound effects I think can be discerned at level (2). In football as in life, people have forgotten how to have opinions. It’s not just pundits but politicians who are forever struggling to do convincing impressions of people who think or care about anything by picking something they’ve heard about to take as an article of faith, taking a mere subjective leap into the void.

This is just not how opinion-formation really works. There is this very common idea that having a conviction is really just a matter of taste, or something more modelled along the lines of religion faith, so that you can have a political belief of whatever sort, and then it becomes just something as it were hard-wired into your make-up, that argument or evidence can’t touch. But having an opinion is really a matter of being critically engaged with the world, of experiencing the world and then taking a stance on it, one that somehow makes sense given the sets of facts and problems that are revealed to you in your experience of it (and this includes, for instance, conversation, so, the testimony of others), and is then following this subject to reflection given future experiences. When you are someone like Tony Blair or Iain Duncan Smith who insists, despite the evidence, that what they think is still, as brute instinct, on some level the right thing for them to believe, then you have, effectively, lost the world. You’ve lost touch with it, you are no longer critically engaged with the world. And in both politics and football punditry we are, I think, constantly exposed to people who have lost the world in this way.

The danger of course is that, once you’ve lost touch with the world, you can no longer act on or in it so as to transform it in any way. The world will carry on without you, governed by increasingly hard laws of necessity, economic or otherwise. Just like, in fact, the Premier League. Or the financial crisis-era West (this is of course where point (1) can be seen to enter back in to the analysis: we must posit some force in whose interests it is that we lose our ability to take a stance on the world).

Alan Hansen is, thus, not just symbolic of a bland football highlights show. He is a symbol of the increasing impossibility of people being able to engage critically with the world they inhabit. In this sense, Alan Hansen, is evil. And I mean that quite literally.

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