In late 2009, Tiger Woods had a car accident outside his home, that led to accusations that the accident was caused by a fight with his wife, that led to a torrent of women coming forward to say they'd had trysts with the golfer. And that led to a scandal that brought the superstar to rehab, divorce and near endorsement exile.
It also raised a hearty stew of issues like race, gender, sex, betrayal and identity - just the kind of issues cultural anthropologists love to examine. And so Orin Starn, professor and chair of cultural anthropology at Duke University, has published the short and insightful work "The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal" (Duke University Press).
Starn comes by his interest in Woods honestly. He began golfing at 12 with his grandfather, played on his college golf team and has a 5 handicap. In a conversational voice, he explores golf's history and how using social media helped him get at the range of responses the public had to the Woods incident.
Q: In the book, you talk about ritual scapegoating; that in America we make scapegoats of our favored citizens. Does that mean celebrities function less as people and more as symbols?
Yes, I definitely think celebrities play a double role. We're envious of them with their giant mansions and multimillion-dollar incomes. I think that's what Facebook is about; we post our status, our pictures, it's the part of us wanting to be celebrities. At the same time, we use them as ritual scapegoats. We very quickly turn on them. We say awful things about them, make terrible jokes. There's this ferocious mob mentality.
Q: You describe the media as the priests choosing those who are scapegoats. What role does the public play? Do they just follow the media's lead?
It's always hard to know whether public appetite drives the media or if the media whets the interest. I think there's a set of different things to push scandal in the news. It seems the more famous the celebrity, the more what the celebrity does that conflicts with their brand, the more of a problem there is. I noticed recently a story on Kobe Bryant in the National Enquirer that said he slept with 100 women. But that was not a big story; it was small news in the Enquirer. There's an expectation about basketball players and rappers. And even though we see it time and again, even with politicians there's an expectation of moral probity. Golf is this button-down conservative culture that makes it seem that Tiger's actions should be newsworthy.
Q: You noted that Tiger did a pretty good job navigating race before the incident. As he seemingly heads toward redemption, where do you think he stands? Can he go back to his neutral standing?
There's this process of re-racializing - it's not exclusive to African-Americans, but you saw it with O.J. Simpson, who became this kind of post-racial icon, doing these corporate commercials for Hertz. After the trial, he got recast as this unstable criminal violent black man. Tiger's racial identity has morphed. Early on, he was African-American as a golf pioneer; that was a big component when he won a Masters. Then during his arc of success he was deracialized, de-blackened. With the scandal, he was blackened all over again as this identity of the oversexualized black man. Now it's an open question. What race will Tiger be this year? From an anthropologist perspective, what's interesting is that racial identity is not a fixed biological given. People find themselves labeled a race they had not intended or wanted. Tiger's predicament is a predicament of all of us. As a white man, people may view me through that lens and whatever stereotypes that go with that. All of us are afraid to be thought of as "just another" of that person. In a strange way, Tiger is extraordinary and unique and he's an everyman.
Q: Your book also discusses using social media as a way of looking at cultural and social mores. Where do you see this going? In the way that there's digging up bones, will there be digging up defunct pages?
Definitely since the beginning of email, anthropology has looked at cyberspace, virtual community, cultures. Internet is so much a part of life you almost can't imagine an anthropologist not trying to figure it out. It speaks to questions we've always studied like identity, and our relationship to culture and community. We have an class in our department on the anthropology of Facebook. With Tiger, sometimes the Internet can let you get things visible and in a public forum. There's a lot of ideas and stereotypes you can't voice in public, some of those ideas have been driven underground. It's a reportorial challenge now to get to those attitudes. The anonymity of the Internet gives people a place for that. In the case of Tiger, you get a dimension you wouldn't get.
Johnson Martin: 919-829-4751, twitter.com/amajomartin