Skip to main content

Dana White, president of the UFC, speaks at a news conference in Las Vegas on Oct. 6, 2018.John Locher/The Associated Press

For the past few years, Ultimate Fighting Championship boss Dana White has been one of the head men of what might be called knucklehead culture.

Knucklehead culture is based in sports, but its goal is permanent adolescence for all dum-dums, regardless of athletic ability.

Not adolescence in the good ‘experience new things and figure out who I’m meant to be’ way, but in the bad, ‘nothing matters to me but myself’ way.

Knucklehead culture is aggressively stupid. It’s all YOLO, all the time. If you don’t like your job, quit your job. If it feels good, do it. If someone suggests you stop, that means go harder.

There are a great many aspiring knuckleheads in sports – if you have ever non-ironically used the phrase ‘Saturdays are for the boys’, you are one of them – but White raised the form to art. He is a 3-D cartoon, minus the need for funny glasses.

So when he came out a week ago as the one sports executive waving off the coronavirus “panic” – his word – that was part of the act.

White refused to shut down UFC. He’d blustered his way through problems before and expected to do so again. He said he’d received assurances from the U.S. President (insert usual disclaimer here). He’d talked to doctors (presumably, graduates of Hollywood Upstairs Medical College).

A man with zero understanding of virology or infection vectors had decided that was all nonsense because, well, science was harshing his vibe. The fights would continue.

And then they did not.

By week’s end, White was standing down. All UFC fights would be postponed for the foreseeable future.

“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” he said. He sounded almost cowed.

A lot of bad things are about to happen, but during this relative lull in the fight to come, I am choosing to dwell on what good might result from this.

It seems certain there will be a massive philosophic shift to go along with the sociological and financial ones already happening. Our values and ethics will change. The hierarchy of things we hold important will radically alter.

A lot of stuff that used to seem necessary – luxury goods, three vacations a year, putting off adulthood until your 30s – will go out the window. A sense of imminence, that feeling that something is about just about to happen, will replace the late-20th/early-21st century attitude that things would always remain comfortably the same.

One of the results of that attitude was the democratization of decadence. If you’re anywhere between a boomer and a child, you take it as a given that lassitude and self-absorption are not exclusively for the idle rich.

Globalization made those distractions affordable to the middle class as well. You, too, can be constantly bored by everything, constantly jonesing for another hit of amusement. It’s your right.

So even as things started to go sideways, people were determined to continue on in their distracted state. They were still going on vacations as the world was shutting down, or trying to draw them out after they’d been told to leave.

As matters worsened, we all rushed out to buy things – anything – because shopping is our primary pastime. Fear steroidally heightened the urge to indulge it.

Now I wake up each morning and think, “What should I buy?” As though a couple of cans of sardines are going to solve the problem (though I still bought the sardines).

Knucklehead culture is the ultimate expression of this turn toward solipsism (along with its parallel and competing cultural movement – self-care.

Self-care – which also has a strong sporty element – is couched in more palatable jargon. But it amounts to the same thing – ‘I’m taking care of myself. Everyone else can go to hell.’

(They are the masculine and feminine halves of the same turning inward.)

It is the knuckleheads who continued ramming the bars after they were asked to stop. They were the ones who refused to get off the beaches. They were the people cornering the market on bulk hand-sanitizer.

One of those profiteers was so proud of himself that he gave an interview to The New York Times about it. Not because he’s stupid (though perhaps he is that, too). But because he’d been raised in a culture that’s taught him it is not only permissible, but morally defensible, that he do whatever is best for him. Anyone who says otherwise is a hater. Anyone who says otherwise twice is a bully.

This sort of behaviour used to be mildly tolerated in teenagers. But it’s been creeping up the demographic scale for ages.

All of us know a few 40- and 50-year-old knuckleheads. Perpetual children. Ignoramuses armed with Google and a whole lot of opinions. The sort of people who think Gary Bettman is an alarmist because he cancelled a perfectly good NHL season.

For every outrageous instance of the type, there’s a dozen more knucklehead-lite types. They’ve learned to moderate their language, but still spend the bulk of their time thinking about Friday night and their next trip to wherever. They work to live, not live to work (which often means not getting either one right). They do no good deeds, but never stop talking about the need for them on Instagram.

These people come from every slice of society and every political affiliation. What binds them is a crusading belief they are the centre of the universe.

Sports is guilty of providing them with the can-do language that camouflages their egocentrism. They are all working on themselves, or deciding to do what’s best for them, or realizing their own potential.

We used to say to a person who was feeling lost in life that they ought to find solace in acts of charity and selflessness. Now we tell them to work on themselves.

You go far enough down that road and everything that pleases you becomes a signpost on your mystical path toward self-realization. That road goes in the opposite direction from community.

No social force could cleanse us of this slide into dissipation because things were good. Why change a winning game?

The knuckleheads aren’t winning any more. They’re losing along with the rest of us. It’s time to start heading back up that path before it’s too late. Maybe that’s where this ends up. Spurred by fear and isolation, with us finding our way back to each other. Maybe.

The idea of hope is doing a lot of heavy lifting at the moment, but toss that one on its back, too. Whatever else comes of this, it will be a long time before vapidity and self-involvement are popular again.

The world will still produce Dana Whites and other, lesser knuckleheads in a year’s time, but I doubt many will find them amusing any more.