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Messi Or Maradona? Why Argentines Argue About Everything

Sociologists say there are certain historical and cultural elements behind the country's fondness for confrontation.

Soccer quarrels in Rosario, Argentina
Soccer quarrels in Rosario, Argentina
Carlos A. Maslaton

BUENOS AIRES — People are quick these days to use social networking sites to discredit other people's views with insults and disparagement. It's not just an Argentine thing, obviously. And yet there does seem to be something in the national psyche that favors conflict. People seem to seek it out, enjoy it even.

Indeed, there's a tendency here to be involved in near constant arguments. People hold little back to attack any and all dissent. And it goes beyond just the political divide. But what are the roots of this trend? Where did it begin?

Jorge Miceli, an anthropologist who researches social networking models applied to discourse and logic, points to various factors, starting with what he identifies as Argentina"s cultural tradition of dichotomies: Unitarians versus Federalists in the 19th century; Peronists (supporters of Juan Peron) versus anti-Peronists in the 20th. "These are dichotomies that go beyond politics and strongly project themselves into cultural spheres," he says.

It goes beyond just the political divide.

They have an organizing effect on thought and therefore identity, he adds. "People take sides on issues that involve opposing traits, generally of a psychological and emotional nature." Miceli points to the Maradona versus Messi divide as a case in point. Who's the better soccer player? The greatest of all time? The answer, he explains, depends on the kinds of values people espouse, the kinds of behavioral traits they admire.

"It's Maradona's commitment compared to Messi"s coldness and distance," he says. "That's how people decide where they stand, because it is always based on these types of combinations of opposing traits."

Mural in Buenos Aires — Photo: Eduardo Sánchez

The same goes for Argentina's current political reality, Miceli argues. People are divided into opposing camps, each with its own concept of what makes the ideal government. And opinions are polarized: people see their side as entirely positive and the other as entirely negative.

Anthropologists, he says, study the theory of the semantic differential, which posits that in such cases it is not a word's basic meaning, but its evaluative dimension, that matters. This allows identity construction. In Argentina, he says, "words like populism, Peronism and liberalism carry incompatible value judgments that are very difficult to nuance in different social and political sectors."

The binary seems to be a particularly Argentine trait.

What's more, Argentines take a positive view, Miceli says, of confrontation and of cutting communicational bridges with people seen as rivals. There's also a tendency to believe that "a show of aggression improves the speaker's position," he explains.

Alejandro Grimson, a researcher at CONICET, a public-sector research body, agrees that Argentina is a country of oppositions.

"There is a binary culture that crosses all spheres of social life," he says. "Obviously there is politics, but you have the same with the rivalry between the capital (Buenos Aires) and the interior, between Rosario and Newell's (two soccer teams in the city of Rosario) and so much else. The binary seems to me to be a particularly Argentine trait, because while you can have strong regional identities in other countries like Brazil, it is not quite in the black-and-white terms we have in Argentina."

Grimson cites passion as another decisive factor here. "I would say there's a degree of fanaticism in all this that blinds people to other views," he adds. An earlier manifestation were the ethnic rivalries common in the early 20th century. In working-class districts, the researcher explains, "the Turk would mock the Jew, who mocks the Galician, who mocks the Italian ... and then this is transmitted to more public identity issues."

Grimson identifies the roots of this culture of confrontation in the historical division between Buenos Aires and the more isolated interior. "Without that you can't explain anything of what is happening in Argentina, because it is the binary structure that becomes a basis for notions of "civilization and barbarism.""

Pro-choice demonstration in Buenos Aires — Photo: Matias Hernan Becerrica

He cites the 19th-century book Facundo by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento as a reference in this dichotomy. It identified civilization with the European continent, the United States and cities, and considered native Latin America, Spain, Asia and the Middle East as barbaric worlds. Facundo was itself influenced by such books as the 1828 Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe by Francois Guizot.

"This duality organizes everything, because it supposes people from Buenos Aires speak correctly but not anyone with any tonality, so anything that isn't the norm is degraded," he says. And that, Grimson adds, is what has led Argentines to always insist on belonging to, and defending, a band, a side or a group.

Philosopher Sabrina Coscione Seid agrees, and says that this civilization-versus-barbarism paradigm makes the coexistence of two opposing realities impossible. "It seems like this way of seeing reality is in our blood, and in every conversation," she says. "Apparently trivial conversations immediately turn into arguments, with a whole range of charges and accusations."

Have we reached a point of no return?

Seid also points to what happened with the national debate in 2018 on the abortion issue: analyses of the use of networking sites show that as dialogue between opposing camps broke down, communication among those with shared opinions increased.

That, of course, just adds to the division, to the impossibility of listening and reconciling positions. Have we therefore reached a point of no return? Is there anything we can do about it? "Perhaps a solution is to imagine a dialectic game where binarism is just a moment," Seid suggests. "Antagonistic positions are expressed. But we can use them to build new types of symbolic constructs that integrate others without devouring them."

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