Let us stipulate first that Serena Williams is an extremely talented tennis player and an honest and ethical person. Let us also stipulate that she has been unfairly treated by chair and line umpires, not just when she was an up-and-comer, but also, and inexplicably, now that she is one of the greatest players in the game. And yet, even stipulating all this—as well as recognition of the fact that the passion which drives athletes is a potent force that amateurs and spectators can never fully appreciate—her controversial behavior at the U.S. Open earlier provides an interesting lesson to chew on.
There’s no need to repeat what’s been extensively reported elsewhere, so we can just summarize: Serena Williams was having a tough match in the U.S. Open finals with Naomi Osaka. She disputed a coaching call with the chair umpire (believing that she was not being illegally coached from the stands and that a warning should have been issued first if she had been). Upset over this call, which implied she was a cheater, Serena ended up smashing her racket in frustration over another call a few games later. Not tolerating the jabs at her character, she continued to jaw at the referee, accusing him of stealing a point from her and demanding an apology. She lost her composure…and also ended up losing the match.
Again, while none of this is particularly Stoic, it is completely understandable. What was less understandable, from a Stoic perspective, was the argument made by supporters and Serena herself explaining the events that had just transpired on the court. Their point was that male tennis players regularly get away with similar behavior (some data on this here) so therefore an injustice had been committed in Serena not being able to release her frustrations as well. Some even considered her a hero in this drama for asserting herself with the chair umpire, and then with the WTA during the press conference, like the bad boys of tennis used to.
But to ask whether Serena’s gender affected her treatment is, from a Stoic perspective, to ask the wrong question. As Martina Navratilova wrote in a New York Times op-ed,
It’s difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms. Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if she were a male player. But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.
Important cultural and political issues of fairness obviously matter at the larger level, particularly for activists and lawmakers. However, at the individual level, the question we always must ask of ourselves is never “is there a double standard?” but “what standard will I hold myself to?” For the same reason, as we make choices, the idea of whether something is illegal is also a poor metric. A Stoic should care only whether something is right.
It might be possible, for instance, to get away with paying little to no taxes, but is it honest and fair to shirk contributing your share? It’s fairly well established that men historically have been able to get away with all sorts of bad behavior (though again the stats in tennis don’t seem to show that), but does that mean everyone should behave like them? You know the answer. Brett Kavanaugh’s angry performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee is not an excuse for more people to do the same. Whether he got away with it or not, it doesn’t change the fact that his behavior is an example of how not to be.
Just that you do the right thing, Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if other people get away with doing the wrong thing. It doesn’t matter if your time has come and this is a karmic rebalancing that makes up for a time you got screwed. It doesn’t matter if it’s not technically “wrong” in the eyes of the law or whether everyone else is doing it.
It only matters if it’s right. That is hard to do sometimes, of course. We will all fall short of it at one point or another. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to try.
P.S. This was originally sent on January 21, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.
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