by Weifeng Zhong
Two worlds collide in professional golf’s biggest event this week as top players from the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed upstart league, compete in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Tensions are running high after a group of elite players defected from the PGA to LIV, reaping generous paydays despite the Saudi monarchy’s dismal human rights record.
Many have rightly pointed out that the LIV venture may be an attempt by influential Saudi interests to divert public attention from the regime’s atrocities at home. But if that’s the motive, then so far, “golfwashing” isn’t getting out any authoritarian stains. It seems Americans can be split in their opinions of the golfers who took the Saudis’ money, enjoy watching the tournament and give themselves a pat on the back for understanding geopolitical nuances.
Nation-states have a long history of laundering their reputations by using charm offensives in sports, entertainment or even food. Events like last year’s Beijing Olympics and the World Cup soccer tournament hosted by Qatar are increasingly common.
Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, has been hosting Formula One racing and the Red Sea Film Festival in recent years. For more than two decades, the Thai government has been earmarking funds for the global proliferation of Thai restaurants to boost the nation’s image. And in the most extreme and infamous example, Nazi Germany exploited the 1936 Berlin Olympics to tout the supremacy of the Aryan race.
Autocrats favor this strategy for a simple reason: It might work, especially when the public succumbs to cognitive dissonance. Coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, the term refers to the internal struggle people experience when they have two cognitions that contradict. If the Saudi-backed LIV golfers are so good, how can the sponsors also be human rights abusers? If the Beijing Olympics are so fun to watch, how can the Chinese government also lock up a million Uyghurs in labor camps?
To reduce the internal contradiction, people tend to distort one cognition to make it consistent. Either we stop liking LIV golfers, or we turn a blind eye to oppression in Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud is no doubt banking on the latter.
Cognitive dissonance is rampant in politics because policy issues are complex and nuanced, leaving much room for internal struggle. The easy way out is to think of a politician, a political party or even a country as primarily “good” or primarily “bad.” Think about how some left-leaning Americans found it hard to empathize with former president Donald Trump when he contracted COVID-19, how voters will often align with their party on all issues, and how our attitude toward a foreign country is easily reduced to 1-to-10 score in opinion polls.
That brings us to some good news: Americans can handle a little nuance after all. Some fans are more upset than others about the LIV golfers who took a piece of the $2 billion invested by the sovereign wealth fund, but few seem to care much about LIV ventures.
LIV events are streamed only on the CW network, and — while it’s still early — the ratings have reportedly been substantially lower than even the network’s knockoff version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The LIV superstars who are back on the golf course with their former PGA rivals will get renewed attention — as will the Saudi monarchy’s human rights abuses.
Having this level of sophistication is essential in dealing with geopolitical issues. China is another authoritarian regime that uses engagement with the West to launder its reputation. But an open society’s response to these charm offensives doesn’t need to be disengagement on all fronts, leaving problematic governments entirely to their own devices. Americans can enjoy seeing LIV golfers at the Masters while condemning the Saudis’ human rights records. They can also maintain economic relations with China while trying to tackle security concerns posed by Beijing.
Autocrats won’t stop trying to “whitewash” their reputations in our minds, but it won’t work unless we let them.