Veteran sports journalist Grant Wahl’s latest trip to Doha, Qatar, to cover the soccer World Cup, was his second visit to the country this year.
His previous visit had also been as a journalist, during which time he spoke to migrant workers to document their experiences in poor working conditions.
“In my experience, Qatar almost treats the workers like they’re invisible,” he told Vanity Fair, which featured the moral dilemmas facing journalists covering this year’s World Cup.
Wahl may have, perhaps inadvertently, stumbled upon the one concept that helps make sense of those supposed dilemmas and subsequent media coverage — the interplay between “invisibility” and “hypervisibility.”
One sign that a major sporting event is happening in a non-western country is the emergence of a sudden concern about human rights and freedoms, or the lack thereof.
That scrutiny, even if it’s warranted, can be unbalanced, hypocritical and self-interested. This is where the dynamics of “hypervisibility” make sense of the biases, the othering and the unthinking picking and choosing of who is deserving of respect and of criticism.
Qatar is the first Arab nation to host the World Cup. The BBC chose to mark this moment of pride by skipping the opening ceremony to criticize the host for its human rights record. Lead commentator and former soccer great Gary Lineker called the World Cup “the most controversial in history, and a ball hasn’t been kicked.”
“From accusations of corruption in the bidding process to the treatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums, where many lost their lives,” he said. “Homosexuality is illegal here, women’s rights and freedom of expression are in the spotlight.”
Qatar’s human rights record is indefensible. As is the U.K’s, not least its historical record of dousing swathes of the world in tragedy, which Qatar has never done. The UK continues to violate rights domestically and at its borders. Its new immigration rules, for instance, infringe the rights of refugees and immigrants by introducing new penalties, increasing the number of deportation flights and packing people off without fully considering their claims.
But the media’s frowning lens isn’t merely a posturing of western supremacy.
In his seminal 1978 book “Orientalism,” Edward Said, who coined the term, said it described western fictional and non-fictional representations of the Middle East as stagnant and degenerate, the rank opposite of the friendly, open haven the West perceives itself to be.
That’s undoubtedly at play in the media coverage of the Qatar World Cup. Look at how there is much ado about Qatar allegedly bribing FIFA to get the World Cup, but very little context about Germany allegedly doing the same for the 2006 championship. Or the handwringing over homosexuality being illegal in Qatar, with no reference to the issue in the US, which hosted the 1994 World Cup and only legalized homosexuality in 2003.
The dynamics of invisibility and hypervisibility can help clarify the contradictions of what is at once an accurate critique and an unfair, biased one.
Invisibility happens when someone is marked as “the Other” and their accomplishments are seen as unimportant. Invisibility is about disempowerment.
Academics who have studied it in the context of workplace dynamics for women and people of color define visibility as the “extent to which an individual is fully regarded and recognized by others.”
Hypervisibility is heightened scrutiny, or “scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance.” This means if they stay in line or do well, people who are considered low-status go unnoticed. Put a toe out of line, and a hue and cry occurs.
The analysis titled “Scrutinized but not Recognized” published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior studied the experiences of faculty of color in academia. But while it refers to individuals, the Qatar World Cup coverage indicates it may as well be applicable to the power dynamics between nations.
Invisibility means a country such as Qatar — or any non-western nation, really — doesn’t feature strongly on the western radar when it does any good. (Shout out to Al Jazeera!)
But take a violation, look through the prism of orientalism and voila! It becomes hypervisible.
Last week, for instance, Elon Musk gave his employees at Twitter an ultimatum to either work “long hours at high intensity” or leave. Because our own labor abuses remain invisible, Musk’s ultimatum is seen as an aberration. Qatar’s worker abuses are viewed as an extension of its supposed built-in deviance.
In fact, if migrant workers in Qatar work in horrifically unsafe conditions with poor access to health, so do migrant farm workers in Canada. If migrant workers in Qatar are beholden to their employers and vulnerable to abuse because their work visas are tied to their specific jobs, the same exploitation is true of high-paying international students looking to work in Canada.
Did sports journalists travel to a First Nation or Inuit lands and document Canadian abuses before the 2010 Winter Olympics? Or to Ontario farms or even factories and detention centers to document a variety of rights abuses here?
Would a French paper ever depict a Canadian sports team as RCMP officers snatching Indigenous children, in the name of free speech? Yet, Le Canard enchainé saw it fit to publish a cartoon depicting the Qatari soccer team as bearded men brandishing swords, guns and rocket launchers. Hypervisibility is a means of maintaining moral superiority.
Wrongdoing is wrongdoing, Qatar or elsewhere. But the invisibility/hypervisibility dynamic means that it doesn’t get called out equally.
Rendering Qatar’s downside hypervisible sets the ground for public acceptance of any future imperialist policies and thus becomes a project of empire.
The invisibility-hypervisibility dance is ultimately about control.