Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dogfighting Versus Boxing

It's amazing that months after Michael Vick went to jail, I'm still hearing and reading about how dogfighting is somehow morally equivalent to boxing. In the December issue of The Ring, editor-in-chief Nigel Collins writes an editorial on the subject steeped in caveats, but not so steeped that his actual point of view isn't clear. That point of view, boiled down? Cockfighting is dogfighting is bull-baiting is boxing.

But it's not. And it's important for me to be able to explain why, to myself if to no one else, as someone for whom boxing fandom has been something of an ethical quandary.

The key passages of Mr. Collins' piece:

"Michael Vick's involvement in illegal dog fighting reminded me of how closely boxing was associated with other so-called blood sports back in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the bare-knuckle era, it wasn't just dogs versus dogs. It was also dogs versus bears, bulls, and badgers, all of which were lumped together with prizefighting and often covered in the same periodicals by the same journalists."

Following that is a summary of his own experiences studying and attending animal fighting sports, where, he noted, successful bull-killing dogs were "were awarded expensive, often jewel-encrusted collars" instead of championship belts, as if that act of awarding a collar to a dog (which doesn't really want one unless he's been conditioned to, so it isn't really "awarded") is some kind of fascinating common link to a human winning a belt (who does indeed want one if he's a boxer).

He concludes with two paragraphs that sort of get to his point.

"I make no judgments here, but there is an underlying link between boxing and the other blood sports that a lot of folks don't want to think about. True, there are some fundamental differences. Boxers supposedly box of their own free will, whereas most of the animals involved have no choice. But there is also an underlying factor involved in both activities, without which neither would exist: the atavistic pleasure human beings derive from violence.
We all like to draw distinctions and set parameters, but it doesn't matter whether that pleasure comes from watching two men box or two animals fight. It springs from the same root, always has, always will. It's part of being human and the reason you're reading this magazine."

I think what Mr. Collins is doing here is disguising his actual opinion -- boxers "supposedly" box of their own free will? "Most" of the animals don't have a choice? Sounds like to me he's dismissing the main argument about why boxing and dogfighting are different, without doing so directly. Just to quibble, insofar as there is such a thing as free will, boxers do box of their own free will, a subject I'll address later in this blog entry; while animals might fight in the wild, to my knowledge, none of them sharpen their teeth or wear knives on their feet, and none of them on their own would fight in a ring surrounded by cheering fans until their masters pulled them apart, what with them not having human masters in their wild dog packs.

Incidentally, while I'm quibbling, it might be helpful to the history lesson to explain why the same journalists who covered boxing simultaneous to covering animal fighting no longer do, but I'll let a modern day sportswriter do so here. Succinctly, it's about the fact that humans have a choice that dogs do not. And of course, it's not as if the 18th and 19th centuries were the good old days of morality. Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a fan of the Founders of our country as you'll find. But when it came to respect for the rights of Earth's creatures, well, it was still a relatively new concept, what with slavery flourishing and 80-hour work weeks getting reimbursed pretty poorly for some of those who weren't slaves. I think we're doing a little better these days on those counts, and that's a good thing, right?

I don't deny that human beings do, in some cases, derive an "atavistic pleasure" from violence. But I think the key phrase there -- mine, not Mr. Collins' -- is "in some cases."

You see, not all violence is equal. It sounds strange that I'd even have to say that.

I doubt Mr. Collins derives "atavistic pleasure" from witnessing domestic violence. I doubt he would find much enjoyment in watching one man beating another man confined by ropes or chains. I doubt he would take any "atavistic pleasure" in staring at the murder of an innocent. I'm guessing he wouldn't even like be ringside to see a heavyweight knock out -- and likely kill in the doing -- a flyweight.

And yet, the sweep of his piece would almost seem to justify that, by saying that our enjoyment of boxing is essentially the same as anyone else's enjoyment of other "blood sports."

So let me explain my point of view on this, because it's something I've struggled with mightily. I think there are only a few circumstances where one can be on the safe side of morality in enjoying violence. (I should say that I'm not the typical boxing fan in this regard in that my appreciation of violence is secondary to my appreciation of boxing skill and strategy. My praise of fighters with knockout power is primarily because it makes them more interesting strategically, like a queen on a chess board.) Fake violence, for one, is safe from a moral perspective -- movie violence harms no one, although I would argue against producing lengthy pieces that appeal to a specific pathology, like, say, a film featuring extensive gratuitous sequences of child abuse. But in the sporting world, I would put that "safe" label on any kind of highly-regulated competitive event that guards as much as possible against death or permanent injury, via the introduction of such concepts as weight classes, where both competitors are there of their own free will. That would include boxing, kickboxing and even the Ultimate Fighting Championship which, although it bores me, has come a long way from its "human cockfighting" roots and as such is no longer banned across the country.

It's pretty simple, really. It's why we've arrived at those rules of engagement. It's why we're constantly debating whether there ought to be more rules to ensure more safety.

I think where enjoyment of boxing gets into its shadiest moral areas is on the periphery of the debate over free will. Either we have it or we don't, and while I can't begin to address that subject here, I can say with some confidence that humans are better equipped to rationally decide their fates than dogs, bears and chickens. Even still, the fact is that most boxers come from the lower economic classes. There are many exceptions, with modern day superstars like Oscar De La Hoya and Marco Antonio Barrera coming to the sport from middle and upper class backgrounds. I'm tremendously sympathetic to the fear that one's next meal might never come, having spent a brief period -- very brief -- sick, broke, jobless and virtually homeless. I can only imagine what it must be like for people in more destitute parts of the world. In situations like that, one can reasonably ask, is a boxer who fights to feed himself and his family, who by virtue of his particular mixture of nature and nurture is hardly equipped to do much else for money, really fighting of his own free will? I say, again, insofar as free will exists: "Yes." Boxing's a more legitimate way of making a living than crime, where a talent for violence could also come in handy. Boxing, in circumstances such as this, is a far better choice. And I can tell you that I lustily root to see those fighters succeed.

And, at any rate, a dog doesn't have the same options. When a dog has to fight to eat, it's because his master has imposed that condition on him, not because he's picked that choice from a variety of bad options.

We do all "like to draw distinctions and parameters." Indeed, we should. And we should because we can.

I mean, come on. Seriously.


JimPanzee said...

I wrote a response here that was so long I ate up my morning, which would mean no blog for me. So I edited the comment and posted it at Porch Dog.

Excellent article.

Kitchen said...

Man. This is your first post that I've felt qualified to respond to... and there's so much here that I'd need to write a book to sum up my feelings.

I find real violence troubling: I don't like watching people get hurt. But I'm not about to insist that people stop boxing any more than I'm about to insist that people stop doing any number of other dangerous things for a living.

I think people should be allowed to make bad choices for themselves. When you say to people: "You can't box" or "You can't climb that mountain" or "You can't smoke weed," you are limiting their freedom.

Dog-fighting would only be equivalent to boxing if we lived in Roman times and went around arresting peasants and forcing them to fight each other until one of them couldn't get up.

Tim -- said...

Kitchen: Your dislike of real violence is understandable. Obviously, I'm a former inhabitant of your world. And I still don't like watching people fight outside the context of boxing -- like, I'm not interested in watching hockey fights. But I dig the open-minded pov. And this can't have been the first post you've been qualified to talk about, right? Surely you'd be qualified to comment on some excellent turn of phrase or something. ;) Anyway, glad you visited.

Tim -- said...

Jimpanzee: Do I respond on my blog, or yours? A uniquely bloggy conundrum. Obviously I was familiar with your original posts on Vick. I decided to break out on the issue on my blog's area of specialty because of The Ring piece, which, it must be noted, despite being dated "December" is actually a couple months old; but I only just purchased the issue. Thanks for picking up on the point of enhance danger vs. minimize danger. There were a couple areas where I thought about making the points more firmly, and I don't regret not doing so since you've done it for me.

JimPanzee said...

No conundrum, you comment any ol place you like. I just get long winded and rather than have one more blog-free day, I decided to post the comment there.

There is another element here, that at first presents itself as mere semantics but might help flesh out this argument. I'm not sure how "violent" boxing is. One of the things that makes real violence so intolerable is its passionate , furious nature, the sickening uncontrollableness of it. While I'm certain that boxers in the ring experience fear and anger and other adrenal-related pathos, those elements are restrained in a way that they are not with two men in a parking lot, or to use Tim's example, in cases of domestic abuse.

Sports, because their social context is restricted to entertainment, do not teach kids that violence is an answer to problems, the way that street brawls or domestic violence do.

When we think of the bad elements of violence, I don't think we find many of them inside the boxing ring. This might be one of those logic problems: how many grains of violence can we take away before boxing really isn't violent at all. It certainly has things in common with "violence" but I'm not so sure it is violent. Sans emotion and a normative social context boxing is really reduced to two men punching each other for an hour. The only people hurt are the two men in the ring.

Not that the fights can't be emotional, but so long as the fight follows the rules, the fact that the fighters are emotional too normally serves to elevate rather than detract from the fighter, Think Ali vs Ernie Terrell.

Kitchen said...

gbus - rest assured your razor wit has robbed me of many otherwise productive work hours.

jimpanzee - a car crash can be violent even when it's a total accident. i'm not sure if intent is an important consideration.

i think the more interesting question is - which types of violence should we tolerate, and which should be illegal?

BOB said...

I guess I just like a little more violence than the next guy.

I don't like watching UFC because they tame down the violence, PRIDE use to be 10 times better because they allowed stomping and kicking the face, but they have been taken over by UFC and now do the same tame stuff.

If I were in a foreign country there is no doubt I would go watch a cockfight or dogfight or whatever.

I must again go to the classic lines by Mobb Deep "Survival of the Fittest...Only the Strong Survive"

JimPanzee said...

I think the use of the word "violent" when applied to car accidents is different than the use of the same word when applied to fisticuffs. The former seems to apply to the amount of force. A car accident can be violent in a test situation where no one is harmed. "Violent" when applied to a fight seems to apply to a measure of emotional intensity as much as, if not more than, to physical trauma. Mike Tysons' early fights, marked by single digit punches that left his opponents unconscious utilized effective and dramatic use of physical force but were not "violent," at least not relative to other fights.

As always, I think intent is a very important part of any moral analysis.

Tim -- said...

Bob: I think it's fair to say that you like a little more violence than the next guy. But I won't hold it against you too much if you don't hold it against me that I have zero interest in seeing a man's face get stomped.

Jimpanzee and Kitchen: I guess I think of boxing as violent, mostly, and that intent does matter, as a general factor in any debate on morality. As far as the place of emotion goes -- I've seen fights in where emotion enhanced the fight, and I've seen it go the other way. Barrera and Morales hated each other, and it showed, but they were both so good on the skill side of things that the hate seemed to improve their fights, not make them worse. On the other hand, I don't want to watch two people who hate each other fight outside the ring, because of the uncontrolled nature of it. It's ugly stuff, to me, unless there's some element of control -- which you get in boxing and other sports where you can't hit a guy with a brick if you're losing. (And if somehow you do, you'll be disqualified, a powerful disincentive when it's your career.)

dammrod said...

Excellent post, and I agree with what you posted.

I think boxing transcends the base. It's not a street fight. It's not two guys bashing each other for scraps or chump change like the battle royales of the long ago South. It's two skilled men who have volunteered to face each other as a chance to display their skill and will with financial recompense.

And you made a good point that boxing is much more preferable then violent crime. Boxing has saved thousands of people from gangs, drugs, and petty theft. Not to mention that some people fare worse without boxing.

Tim -- said...

Thanks, Dammrod. You know, you raise two points I almost touched upon. One, even though boxing's come a long way, I'd love to see these guys get paid more. Too many of their promoters screw them over, and that shouldn't happen as often as it does. There's also been a lot of talk over the years about how to provide them some kind of pension.

Two, I hesitated to advance the argument you advanced on "if not boxing" too far beyond what I did, because it could open one to the counter: "Just because boxing's better than something extremely horrible doesn't mean we shouldn't get rid of boxing if it, too, is incredibly horrible." That doesn't mean it's not a valid argument; it's just that, like Jimpanzee, I'm glad you did it so that I didn't have to.

Kitchen said...

I still think boxing is violent by any reasonable standard. I'm just not sure if that's enough to make it "wrong." And I think free will (or whatever illusion of it we choose to maintain) makes the difference...