The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”
Literary Review, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

José Tomás fills the stadium, with people balancing precariously on the ruined walls (from my iPhone)

There was also the argument I had just had with two bullfighting fans, aficionados, about whether bullfights harden one to seeing pain, blood and death (I made the claim in my speech at the Edinburgh Festival, reprinted on this blog).

One of my interlocutors, an elderly amateur bullfighter from the United States, claimed that this was not true, that indeed any form of killing of animals neither hardened one to harming more animals, nor witnessing harm in them or humans – a rather ridiculous piece of defensiveness on the part of a beleagured feeling aficionado práctico.

Supporting me was the retired colonel of a British infantry regiment, who said that were it not true that all such activities hardened one, then the armies of the world were wasting their time and money as all of their training techniques are premised on ideas of “toughening” up and, given that they don’t kill people in training, the transferability of such toughening to other arenas. He is also an aficionado práctico, having ‘caped’ fighting cattle. Although when he was offered the opportunity to kill one, he turned it down for fear he would botch the job on. (A fear that coursed through me when I killed my one and only fighting bull to complete the research for my recent book Into The Arena.)

What the Colonel and I agree on, along with most anti-bullfighting campaigners, is the reality of this process of toughening or hardening, of becoming calloused or callous. As my phrasing shows, the real dispute is over whether this is desirable or not.

During this dispute, I also came to reread a brilliant paper in this area by Victor Nell, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of South Africa, titled, ‘Cruelty’s Rewards: The gratifications of perpetrators and spectators’ in the American journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences in 2006. The paper sets the terms of any discussion about cruelty nicely, so I will quote the beginning of the article’s abstract:

Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on other living creatures, sometimes indifferently, but often with delight. Though cruelty is an overwhelming presence in the world, there is no neurobiological or psychological explanation for its ubiquity and reward value. This target article attempts to provide such explanations by describing three stages in the development of cruelty. Stage 1 is the development of the predatory adaptation from the Palaeozoic [542-251 million years ago] to the ethology of predation in canids [dog family], felids [cat family], and primates. Stage 2, through palaeontological and anthropological evidence, traces the emergence of the hunting adaptation in the Pliocene [5.3-2.6 mya], its development in early hominids [man and his ancestors], and its emotional loading in surviving forager societies. This adaptation provides an explanation for the powerful emotions – high arousal and strong affect – evoked by the pain-blood-death complex. Stage 3 is the emergence of cruelty about 1.5 million years ago as a hominid behavioural repertoire that promoted fitness through the maintenance of personal and social power. The resulting cultural elaborations of cruelty in war, in sacrificial rites, and as entertainment are examined to show the historical and cross-cultural stability of the uses of cruelty for punishment, amusement, and social control.

And the Introduction begins:

Cruelty (from the Latin crudelem, “morally rough”) is the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on a living creature; its most repugnant and puzzling feature is the frequently evident delight of the perpetrators. Cruelty has an overwhelming presence in the world – in wars and massacres, in the routine work of police and military interrogators, in children’s play, and in the dealings of men with women and of adults with children. Although the ease with which situations can overwhelm values and elicit cruelty in hitherto irreproachable individuals is empirically and observationally well established, there is no motivational or neurobiological explanation for cruelty’s prevalence or the fascination it holds. This target article argues that the reinforcement value of pain and bloodshed derives from the predatory adaptation from the Middle Cambrian [513-499 mya] to the Pleistocene [2.6mya-11,000 years ago]. The argument is therefore as follows:

1. Cruelty is a behavioural by-product of predation.

2. Cruelty is driven by reinforcers that derive from this adaptation.

3. Because cruelty presupposes the intention to inflict pain and is therefore exclusively a hominid behaviour, it dates to no earlier than H. erectus, about 1.5 million years ago.

4. Cruelty has fitness benefits in solving problems of survival and reproduction in forager, pastoral, and urban societies.

5. The enjoyment of cruelty is a culturally elaborated manifestation of the predatory adaptation.

These hypotheses generate a research agenda for affective neuroscience, for social psychology, and for violence prevention. They also provide a heuristic for understanding why media violence is attractive, why men find war beautiful, why homicide has been a fixed feature of human societies from prehistoric times to the present, and why, despite the human capacity for compassion, atrocities continue.

The first part of the paper lays out the premise that the universally existent urge to cruelty in humans requires a neurological underpinning – i.e. brain structures that reward the individual for witnessing or perpetrating acts of cruelty – and the formation of that structure means there must be an evolutionary advantage to having it, and the most evolutionarily advantageous development which fits the bill is the development of predation.

The reason cruelty requires its own neurological underpinning is that hunger alone cannot explain the urge of an animal to risk its life in combat with another, nor explain many of the observed behaviours when it does so. There must be a separate but linked urge to attack and kill, and, as with all such drives in the brain, pleasure must be given to the predator during and after the event via hormones flooding the brain, particularly dopamine.

The predator thus becomes excited by the kill and all the things that go with it – the cries and struggle of the prey, the smells and sight of blood and the viscera of the animal, and then the terminal cessation of movement showing completion of the task.

That predation was vital to the species, in terms of the evolution of our absurdly – in primate terms – large brain has been made clear by the research of the physical anthropologist, Katherine Milton, who pointed out that the nutrient levels required to grow such a brain could not come from vegetable matter alone, not least because the forests of Africa were receding at the time.

Eating meat also facilitated a switch to nutrient-low, calorie-high vegetable matter (think potatoes – pure starch) to facilitate the massive calorific burn required by the brain once it was up and running. (A brilliant adjunct to this research, showing that the discovery of fire to cook the food so that it could be properly digested was vital, has been added by the biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human from the same UK publishers as my book Into The Arena.)

Taken in conjunction, Nell’s work and Milton’s seem to show that the introduction of the root of so many evils into Man’s world was actually the necessary development of an energising motivation to attack others animals, which, once the motivation was in place, became extended from hunting them to inflicting pain on his fellow men.

All this to support a brain which was eventually large enough to realise what evil actually was. As another Milton put it, opening his Paradise Lost,

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe

Having established the origins and universality of cruelty, Nell then focuses on its active, sadistic and undeniably negative manifestations. The reasons for this are clear from his career path: Nell led epidemiological studies of traumatic brain injury and interpersonal violence in Johannesburg, headed a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Injury and Violence Prevention, and has published on policing and police accountability, and the psychological impact of Apartheid. The world in which he has immersed himself is a dark one in need of change, and his clinical interest in cruelty is to discern the nature of the beast so he can kill it.

However, there is another aspect to our cruel inheritance which I would argue need not be killed, although it needs domestication, an aspect which Nell mentions at the beginning of his paper and then moves on from, and which came up in my argument on “hardening”. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it,

Cruel: Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.

It is the indifferent, non-sadistic part of this on which I now wish to focus: the hard-hearted, the morally-rough – the side of the word cruel that shares its etymological root with “crude.”

Now, cruelty in any sense of the word has been reduced over the centuries by a “gentling” of the human species through an indulgence of the opposing urges of kindness and compassion, which find their root in an instinctive empathy, itself believed to be neurologically underpinned by structures called mirror-neurones: entities in the brain singular to non-autistic humans and primates (on which see the research of the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, e.g. his books Mindblindness and The essential difference.)

Mirror neurones are types of nerves in the brain which fire both when you do something and when you see it done, creating an unavoidable physical motive for moral philosphy’s Golden Rule, “Do unto others that which you would done to you,” for the simple reason that it feels the same.

That this gentling has been a generally good thing is emphasised by two simple and striking statistics given by the psychologist Steven Pinker in a talk in California in 2007:

If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

In every country analyzed, murder rates declined steeply—for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.

However, here it is worth remembering Aristotle on the virtues:

It is in the nature of moral qualities that they are destroyed by deficiency and excess, just as we can see in the case of bodily health and strength. For both excessive and insufficient exercise destroy one’s strength, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quantity produces, increases and preserves it. So it is the same with temperance, courage and the other virtues. The man who shuns and fears everything is a coward; the man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger, becomes foolhardy. Similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and refrains from none becomes licentious; but if a man behaves like a boor and turns his back on every pleasure, he is a case of insensibility. Thus temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency and preserved by the mean.
(Nicomachean Ethics, II)

All virtues taken to extremes become vices. The obvious reductio ad absurdum of the “gentling effect” is shown when one contemplates what happens when we become so compassionate that we can no longer justify the inevitable damage we do to those around us, and the environment we live in, by our very existence – when all life becomes truly and equally sacred, and we wither away and die for for fear of bruising it, like Nietzsche’s image of Christ:

Instinctive hatred of reality: consequence of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which no longer wants to be ‘touched’ at all because it feels every contact too deeply.
Instinctive exclusion of all aversion, all enmity, all feeling for limitation and distancing: consequences of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which already feels all resisting, all need for resistance, as an unbearable displeasure (that is to say as harmful, as deprecated by the instinct of self-preservation) and knows blessedness (pleasure) only in no longer resisting anyone or anything, neither the evil nor the evil-doer – love as the sole, as the last possibility of life…
(The Anti-Christ, 30)

That this vision needs to be balanced before one goes to far was something Nietzsche himself diagnosed.

Today the taste of the age and the virtue of the age weakens and attenuates the will, nothing is so completely timely as weakness of will: consequently, in the philosopher’s ideal precisely strength of will, the hardness and capacity for protracted decisions, must constitute part of the concept `greatness’; with just as much justification as the opposite doctrine and the ideal of a shy, renunciatory, humble, selfless humanity was appropriate to an opposite age, to one such as, like the sixteenth century, suffered from its accumulation of will and the stormiest waters and flood-tides of selfishness…
(Beyond Good And Evil, VI)

On a pragmatic, political, level, how do we defend those virtues and values which we admire, including gentleness itself, if we are unable to stand up for them, with violence if need be? For it has been made quite clear over the centuries that there have been those, and always will be those, who, for a multitude of reasons, wish to impose extreme and unforgiving ideologies and religions upon society, and who must be met with force. Just as within our own society there are, and always will be, those individuals who will challenge us and those we wish to protect, and to whom we must stand up.

How will an increasingly gentle society meet those challenges? It is worth bringing up here a picture which did the rounds of the Right Wing blogs in the United States in 2007, based on a nauseatingly patronising, if interesting, letter from a soldier to a university student who did not believe soldiers were good role models for citizens.

In this picture, society is composed of sheep guarded by dogs against wolves. The sheep keep asking the dogs to become sheep-like, to stop nipping at their heels, barking, and being generally boisterous and canine, that is, until the wolves come… Then they huddle around the lovely border collies and ask them to be as dog-like and noble as they can (and thus we can justify any military adventure or legislative creep we like).

As a liberal (not a social democrat, but a classical, libertarian-leaning liberal), this is not a picture that has any appeal for me. If we cannot stand up for ourselves and those we love, are not capable of violence – and thus capable of being cruel in the sense of morally rough – then we will have no choice but employ large numbers of these sheepdogs, give up more and more of our liberties to them, and arm them with better and better fangs. In the American model, this works out as military spending of staggering proportions and tearing up half the historic documents from Magna Carta to the Geneva Convention. In the UK version, it often means playing lapdog to the American topdog and with more surveillance of its citizens private lives than any nation in the world, ever (by its own government’s admission.)

Passing over the twisted ethics involved in paying people to do the dirty work we think morally dubious, it is sheer folly to set-up organisations with vested interests in keeping the citizens as sheep-like as possible. One does not even need to imbue the security forces with sinister motives to see this. Take the example of police instructing people not to fight back when someone attempts to rob them in the street. This is done for the seemingly sensible reason that if they advise people to fight back and those people are, in escalating the violence level, injured or killed, then the police would be seen to be partly to blame. Logistically, it also makes the whole prosecution process infinitely more complicated if victim becomes potential perpetrator when the police are confronted with two injured people rather than one.

However, with fewer and fewer people willing to fight back, robbery becomes freed of the only immediate tax it was ever subject to, which is a swift and violent response from the prospective victim.

On the other hand, there is clear evidence that a society more capable of violence has a tendency to erupt more often into violence. However, I have an very vivid memory of reading as in my teenage years of grevious assaults on crowded underground trains where other passengers did nothing. This is the so-called “Bystander Effect”, also called the “Genovese Syndrome” after after Kitty Genovese, a 38-year old woman who was violently raped and murdered over several hours in New York in 1964, reportedly in front of 38 witnesses. (The syndrome was diagnosed in the seminal paper by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané, and although later research shows this particular case to have been wildly exagerated, the syndrome still stands.)

Now, generalising and stereotyping wildly, one doesn’t hear about women being dragged off crowded buses in Kabul. However, I am sure that in Kabul the resulting immense gun-battle if someone tried would be no more desirable, and, hands up who wants to live in Kabul. To return to my earlier thrust, though, as Aristotle and Nietzsche point out, there must be a balance. One does not have to be a fervent Tea Partier with an urge to institute the Second Amendment in the UK to think that gentling taken to the point where we can no longer defend ourselves is a very bad thing indeed. And when concerns of this nature are voiced in government itself, things have come to a pretty pass. See the article in The Times last year which began:

Britain is growing so risk-averse that the public may no longer tolerate deployment of the military, the Armed Forces Minister said yesterday.

It is clear that a capacity for violence is as necessary a feature in a civil society as an overall reality of peace. Nota Bene I do not argue for relaxed gun controls, I believe that the banning of handguns was necessary, and the licensing of hunting rifles and shotguns – for which I hold one – is a just constraint on liberty as well.

And from where does this controlled ability to revert to the attitude of our cruel ancestors come from? Practice. And what can we practice on? The answers given by Nietzsche’s “stormiest waters”, the Renaissance – for example Machiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s The Book Of The Courtier – are hunting and duello.

Duelling is actually a historical extension of the medieval concept of trial by combat, which was explicitly premised on the Almighty only ever favouring the righteous, a prima facie nonsense with a massive evolutionary pay-of given that it favours the survival and prosperity of the strongest fighters in a society, along with their heritable assets of speed and strength (and justice be damned.)

Obviously, duelling, especially at the absurd mortality levels it reached with the invention of accurate firearms with rifled barrels is not to be encouraged. The French, who continued to use the sword as the weapon of choice, had the highest level of duelling in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was seldom fatal. German militarism and efficiency determined the switch to firearms, giving them the highest duelling mortality rates in the world. It is interesting to read how the Nazi party high command at first encouraged duelling as a manly art until it realised the error of its ways when the Officers Corps began to wipe itself out and duly banned it.

Duelling was first suppressed in the British Army by the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars, and later properly banned by Prince Albert with Wellington’s support. That the Iron Duke thought of this in pragmatic rather than ethical terms is made clear by the fact that he fought a duel himself while serving as Prime Minister in 1829. The social decline in duelling in Britain (it was never actually “legal”, therefore never made illegal), was matched by the rise in another martial art, boxing, which still goes on today. (I boxed at school from the age of 9 to 11, until it was banned by my GP who sat on the board of governors.)

As for hunting and shooting (the latter which I first did the same year), it has the subsidiary benefit of allowing humans to maintain their links with the nature from which they came. Whether done with the rifle or the spear, it teaches one the way of animals, the value of the kill, and thus the value of a life. As a member of the WWF from age 11 when I organised a fund raising event for them, I don’t just recognise but actively campaign for the preservation species. However, individual specimens themselves I believe can be killed with impunity by each other and ourselves – in the legal sense, if not the moral one. Killing is an important thing, something you learn especially deeply by doing it. (I will never, ever forget the circumstances in which I killed my first animal, a pigeon, with a 20-bore Spanish shotgun.)

The importance of death, though, can be overstated. It is a universal, and to actively kill an animal is, in a sense, to simply to move forward the date of its death. As such, and this is a key point, this has little bearing on the animal as it has no internal or external calendars or clocks. They do not plan – and I assert this as a fact with the total confidence of long research, excluding certain species, such as primates, elephants, whales and porpoises, the crow and parrot families – and as a result, whether they die tomorrow or next year makes no difference to them. What makes the difference to them is whether or not they are alive now, but given that they are not immortal, when that stops is not a matter of any import (a fact implicit in our habit of putting down our pets rather than our relatives.)

Also, my great question to people who protest the big game hunter’s choice to hunt and kill a magnificent and noble animal (purely aesthetic concepts of course, with little or no ethical weight) like the lion is exactly what sort of death do those they think is suitable for an animal that spent its life, and owes its life to, the sustained and violent slaughter of other animals? Is the natural, traditional route of half-starvation followed by the hyena-pack death – the weakened lion fighting back until they do what the lion did so many times and begin to devour him from his defenceless hindquarters while he is still alive – is that any better? One feels, time and again, that such people are against the hunters than for the hunted. And all the while, as Housman put it,

… nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know

Now, there is a third pursuit or entertainment, which can make the human psyche used to perceiving pain and blood and death and thus perform the necessary counterbalance to the gentling, progressive forces, and it is singular to those regions where you find Spanish fighting bulls – Spain, France, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and – with the difference of the bull being killed outside the ring by a veterinarian – Portugal.

I have defended elsewhere on this blog that bullfighting as the English call it, and the corrida de toros as it is more properly known, is relatively less detrimental to animal welfare than the meat industry (‘Bullfighting is not a moral wrong’) and that it is not a sport and thus neither unsporting, nor unfair (‘Is Bullfighting An Art?’). However, these have never been the real arguments against it. The real argument has been with the audience for wishing to watch it: for being vicious – the opposite of virtuous – either in the active sense, baying for blood, or the passive one, by ignoring it. As Lord Byron’s Childe Harold puts it while watching one in Cadiz:

Nurtured in blood betimes, his heart delights
In vengeance, gloating on another’s pain.

Now, I do not doubt that the audience in the days of Byron did indeed take an active interest in blood, and there may well be such people still today in Spain (note, League Against Cruel Sports, I say “may”, not “I don’t doubt” as I hyperbolically stated elsewhere). However, what the sociologist Norbert Elias called the “civilizing progress” happened in Spain as much as the rest of Europe.

Indeed, Elias’s thesis on the move from feudal lords defended by warrior-knights to majestic and pompous kings flattered by refined courtiers, a shift which then trickles down through society by imitation of one’s “betters”, has no better example than in Spain when the Borbón dynasty frowned on bullfighting and discouraged its nobility from involvement, converting it from the knightly joust, finished by a servant delivering the coup de grace (the matador, ‘killer’), to a celebrity performer employing a horseman to facilitate his actions with the bull.

In fact, it is a form of gentling that has changed the bullfight into what it is today. The horse is armoured and leaves the ring perhaps shaken (dependent on training), undoubtedly bruised, but invariably uninjured in the true sense. The use of fire-banderillas, the setting of dogs on “cowardly” bulls, are all banned, as is drugging, injuring or shaving the horns of the bull before it enters the ring. What is more, the audience now actively protests the over-enthusiastic use of the lance by the mounted picador, and vocally expresses its disgust when the killing sword opens a conduit between artery and lung causing blood to spew out of the bulls nostrils and mouth. Just as they whistle the the inability of a matador to kill effectively and quickly.

That gentling is as much about aesthetics rather than ethics is clear when one considers that the bloody death is almost always a quick one. (However, it certainly proves the absence of blood lust.)

So if not the blood, then what is the audience focussing on? And how does the moral roughness manifest itself? This is worth considering methodically.

The audience of true aficionados is focused first of all on the bull when it enters the ring: what he looks like when he comes out of the toril gate, how he holds himself, his weight and musculature, how quickly he charges a man or cape in the ring. The phrases called out at the beginning of the fight, the whistling or applause, are all about the appearance of the bull.

The audience then studies the bull to see how he will fair during the course of the corrida, looking at his speed, energy levels, stamina and the sustenance of his ferocity. They also begin to look at the matador to see how his work with the large pink cape is shaping up.

If the matador then manages to put in a series of passes with the cape – this being before the picador and banderilleros have touched the bull – then the audience’s eye will shift to the capework itself, which is an interplay of man and bull, each one’s capacities permitting the other’s to exist in a linked series of games of invoke and charge, the absolute goal of which being elegance. The danger to the matador is a factor here, but it is like a metaphorical background music to the drama: the closer the bull’s horns come, the louder the music.

When the mounted picador enters, the people return their focus almost exclusively to the bull, wishing to see his ferocity in how quickly he charges the heavy horse, his strength in whether he can move the three-quarter tonne of armoured mount and rider, and his fortitude in pushing himself onto the picador’s lance-point. People want the picador to work well, but no more than that. It is the qualities of the bull they are interested in. Equally, the first sight of blood is pretty much ignored. Too injurious a “pic” will produce an excess of blood (although nowhere near 16 pints veterinary texts state will effect behaviour, a bull having 64 pints in its body), and this is protested by the crowd, but the majority of the audience has little sight of the blood, not least because the bull is most often black.

The act of the banderillas is, in my eyes, the most cruel act of all. This is not just because of the 3cm-long harpoon points, but because, unlike the picador’s lance whose purpose is to damage the bull, to bring its head down so the bull may be passed closer to the body in the final act, the purpose of the points is to wake up the fatigued bull with pain (or so it appears to me). The audience at this point put their focus on the banderilleros’ athletic skills in avoiding the points of the bull’s horns as they place the “sticks”, but they cannot help but witness the ferocious response of the animal.

Finally, in the act of the muleta, the small red cape, the audience’s true intent is shown. “Vivemos en la epocha de la muleta,” the former matador Eduardo Dávila Miura used to say to me at our classes, ‘2e live in the age of the muleta.” Here the transfer of the audience’s interest and attachment to the man – the matador – is almost complete.

As he slowly winds the animal around his body, inciting its charge again and again, bringing its head down in humility, slowing its pace, showing his complete mastery of this surging dark incarnation of savage Nature and Death, he stands as an ideal for what the people in the audience wish themselves to be: masterful, elegant, fearless of either injury or death, admired by their fellow men, and with a palpable sense of the seriousness and tragedy of existence. The blood is absolutely irrelevant to them, indeed, the muelta is red to mask it as is the most traditional matador suit-colour.

The matador whose photos punctuate this page, José Tomás, has his detractors and their greatest complaint is the amount of blood: often his own, sometimes the bull’s from caping it so close. At a lunch on recently in Seville, the great British aficionado Michael Wigram expressed to me just such a view, describing with fervent approval how the late matador Antonio Bienvenida could leave the ring having killed six bulls with only a little blood on the hand that held the killing sword: the courtier ethos extended to the point of killing itself. (Bienvenida was killed inthe ring in 1975.)

As for the kill itself: it must be quick, clean, simple and brave – the matador not putting the sword in from the side, but going over the horns before deviating off course once the blade has struck its mark.

So, if that is the focus, the “gaze” of the corrida spectator, then where does their cruelty lie? It lies in wishing to witness a man and his team injure and kill an animal as part of a work of performance art. And in ignoring the pain inflicted and the blood that is shed in this process. There is simply no way one can get around that. Exactly as, when I order a slice of jamón in a tapas bar in Seville for the flavour, or a bacon sandwich on a train in England for a lesser version of the same – neither of which I need for sustenance, both of which have in fact a nutritionaly negative value – a far more intelligent animal, and thus one far more capable of suffering, is killed at my orders in an abattoir. The difference being that at least I pay the bull the respect of watching , and thus ensuring to some extent, that he dies well. Unlike the pig as you see below:

Photo: Tommaso Ausili

Now, I am not arguing for the introduction of bullfighting to Britain to “toughen” us up, to counterbalance the “gentling” which does seem to be going too far in our culture (something that mixes badly with our rather sweet, if provably false, anthropomorphising of other species.) I am with the Spanish poet Ferderico García Lorca when he said in his famous lecture on Duende, the ‘dark spirit’ most often spoken of in the world of flamenco:

It is not an accident that all Spanish art is linked to our mountains, with their thistles and sharp stones…

In all other countries death is an end. It arrives and the curtains are drawn. In Spain, no. In Spain they open. Many people there live indoors until the day they die and they are taken out into the sun. A person dead in Spain is more alive than dead than anywhere else in the world…

With the bullfight duende acquires its most impressive accents, because you have to fight, on the one hand, with Death, which can destroy it, and on the other hand, with geometry, with measurement, the foundations of the fight…

Spain is the only country where death is the national spectacle, where death plays long trumpets the arrival of spring, and his art is always ruled by a sharp duende who has given it its difference and its quality of invention.

Were it brought to England, it would have none of these things, none of duende’s spiritual highlights and tragic blacknesses to diminish the visibility, literally and metaphorically, of the blood, and thus it would become pathologically cruel, in the sense of a disease of the soul, rather than merely requiring a rightly hardened spirit. (Following this logic admirably, the land of the philosophes, France, recently made bullfighting an “Untouchable Cultural Heritage”, but has its legislation set so that only those places with a proveable history of bullfighting are permitted to hold corridas.)

Of course, when one is in Spain, then one can enter into the spirit of the thing in a different manner, as one can all artforms of all historical periods, using a little imaginative insight, what the philosopher Vico called entrare.

I should like to end with what I said at the end of my book, after I had killed my own bull, Consejote, and you can see for yourself exactly what form my cruelty takes.

I was washed over with the feeling of what I had done. I have no idea how to describe it; it was a thousand things at once. Guilt, shame, happiness, elation, pride, vanity, and a profound grief and loneliness. I felt that I knew him, that I had got to know him in the moments before his death. And that I had ignored him, focused hard as I was on fighting him and surviving him. But now I could appreciate him as the great, beautiful incarnation of the natural world that he had been.

He lived three years among his brothers, and died within their call, in the country where he belongs. And in that ring are all the tragic and brutal truths of the world unadorned. It is for that reason above all that you cannot ban the bullfight, because it is already contained in the very facts of life itself. All you can do is turn away.

Aristotle (4th Cent. B.C.) Nicomachean Ethics, translated by J. A. K. Thomson in 1953. Penguin.
Baron-Cohen, S. (1995) Mindblindness: an essay on autism and theory of mind. MIT Press.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2003) The essential difference: men, women and the extreme male brain. Penguin Books
Byron, G. (1812) Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. John Murray.
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1 thought on “The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

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