The Hyperion Chronicles
"The Gold Standard for Prioritized Outrage"

#457 Dogfight

By now even non-sports fans have heard the news that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury on dog fighting charges. The details are salacious and grisly, and that is why virtually every newscast will lead with them (because the Sixth Amendment doesn't have hard enough a time).

It is not my interest or intention in this column to talk about Vick or these specific allegations. That can come later, if reader interest warrants or demands. For now, I will assume, like any other American, that Michael Vick is innocent of the charges until proven otherwise.

What does seem clear is that at the very least Vick is guilty of having some bad friends. This is not on-message of what I want to talk about, but please allow me a short diatrabic aside:

We see professional athletes getting into trouble for what often amounts to their associations with other people. How many times have you wondered to yourself, "Why does that guy continue to hang out with those people when he has so much to lose?" Sadly, because people fear this is a racial issue it is virtually ignored.

Some professional athletes came out of (or escaped) rough situations. Now they have money, and it is not unnatural that they would trust their old friends from back home who knew them before fame more than newcomers. There is pressure to stay with the old group, even when some might be looking for trouble. The headline-splashed results should not be surprising. I find it deplorable that the various professional sports leagues do not recognize this simple truth and do everything in their power to help all young players (whether they come from nothing or middle class or wherever) manage their fame and fortune better. Because of the silence on this issue all America sees is one black athlete after another getting into trouble, which leads to far more racist ideas on the part of Middle America than if the issue were just addressed honestly.

Back to the dog fighting. It is an issue that absolutely infuriates people, and I am sensitive to that. On the other hand, I am sensitive to other aspects of the story that you will not read about anywhere else.

For example: not every culture shares America's ethic when it comes to animal fights. You can sit there absolutely certain that dog fighting represents monstrous behavior, but if you are to have any understanding of the world at all you must recognize that there are large parts of it that think differently. (And before you write me an angry letter about how you are right and they are wrong remember that there are a billion Hindus who consider what you had for dinner last night the height of blasphemy, so stow it.)

I used to be more absolute on this. I once went to a bullfight in Tijuana and was horrified at what I saw. How could that be moral? It was cruel and bloody. However, I am wiser now, and while I do not want to watch any more bullfights, neither do I think that my cultural upbringing encompasses all aspects of morality. Is it any more "immoral" to kill an animal in a bullfight than to shoot it hunting or slaughter it for food? I think it is, but I cannot prove it, and I recognize there are arguments on both sides.

Regardless of what other cultures do, however, America in general thinks of dogs highly and dog fighting is illegal. There are reasons for it beyond just the act itself, such as the associations dog fighting often has with organized crime. Some studies also seem to indicate a propensity for human participants to become more violent. I do not have a problem with those claims, although like before I am not avowing them true. I accept the law as it is without complaint.

However, there is a racial aspect to this story that is not covered. When the trouble with Vick first surfaced another NFL player named Clinton Portis made comments basically saying what's the big deal? Portis talked about how growing up he could go down any number of back roads in Louisiana and find dog fighting. The comments were quickly condemned as ignorant and awful, and the NFL actually came out and apologized for Portis's remarks. What Portis said might have been ill advised, but more from a public relations angle. He was simply relating his experience, which I think more than a few Southern (and especially black) professional athletes probably knew about, even if they were wise enough to keep quiet.

(I feel silly even pointing this out, but as this column will be no doubt misunderstood, let me state clearly that just because Portis said what he did DOES NOT mean all or even most black people feel that way.)

Further complicating matters is this: if you live in the South you have almost certainly noticed that a much larger percentage of black people are scared of dogs than other ethnicities.

I do not know how to make it any plainer than that. I am not making a generalization or an absolute statement, but you have either lived here and you know what I am talking about, or you do not and you now think I am crazy. Believe me: fifteen years ago, I would have agreed with you. However, I have seen it too many times for the phenomenon not to be significant. How significant? I have no idea. I cannot begin to tell you the percentages, but I have still seen it, and anyone who is honest will tell you the same thing.

The question of why is one that is unanswerable, but there is a theory that seems tantalizing. Back in the days of slavery, dogs were often used to track down runaway slaves and keep the rest of the slaves in line. What does that have to do with African Americans today? I am not one of those "inherited memory" people. However, it doesn't take much of a leap to find it plausible that at the time of slavery most black people had a fear of dogs—with good reason—and that fear was handed down culturally, even if people were not even always aware of it. I am not saying this is the main reason or I have begun to prove anything, but it makes sense.

I loathe playing amateur sociologist; but one cannot help but wonder if that for some African Americans the laissez-faire attitude toward dog fighting is connected to culturally inherited attitudes about dogs. That may sound like a defense argument and it is not, but it is something that should not just be dismissed.

The last thing I want to mention on this story shifts gears a bit. On a personal level, I cannot help but be distressed and disgusted by the details of dog fighting and what happens to the winners and losers. Any cultural insight I may or may not have gleaned onto does not change that for me. However, in a way I am also angered by the reaction.

I'm not kidding: people just get furious over dog fighting—or any time an animal is hurt, and while part of me understands, the other part of me wants to shake the collective country by the collar. How dare we be so incensed by cruelty to animals when we are so oblivious to the suffering of humans? What about the welfare of children, poor people and others in our own country? How dare we get outraged and demand harsh justice for dogs—much as we love them—when we spend most of our lives willfully ignoring the abject suffering going on around the world?

Whatever you think of the alleged crimes here, I do not want to dissuade you. However, they absolutely pale in comparison to the human crimes we hear and forget about in the next sentence. DUIs and spouse-abuse go in one ear and out the other. Do you understand me? Someone drives drunk, putting everyone on the road with him at risk, and we brush that off. Someone beats his wife, and it is a "domestic incident." If we are going to hold athletes up to scrutiny, why not flip out about these crimes, and demand that team owners cut a player for such behavior? Why do we not have an appropriate level of outrage for violence done to humans?

But we do not. We care a lot more about the injuries to some dogs. And as much as I care about dogs and do not want to see them hurt, our society's Prioritized Outrage says much worse about us.

July 18, 2007

1. Prioritized Outrage sounds like a movement, doesn't it?

2. Yes, I made up the word "Diatribic," but it should be a word, don't you think?

3. This column was originally posted on The Hyperion Chronicles. you can find other articles there on a variety of topics if so inclined.


Being July 18, it is International Top Ten List Day. You would think I would have my act together enough for a fantabulous list, but Michael Vick sort of took up all my free time. However, not to disappoint, I command you to go to Rank Everything and read an entire month, in this case November of 2005. You can skim until you find a list you like, but with rankings on band names, movie beards, candy bars, cartoon voices and being "deck," you are sure to find something you love. (And when you do, how about get off your lazy mouse and leave a comment!)


Our Campfire Story continues over at Monkey Barn, where we are on the third installment, brought to us by Biff Spiffy. People, I laughed and laughed and laughed so much, I had to change the motto over there to one of his lines. Totally worth checking out:

Harry Potter and the Haunted Monkey Barn: Chapter 3

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People generally care more about an animal the more human that it seems. Many fewer people would care if there was a fish fighting club, and only a small percentage of people might care if there was an insect fighting club.

I believe that the level of outrage that people show toward these kinds of incidents is a function not only of the severity of the act, but of how human the victims are. My guess is that you value human welfare much more than the welfare of a dog, to the extent that a less severe act on a human outweighs a more severe act on a dog. Maybe some of the people outraged at the dog fighting don't hold the same relationship between those values.

Then again, the demographics of the human crimes you mention must be a factor. I hate the neverending coverage of such stories as Jean-Benet Ramsey when hundreds of people are murdered or missing around the country every day.

As far as the team owners go, it seems that at least the NFL is trying to crack down more on bad behavior. Is it enough? That remains to be seen. Ultimately, people are responsible for themselves and their own actions, and I don't believe that it is their employers' responsibility to look after them. The athletes are still drawing money for them, so there's no incentive for them to change.