A history of violence – and bullfighting

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South African writer John M Coetzee’s public appeal to Spain’s Cultural Committee contemplating the decision of whether or not to legally protect bullfighting as a “cultural pastime” essentially pleads with the country’s lawmakers (those dispensers of so-called justice) to be “nicer” to unaware and unfortunate bulls. This recent letter reminds me of Canadian Professor Steven Pinker’s 2007 essay, “A History of Violence”, in which Pinker declares to the general reader that humans are “nobler” now, you know, that they do not burn cats as a “cultural pastime” as they did in 16th-century France – no Sir, they certainly do not, not anymore. Pinker argues that we are “nicer” now – “nicer” than those French of bygone centuries. 

Let us ignore for a moment that the assumption that cat-burning as a cultural pastime with no grander social significance than mere entertainment has been disregarded by scholars such as Keith Tester and Robert Darnton, the latter of whom examines in his 1984 book The Great Cat Massacre an 18th-century episode (that suggests anomaly rather than norm) that convinces one of the notion that cat-burning became an outlet through which exploited workers expressed frustration with their oppressed position in society. They could not have punished the master overworking them all day, thus they punished cats that kept them awake all night. One can disregard this contextualisation, however, and, for the sake of argument, consider Pinker’s position. Cat-burning, with or without reason, is an atrociously cruel act inflicted against a helpless animal. “We” don’t do that anymore. Thus, perhaps we are “nicer” now than we were in the 16th and 18th centuries when cats were trialled and burned. Shall we also, then, disregard the French Feria d’Arles? I suppose the slaughtering of bulls in a Roman arena for highly-priced ticket-purchasing spectators – without the benefit of being frustrated by exploitative working conditions – in the 21st century has not made it to the list of “unthinkable” un-niceties by Pinker.

Steven Pinker’s “A History of Violence” makes three provocative claims: (1) violence in human societies has declined over time; (2) we are, therefore and obviously, getting nicer every day; (3) “Romantic theory gets it backward”, since it does not acknowledge what Pinker considers a self-evident truth: that “something in ‘modernity’” has made us “nobler”. Never mind the fact that if being civilised were directly linked to being less violent, one could reasonably assume that bears do not kill more people than they did in 16th-century Transylvania because they are now more “civilised” and, thus, bears must be doing “something right” – perhaps they, too, are under the influence of “modernity”. Indeed, alternatively, it could be that international bear hunters are killing them off. This is neither here nor there, however, and thus Pinker begins his article in a guarded manner that supports his argument, namely a graphic description of the aforementioned “cat burning” in 16th-century Paris rather than, say, “human burning” in 20th-century Germany.

Pinker’s first claim, that violence has declined over time, is perhaps the most persuasive of the three; his essay demonstrates relevant (yet arguably incomprehensive and selective) research on the topic. The most problematic postulate is the one claiming us to be “noble” humans beings. He does suggest, nevertheless, that we have yet to reach the pinnacle of nicety, since we still enjoy watching displays of displeasure. To prove this, “Shakespearean drama and Mel Gibson movies” are considered adequately similar to be mentioned alongside (unfortunately) one another, both being visual forms of entertainment depicting possible scenarios, sometimes involving violence, to which their human audiences can emotively relate. From this curious fitting it is demonstrated that people “still take pleasure in viewing violence” – and that is not very “nice”.

Pinker provides a general and disturbing narrative of “The History of Violence” in his attempt to illustrate how violence has declined and is at an all-time low. It seems we are now more “civilised” than ever before. The core of Pinker’s argument is that “(W)e’re getting nicer every day.” Alas, he hardly suggests any solid examples to demonstrate just how “nice”. What one cannot contest in Pinker’s essay is the assertion that any attempt to document changes in violence must be “soaked in uncertainty”. Of course, the same claim is applicable to Pinker’s attempt to document the decline of violence in human societies over time. Especially since one may take issue with the fact that the supporting case studies for decrease in violence in “western societies” are England and the Netherlands! Demonstrating the decrease of violence in “western societies” through examples of the manifestation of violent phenomena in England and the Netherlands is somewhat troubling – eg, there are 25–35 people killed every year in England, because of gun control, as opposed to 35 000 in the USA. That Pinker continues with examples of homicide in England is concerning and makes one wonder about his reluctance to utilise objective and comprehensive data representative of the “West”. After all, are not all humans “getting nice”, regardless of the hemisphere in which we reside, since “modernity” has arrived? Pinker proclaims that violence has declined; thus “we”, the “nobler” and “more civilised” beings of this era, outraged at historical barbarisms, “must be doing something right.” Alas, he is not sure what that is – in fact, he voices curiosity when he says he would like “to know, exactly, what it is”. It beats me too. 

It is good to know that today “such sadism as cat-burning as entertainment” would be “unthinkable”. It would have been even better to know that that “such sadism” as subjecting bulls’ horns to flaming torches and running after them for utterly no comprehensible reason whatsoever is equally “unthinkable”. Now that cat-burning is a historical demonstrative of our past cruelty and its absence of our present niceness, where on the spectrum does the contemporary torment of bulls being slaughtered in ancient Roman arenas fall? What should one call the torturing, tormenting and slaying of thousands of bulls each year?

“Indigestible.” Is it a word?

It is not clear to me how humans are “nicer” and “nobler” if they are the composers of these dreadful, horrendous and bloody spectacles! Not only are we getting nicer, Pinker claims, with every sunrise (my words), he also promotes the opinions of those social scientists who “discovered” (discovered?) that Romantic theory gets it “backward” (well then!) when it assumes that our moral standards have worsened with time, when, in actuality, something in “modernity” and the cultural institutions of the “we” who are more “civilised” have made us “nobler”. It is probable that what is “backward” is that in the “modern” age humans have succeeded in manipulating their minds to the point that they endorse false illusions of what “civilisation” means. If “modernity” had brought any “nobler” blood it would, in all likelihood, have stayed in the loops of the industrial revolution rather than create the foundations of other, more violent, revolutions with the help of its industrial apparatus. It is “modernity” that brought us to the juncture at which total obliteration of the world is a button away. It is “modernity” that is flying the drones and carrying out biological and chemical warfare. It is “modernity” that condones capital punishment. In this era, when we, humans, are so “nice”, there are thousands of people who die in revolutions and occupations – hundreds and thousands are pacified by fear or teargas; others die quickly and efficiently under the regimes of their own governments, or those of others. I fear I have to disagree about us getting “nicer” or “nobler,” or more “civilised”. If modern civilisation cannot guarantee its citizens the freedom to live in peace, instead of entrenching them in a culture of fear, how “civilised” or “nice” are we? I am afraid that we are not more civilised, but, indeed, have learned to fake it. We are not “nicer”; we certainly are not “nobler” – whatever that means. Far from being a “cognitive illusion”, Pinker’s perception is not representative of our getting “nobler”, “more civilised” or “nicer”. Sadly, it is rather a sign of denial by the “modern” “cognitive” need to be “civilised” – on the other hand, Pinker may be right, that is to say, the Associated Press may be a better historian than 16th-century monks; alas, our chronicler illustrates to us that our numbness to violence in contemporary society is so severe that one could venture to argue that we are “nice”. What good is it no longer to burn cats if such a crime is one among the many “unthinkable” forms of “sadism” we have discontinued on the path of accumulating and retaining countless others? Among the latter set we have retained the man with the lance in the arena, against the weak and helpless.

In The Lives of Animals Coetzee’s “fleshy white haired” lady, Elizabeth Costello, preaches to deaf ears about cruelty against animals. In the most moving part of her lecture she speaks of an ape – trained to “think” by a man who feeds him, who haphazardly stops feeding him – now the man hangs the bananas over the pen, three metres above the ground above three wooden crates. The ape knows, now, “one is suppose to think” (why not? – though before the ape can “think” he probably wonders where the actual African banana trees have disappeared to). So the ape thinks to himself, “One is suppose to think, but what one must think?”

“One thinks: Why is he starving me?”

“One thinks: What have I done?”

“One thinks: Why has he stopped liking me?”

“One thinks: Why does he not want these crates anymore?”

None of these is the right thought, says Coetzee, through the old woman.

Even a more complicated thought (for instance, “What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?”) is wrong. The right thought to think is: “How does one use the crates to reach bananas?” So, the ape drags crates and piles them on top of each other, climbs, and pulls his banana to eat it. Then the ape asks himself: “Now will he stop punishing me?” No. On the contrary, the poor ape gets other punishments: more difficult tasks than getting his banana. He thinks to himself, from the purity of speculation: “Why do men behave like this?” Why indeed? one wonders.

There is another story I should like to tell to complement this one. There is a man – say he is French, Mexican or Spanish – who feeds a naive bull to make it very strong and healthy, only as part and parcel of a scheme to murder it. To my mind here is a thought process of the naive bull: “One thinks: Why did he separate me from my mother?”

“One thinks: Why did he stop feeding me all the good food and grains in the last two days, and leave me in a dark box that is too small for me? am I too fat?”

“One thinks “Why did he stuff wet and cold matter in my ears, all of a sudden? It drives me insane; why is he stuffing my nose? I cannot breathe! I have stomach ache; what did he give me?

Why did he rub Vaseline in my eyes? It is blurry; am I going blind?”

“One thinks: Why did he jolt that big needle into my testicle? It hurts so much; human males do not have testicles, I suppose, thus they cannot understand the pain.”

“One thinks: I am hungry, blind, in constant pain, deaf, and cannot breathe! I have no balance; what did he do to my legs? There seems to be light afar; when will my suffering stop? Why am I so disoriented? I cannot see; are there people hollering and screaming? Are they here to help me?”

“One thinks: Good heavens, what was that sharp pain? Am I bleeding? Why on earth does he keep throwing lances at me? Yes, I am bleeding! My flesh hurts bad. Why is he punishing me like this? What is it that I am suppose to do?”

“One thinks: I wonder where the other bulls are. Look at me! Now I am bleeding all over. God, what have I done to be tortured?”

“One thinks: How many lances does he have? Maybe he will help me heal my wounds after he runs out of lances. What is that sharp pain? Look, I now have a hole in my neck! That dagger must be at least 5–6 cm thick (pica), and very long, to slash and rip through my flesh! Why am I vomiting blood? Is it my heart and lungs? I am utterly punctured!”

“One thinks: Stop it! stop it, I want to say, but I have no strength; not at all – but even if I did, alas, I cannot speak Spanish or French!”

“One thinks: I am dying now. I want to die this moment; I cannot endure this pain and agony anymore! God! Send me your angels and take me … Why did you make humans hate me so?

What have I done?”

“One thinks: Wait! Why is he cutting my ears and tail? Hey! let me die in dignity, for God’s sake! Leave my ears and tail alone; they are soaked in blood anyway; you have no use for them. Are they going to drink my blood too? Why is he doing this? Why did he slay me? Why is he peeling my flesh, already? Let me die in peace! God, when am I finally going to die?”

“One thinks, in his last breath: what have I done to him?”

Then, a few horses walk into the Roman arena, crying their eyes out – they do not want to be forced to do this job. One horse asks the other: “Why did they torture and slay this bull? He is in so much pain; he is like St Sebastian! He is tortured horribly, body and soul. Why do ‘modern’ humans do this to him? Could it be something in ‘modernity’?” The other horse1 replies: “They are abominable, you know, the human race; they are beastly, that is to say, they have no hearts and no souls – that’s why.”

To seal this story and these thoughts, one is left wondering, while Coetzee invites Spain to be “nicer,” if Pinker would maintain that “we” are “nobler” and more “civilised” now? Is it a “nicer” “cultural pastime” to slay bulls than it is to burn cats? Or shall we stop pretending that our heartlessness is a distant memory? “We” have to own our depravity, I suppose, in order to extinguish it. One wants to say, “Please don’t throw those lances on his flesh and bleed him to death in agony.” One wants to say, “Please look in that bull’s eyes: he is dying a terrible death; he is trembling in pain and humiliation, and your desire is the sole reason.”

One thinks, on behalf of the bull: “Please, for God’s sake, it is enough!”

Por el amor de Dios, por favour, basta!

Pour l’amour de Dieu, il suffit! S’il vous plait …


1. Coetzee, JM. The Lives of Animals, (pp 28–9)
2. Pinker, Steve. New Republic, March 19, 2007
3. Stop Bullfighting, June 8, 2013 (http://www.stopbullfighting.org.uk/facts.htm)

11. Picador horses have their ears stuffed with wet papers, they are blindfolded and their vocal cords are cut so that they are unable to scream in pain – they sometimes stumble on their own entrails after being badly gored […] if recovered (after surgery) they are forced to return to the ring time after time. (Stop Bullfighting, UK)



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  • Wonderful article.  Extremely moving.  Thank you for shedding light on this cruel act.  More people need to speak up for  those creatures we deny a voice to and ignore the tears and sorrow of in the process of torturing and using them for our own nourishment and entertainment.  Kudos.  

  • Paul Douglass

    Thank you for your impassioned, thoughtful article.  Pinker's thesis is provocative, possibly encouraging, but (as you show) also deeply disturbing because of the eerie note of complacency that inheres therein.  Pinker seems to personify a resurgence of a sort of philosophical blindness mocked so mercilessly in Voltaire's Candide. Are human beings--and the world they live in--getting better every day in every way?  It's a fool's paradise that, alas, affects everyone, not just the fool, since it discourages struggle against violence, injustice, and cruelty. Thank you for reminding us that we are both better and more terrible than we would like to think.

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