A bull slowy bleeds while spectators look on passively. Photo by Mait Jüriado
As a student in Beijing, back in 2007, I used to travel quite often by taxi. Taxi drivers in Beijing are incredibly friendly people and always encourage you to chat with them, which is great when you are trying to learn Chinese. Of course, one of the first questions is always “What country are you from?”. After I answered Spain, the common response I got was either the driver lifting both hands off the wheel and using his index fingers to imitate the horns of a bull, which as I’m sure you can imagine is quite stressful when you are travelling at a fairly high speed; or some variation of the phrase: “Spain? Bullfighting is great!”
Unfortunately, at that time, after only having learned Chinese for a year, my Chinese was not good enough to answer with “I am morally opposed to bullfighting”, so I had to settle for the rather less impressive “I don’t like bullfights”. After that, the driver usually stared at me in confusion and asked “Why?”. Once, again, my Chinese was severely lacking and rendered me unable to communicate my elaborate point, but I usually managed to articulate “Because kill bull”.
The usual response to that was and still is, utter shock. Not only from taxi drivers but also from a lot of my Taiwanese or Chinese friends. A lot of them are not aware that the animal is killed. People who were enthusiastic about bullfighting at the beginning of the conversation become more and more disillusioned or upset as I go into the details of exactly what bullfighting entails.
I often wonder how there can be such misinformation about what bullfighting is. The killing is essential to the activity, and yet, both in Asia and in Europe, a lot of people seem to believe that bullfighting is running in front of a bull. This is actually a very specific festival called San Fermin, which is unique to the city of Pamplona (incidentally, this festival still culminates in a bullfight in which the bulls are killed). Whilst it’s probably not true that the Spanish government deliberately promotes this misunderstanding, it is certainly quite convenient that many people are not aware of the bloody nature of the act.
I realise that there are lots of different types of events that are called bullfighting, and lots of different spectacles that involve bulls. However, I am focusing specifically on the version practiced in Spain and in certain parts of Southern France, the only variety that includes the intentional killing of a bull for entertainment. Bullfighting has been one of the identifying features of Spain for quite some time, and is up there with paella and flamenco as one of the experiences tourists crave when visiting Spain. Its association with Spain was probably accentuated thanks to attempts from the Spanish fascist government to rally the people in support of an intrinsically “Spanish” activity, and indeed the propaganda from the fascist era includes many nationalist slogans exalting the act.
The issue of bullfighting and its status as art or brutality has been debated endlessly by both advocates and detractors. One of the common arguments that supporters of bullfighting repeat ad nauseam is that the bull is given a dignified, honourable and noble death, in addition to a chance to prove its worth and fight for its life. It must be noted that for a human being there may be a distinction between an honourable death and one that isn’t; for example, the samurai practice of Seppuku (ritualized suicide) being preferable to dishonour or slow death. However, for a bull, there is no such thing as an “honourable” death, since honour is a purely human fabrication. Moreover, we could once again argue that there is, in any case, no honour or dignity in being slowly tortured by a group of armed thugs dressed up as clowns while a group of spectators leers and brays for blood. If it was a human being killed this way, would it still be called a “honourable” way to die?
However, out of these three erroneous claims, the most outlandish is the implication that bullfighting benevolently grants a bull a chance to “prove its worth”. A bull does not have a sense of worth, seeing as this is a human construction which stems from the way we are viewed by others and the way we see ourselves. Even if a bull had this sense of worth, surely it would not be derived from being humiliated and scared, since if anything one might say that would diminish its sel-esteem. Neither would it derive its value from trying to kill other living beings, the bull being the peaceful animal that it is. The whole concept is quite bizarre since the bull never requested a chance to “prove its worth”, and even when forced to do so is very reluctant to engage its opponent. The notion that the bull is fighting for its life is laughable at best since the cases when the bull is spared are ridiculously far and between, and in any case the bull usually dies from its wounds shortly after. It seems that it is rather a case of the bullfighter proving its worth by conquering the beast.
Some of the arguments advocates use attempt to remove human attributes from the bulls, presumably to establish a distance between themselves and the animals by turning a blind eye to any human traits they might possess. The most common way these people do this is with the sentence “el toro no sufre” (the bull doesn’t suffer). Whilst it is true that we do not yet know the extent to which animals suffer pain in the same way that humans do, it is certainly hard to argue that the cries of anguish the bull emits and the distressed look on its face are due to the joy of the experience.
The other common argument where bulls are dehumanized, is saying that bullfighting is a form of art or culture, therefore lowering the death of an animal to an art form, which obviously could never be said of killing a human. According to the Merrian-Webster dictionary, art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects” and culture is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”. There is no creative imagination used in the killing of a bull in the ring, the same actions are performed with next to no variations every time there is a fight, and the end result is hardly aesthetic. As for the belief and knowledge being taught to future generations, one would think that after thousands of years of human history, we would have something better to teach succeeding generations than a ritualized form of public torture, with no goal other than death. I suppose that it could be argued that this is indeed the best we have to offer, in which case it is a sad state of affairs that we are in. To quote the Spanish band Ska-p, in their song about bullfighting: “To call structured and deliberate sadism, violence, and death culture, is an insult to intelligence itself”
Protest against the Spanish government taking schoolchildren to bullrings. The sign reads "Torture". Photo by AnimaNaturalis
There are many other arguments that proponents of bullfighting bring to the table. It is claimed that these bulls are to die anyway, seeing as there only purpose is battle and there are too many for them to be of use as breeding bulls. It is also questioned whether culling these animals would be preferable to killing them in the bullring, which is a very complicated point. If it has to come to premature death, if there is no other use that those bulls can be put to (although I personally find this hard to believe) in my opinion it seems better to end the life quickly and quietly rather than subject the animal to prolonged suffering. Bullfighting enthusiasts also maintain that the value of the activity stems from it being a long-standing tradition, which it is, there is no point in denying it. However, this immobilist approach is dangerous, since values and societies change. What is traditional and acceptable in one era is not necessarily so in another. No one wants to see a world where globalisation is so prevalent that local traditions are assimilated into a global culture, but still, it is a case of measuring the pros of the tradition against the cons. For me, the cons of bullfighting clearly outweigh the pros.
Sometimes I wish I lived in the blissful state of mind regarding bullfighting that a lot of foreign observers do, in which it is just a bright spectacle of shining colours and “matador” (which just means killer in Spanish) bravado and where the bull isn’t hurt. As humans, we often pride ourselves on being civilised, and indeed the fight may be symbolic of civilisation conquering the wild. It seems to me though, that when it comes to a bullfight, the bull behaves in a much more civilised manner than the bullfighter. This is why I feel no sorrow when a bullfighter (rarely) dies or is badly injured in the ring, for it is a victory of civilisation over mindless cruelty, and surely, a victory so rare and hard to achieve is worthy of admiration.
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|Written by : Daniel Pagan Murphy
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