Essay:Why cockfighting is the acid test of multiculturalism
“”Multiculturalism obliges you to advocate for the local acceptance of different cultural attitudes about animals...
Important ethical principles oblige you to support the full legalization of cockfighting and many other blood sports.
Cockfighting, specifically, represents the clearest case that you are ethically obliged to support its full legality. A decent regard for the rights of cultural minorities requires you to keep any distaste or squeamishness about the pastime under your hat. Cockfighting represents thousands of years of tradition and as such figures prominently in many cultures, especially outside of the European west. As such, it is something that non-hypocritical multiculturalists are obliged to tolerate, and to advocate for its acceptance.
The case for making cockfighting a crime is weak and hypocritical. It depends in large measure on laughable notions of animal rights, and ultimately boils down to empathy for the pain of some chickens, or squeamishness at the sight of blood. This tender-heartedness is profoundly hypocritical given the ways we Westerners routinely treat chickens. Those, in turn, are things that only a handful of PETA style cranks object to. It is the expression of a very Western, sheltered, and "privileged" squeamishness, and as such an expression of irrational bigotry and arrogance. It is the imposition of specific tastes by force of law, and as such represents cultural imperialism and triumphalism of a sort that people of good will ought to object to.
“”I went to a cockfight. Disappointingly, it was all about chickens.
A cockfight is a blood sporting event in which two game cocks (male chickens; in Am. English roosters) are placed in close quarters in a small enclosure called a "cockpit".
All male chickens possess an innate aggressiveness towards other male chickens, and can be easily induced to fight other birds. Fighting cocks are specifically bred for this aggressiveness. The two birds fight one another until one dies or is critically injured; the surviving bird wins. In some variants, metal spurs called "gaffs" are attached to the cocks' claws, to make the fights more decisively lethal. Spectators often bet on the birds.
Cockfighting and history
It is trivial to demonstrate that cockfighting has a distinguished history. It is also trivial to demonstrate that cockfighting is a cultural practice with deep roots and widespread appeal, especially outside of the contemporary Western world. Within recent years it has become increasingly confined to yellow and brown skinned people, while being the subject of disapproval from western Caucasians.
Cock fighting is said to be the world's oldest spectator sport. It goes back 6,000 years in Persia.
“”The sport was popular in ancient times in India, China, Persia, and other Eastern countries and was introduced into Ancient Greece in the time of Themistocles (c. 524–460 BC). For a long time the Romans affected to despise this "Greek diversion", but they ended up adopting it so enthusiastically that the agricultural writer Columella (1st century AD) complained that its devotees often spent their whole patrimony in betting at the side of the pit.
The significance of the original name of Mohenjo-daro inferring that the city was "the city of the cock" takes on great significance if taking into account that it has been claimed that the chicken was domesticated in India in 6000 BC. Cockfighting was apparently practiced there from the beginning, and may have been a religious ritual. The use of the birds for sport may have been more important than their use as food.
London's royal Palace of Whitehall once had a Cockpit-in-Court, used for actual cockfighting until the early seventeenth century, when it was converted into a theatre. In the UK, cockfighting became illegal as a part of the nineteenth century drive for 'moral' reform in 1835; it became illegal in Scotland fifty years later. In the United States, laws against cockfighting were passed in the Northeast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It remained legal in the American South and Southwest, in states with historical Latin populations. The last US state to outlaw cockfighting was Louisiana, which did so in 2008.
Cockfighting and culture
Cockfighting not only has deep historical roots, but it is also deeply embedded in certain cultures, particularly in Latin America and East Asia.
Clifford Geertz's essay Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight is widely considered an anthropological classic. In it, Geertz describes how cockfighting mirrors the male social status hierarchy on Bali, and allows powerful men in that society to demonstrate their prowess vicariously in the cockpit.
Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, cockfighting has a religious dimension as well as a two thousand year literary history. There, the cockfights are often organized by Hindu temples as acts of worship as well as wagering amusements. Cockfighting is accepted throughout most of Southeast Asia, and is a popular spectator sport in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is also practiced in Japan.
Cockfighting is frequent and accepted throughout most of Latin America. It is a favorite pastime of Cuba, Peru, and Mexico. Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Canary Islands all have public cockpits with seating for spectators.
Given this distribution, it is not surprising that cockfighting remains legal in the United States territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.
I believe that the foregoing is enough to establish that:
- Cockfighting is an ancient practice that most of the human race has found acceptable for most of its history.
- It is deeply embedded and significant to a number of cultures, and a traditional pastime in others.
- It remains so, particularly among Latin Americans, East Asians of various sorts, and other brown and yellow people.
- Distaste for cockfighting is largely confined to the cultures of Western Europe and North America. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that developed at some point during the nineteenth century.
For the purposes of this essay, "multiculturalism" is an appreciation of diversity in the cultural and demographic makeup of a certain place, such as a city or a nation-state. It compasses appreciation of diversity, for both traditional cultures and newly minted urban subcultures.
I assume that readers of this essay consider multiculturalism an aspirational virtue, a key part of a strong egalitarian belief system, and a defining feature of an interesting and desirable place to live. Multiculturalism is something that follows from a world view that rejects claims of ethnic or cultural superiority. Multiculturalism is also an aspirational virtue because it encourages us to respect our neighbors despite their unfamiliar customs and unshared tastes. It considers these things to be insufficient reason to judge them. These differences do not make people less desirable as neighbors.
I also assume that readers of this essay consider multiculturalism an aspirational virtue as an aspect of traditional liberalism, or non-ideological libertarianism. The idea here is that absent some significant reason otherwise, people generally ought to be free to do as they please.
For that reason, it is beyond the scope of this essay to argue specifically for multiculturalism. You are free to reject multiculturalism. You are allowed to believe that your own culture is superior to others, and that other people who come to dwell with you ought to be compelled to comply with its social norms. These anti-multicultural beliefs are problematic for, but not necessarily fatal to, hard egalitarianism. Your belief in cultural superiority may be mirrored by the cultures you condemn. If you ignore differences in power or prestige between them, you may consider this as being parity enough. Enforced conformity contradicts traditional libertarianism; you insist on the right to impose conformity even in minor things for the sake of social solidarity or cohesion.
Many people say that they support multiculturalism. You are the target audience. For us, cockfighting is the acid test. Your attitude towards cockfighting is a good way to see how sincere you are about it.
But think of the chickens!
"The idea here is that absent some significant reason otherwise, people generally ought to be free to do as they please." The suffering of chickens is not a significant reason otherwise.
Cockfighting is in fact mean to chickens. Cocks will fight each other when they encounter one another; in the wild they usually can retreat. In the cockpit retreat is denied them. Their neuronal and hormonal programming will keep them fighting until one is no longer able to continue. (How very much like ourselves they are!) And in many cockfights, blades are added to the birds' spurs so that it doesn't take forever. The losing bird is typically allowed to die by bleeding out; often the victor does not last much longer. That cockfighting is mean to chickens is a fact that I concede. I have no greater eagerness to watch this spectacle than you probably do.
Gamecocks with blades tied to their spurs have occasionally struck out at their handlers and killed them. Like you, I think it serves them right.
I simply disagree with making it a crime. The fact that cockfighting is mean to chickens is in my opinion not enough to justify making it a crime. Not because cockfighting isn't mean to chickens — it is — but because there are other overriding values that should make us pause before we make cockfighting a crime.
There are those who I already know won't be convinced by what I have to say here. If you accept strong forms of animal rights, what I have to say probably isn't for you. Vegans and members of PETA will not. My understanding is that this usually comes from a belief that humans have no right to use animals for any purpose. The fact that cockfighting is mean to chickens is in a sense as indifferent to them as it is to me. Adherents to these causes accept an ethical idea that makes cockfighting automatically wrong, for the same reason that eating cheese is automatically wrong.
Instead, I'm talking to people out there who are not vegans and are unpersuaded by that line of thinking generally. People who are happy to eat honey and cheese and eggs and chickens and cows and pigs. So long as the process is kept decently out of sight, we don't really think too hard about where it comes from.
We are the ones who have no business making cockfighting a crime.
But it's mean to chickens!
“” Chickens are goddamn lucky we let them live as long as they do.
In my opinion, no human agricultural practices are intolerably mean to chickens, cockfighting included. But if cockfighting is mean to chickens, it is no less so than many other routine agricultural practices. And we must tolerate those practices if we are going to continue to eat chicken meat and eggs at affordable prices.
Humans, including cockfight promoters, are in fact chickens' best friends. Chickens are a domesticated subspecies of the red junglefowl, native to southeast Asia. It's hard to say how many ancestral chickens remain in the wild, since they easily crossbreed with feral domestic chickens. It would suit my argument better if they were extinct in the wild, like the ancestor of domestic cattle is, or endangered, like the wild ancestors of the horse, sheep, and goat. But there seem to be plenty of wild birds left.
But life itself is cruel, and domestication by a dominant species like humans is winning the evolutionary jackpot. Wild chickens live fretful and random lives at the mercy of predators and disease; and males will be compelled by their neuro-hormonal programming to fight each other from time to time. Whether they are happy is hard to tell. The average lifespan of a feral chicken is from three to five years; in captivity some breeds can last as long as ten.
Chickens in captivity live under a variety of conditions, but most of them in the developed world are in intensive mass factory farms. According to the Worldwatch Institute, in 2006 74% of the world's broiler poultry and 68% of the egg laying poultry were in factory farms. It is likely that these figures are now higher. The birds on factory farms live planned lives to maximize their value to their human captors. They are much less likely to fall victims to predators. But they do fall victim to disease.
And when contagion erupts on the factory farm, from time to time it's necessary to kill whole buildings full of the birds in bulk. The recommended method is suffocation, either by carbon dioxide or by firefighting foams. Other sorts of mass culling are routinely used in egg production; here almost all of the male chickens are unwanted. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends wringing their necks, drowning, or carbon dioxide asphyxiation for the mass killing of male baby chicks in egg production operations.
Animal rightsers occasionally raise a stink when news of a mass culling becomes public. This is an attempt to recruit negative moral emotions, and as such ought to be automatically suspect. Here I can only speak for myself; but I don't feel the rage here. Factory farms exist because they actually do reduce costs, which benefits me indirectly. Without them, the chickens that allegedly suffer and die in them would never have existed. Whether it would be better for these chickens to never have been born is a question I don't have an answer for. And sometimes, the factory farm has a room full of sick chickens it needs to get rid of fast.
The truth is that almost every chicken raised by humans gets killed by humans, for human convenience and profit. The chickens that are raised for meat all get killed in the process, die very young, and are subjected to unnatural regimens to make them plump but tender. Chickens that lay eggs get killed at the end of one or two years of egg production. Their less desirable meat gets worked into cat food and chicken nuggets. The males at the egg farm mostly get killed as soon as they are identified as male. According to Purdue University, eight billion chickens are eaten in the USA every year. This works out to around 22 million dead chickens a day.
By contrast, gamecocks are usually not fought until they are fully sexually mature. Prime ages for fighting cocks are two to three years. They live longer and richer lives than most of the chickens that die in humanity's service. Chickens raised for cockfighting at least enjoy a slightly more free range lifestyle. They get more exercise than the chickens destined for the factory farm. Whether that's any consolation to them, I cannot say and do not care. Gamecocks are destined to die in service of their role in human culture. But so is almost every other chicken bred by humans. I don't have a problem with these other dead chickens. I shouldn't have a problem with the dead chicken in the cockpit.
This is why moralizing about the alleged cruelty of cockfighting is parochial hypocrisy, at least in the mouths of non-vegans. As shown above, cockfighting has deep cultural roots. It is a pastime followed by people who are minority groups in most Western European cultures. This is enough to make moralizing against it suspicious. And just about every chicken we breed is destined to die, some worse than others. So trumped up outrage over the fact that a small handful of chickens die in a blood sport is picking on the outsider. I do not accept this.
Moralizing about cockfighting gets easier if you keep the poultry industry itself out of sight. Ironically, the poultry industry is happy to comply, and the people who seek to instigate outrage about it are the animal rightsers themselves. Most people will ignore them, as they should. It's inconvenient to care. The world has more pressing ills than the suffering of chickens. Most of us will continue to eat them. We will look on animal rights campaigns on their behalf with annoyed disdain for the misplaced moral earnestness they show.
The animal-rightsery is lily-white and WASPily earnest, so very New England Transcendentalist. The people it moralizes against are overwhelmingly brown or Asian people. To be a vegan is to hate every practicing Muslim and Jew. Animal rightsers have lobbied for the persecution of Santeros. Animal rightsers have also sought to interfere with the exercise of hunting and fishing rights promised to Native Americans under treaties,The fact that dogs are food in a number of places in China and Korea is supposed to be a scandal. There's something inherently suspicious about a morality that's so convenient for sheltered white folks.
But if you don't have problems with the way we kill millions of chickens every day, it's hypocritical and gravely suspicious of cultural bigotry to endorse laws against cockfighting. Empathy for the pain suffered by the gamecocks in the sport isn't a good enough reason to turn an ancient cultural practice into a crime. Not when the vast majority of chickens raised by humans are raised to live and die in their service, and some die in ways that might be as unpleasant as a cockfight. You really need to stop identifying with the poultry that closely.
But it's nasty!
A more oblique argument is that the bloody cruelty of the cockpit imposes vague psychic harms on the spectators. It is bloody and icky, and the sight of such things is imagined to subjectively harm its witnesses. It's also considered objectionable that gambling takes place on the cockfights, and many governments object to gambling if they don't get a cut of the house's take. Even the public practice of the blood sport creates a miasma of cultural cruelty that can't be escaped simply by non-attendance at the fight itself. If you come from a culture where blood sports are tolerated, you are coarsened by them by proxy. Whenever anyone makes an argument like this, you should check to make sure your billfold and your phone are still there. You are in the presence of censorship apology, after all.
More importantly, this argument is inconsistent with any claim to the multicultural stance. To believe this is to believe that millions of your potential human neighbors are evil-minded and tainted by cruelty because they partake of a culture where a blood sport is practiced. It is an open invitation to disrespect your neighbor based on the place he or she grew up in. This argument, simply put, is bigotry. Your objection to cockfighting boils down to mere aesthetic annoyance. This is not a good enough reason to put your neighbors in prison. Nobody is talking about forcing you to watch.
And if true, the claim that watching chickens fight and bleed out somehow hardens the hearts of its witnesses could just as easily be viewed as an advantage. If so, it immunizes them against prevalent nonsense like animal rights. Cockfighting builds character.
Cockfighting should be legal
If multiculturalism is something you aspire to, you ought to advocate the position that cockfighting should be legal. Multiculturalism is at heart a hope that different cultures can live side by side at peace. One of the ways in which human cultures differ is in their ideas about the appropriate treatment of animals.
So if you think that cockfighting is so cruel that the law is justified in imprisoning participants, you have asked your government to declare war against your neighbors with different cultural values. Again, multiculturalism is a peace treaty. If you would make cockfighting a criminal offense, what this says is that the comfort of chickens is more important to you than leaving your neighbors in peace or respecting their ancient customs. This is inconsistent with the multicultural stance, and is the sort of thing that disturbs civil peace. Multiculturalism obliges you to advocate for the local acceptance of different cultural attitudes about animals and what constitutes unacceptable cruelty to them.
The claim that cockfighting is so terribly cruel that it taints an entire culture that tolerates it is also hypocritical in the mouths of non-vegan Westerners. We raise millions of chickens to die in our service. Their lives are brief and possibly uncomfortable. The dead gamecocks in the cockpit are a tiny minority among the millions of dead chickens we produce daily. If you care so deeply about the feelings of chickens, maybe you should consider being a vegan. I don't want to, so I recognize that the stock of empathy I have for the miseries of being a chicken is quite limited. Chickens are goddamn lucky we let them live as long as they do.
Of course, you don't have to be a multiculturalist at all. You may feel that your local norms that find cockfighting intolerably cruel ought to be enforced against your neighbors. But you can't have it both ways.
And, of course, everybody ought to have the experience of raising a chicken from an egg, then slaughtering it themselves, plucking it, and preparing it for the table. It's a part of growing up that too many people miss.
Myself, I prefer to cleave to the multicultural stance in this. Human freedom is important. The suffering of chickens, not so much. And this is why I consider cockfighting to be the acid test of multiculturalism. I have no interest in cockfighting, nor any desire to see them. But I knew enough history to recognize that campaigns to criminalize it were parochial expressions of the moral superiority of local norms. These campaigns are culturally insensitive and inherently biased. The fact that cockfighting is considered mean to chickens by many people in these parts is an insufficient reason to make it a crime. It is an injustice that anyone is punished for it.
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