Friday, July 23, 2010

OK, Let's talk Dog Fighting

It’s a little late, but it’s here. I’ve finally gotten my paper ready for publication on the interwebs.

First, why did I write this?
A number of people have expressed to me their surprise at what they see as my "being too easy on Michael Vick" when I have spoken on the case of his involvement in dog fighting.  For example, when *I* heard Whoopie Goldberg say this on The View - I added it to the list of reasons why I like that woman so much. I have seen her seek to UNDERSTAND rather than to immediately judge in many, many situations.  I think she is one smart cookie. Many bleeding-heart dog lovers felt very differently about her comments than I did.
 I don't think I'm "too easy" on anybody, I'm just a person who's more likely to be interested in the how and why than the what.  It's not my job (nor is it the NFL's job, in my opinion) to judge anybody - that's for the legal system to hash out.  (This is assuming the legal system acts in the way it is supposed to, of course.) I'm also cynical beyond cynical and I find anybody who thinks we should have our kids "look up to" NFL players to be unbelievably naive.

Before we get to the paper, let me make a few things very clear:

1. This paper is in no way an argument for the acceptance of dog fighting. Dog fighting is wrong. It was wrong in medieval times, and it is wrong now, and it will always be wrong. Period.

2. This paper in no way excuses the behavior of those who participate in dog fighting from culpability or attempts to suggest it should be legalized. Dog fighting is a felony, and I believe it should remain as such.

3. This paper DOES aim to challenge conventional thinking about dog fighting. The purpose of my writing is to seek UNDERSTANDING, not acceptance. I think we could all use a little Verstehen in our lives.

4. I encourage comments, but I will not engage in debate here. This paper serves the purpose of presenting an argument for understanding – you are more than welcome to disagree.  Post a rebuttal on your own blog if you so wish.

5.  I have included a number of sociological concepts and theoretical perspectives in this paper.  I do agree with the theories I have included (it drives me batty that sociologists use the word "theory" differently than most other scientific fields) but I have not thoroughly hashed out the individual theories themselves here.  I strongly encourage you read the papers written by the authors (sources listed below) if you are interested in the topics.  I particularly recommend the Evans et. al. paper if you are interested in sociological perspective on dog fighting.

I have highlighted some things I think are especially important for consideration.

I just had to put this in here.  I nearly adopted a dog who looked just like this.

So, without further adieu, here it is:

Subculture Theory in Evaluation of Dog Fighting Crimes

Amanda V.

July 23, 2010

Culture, representing the norms that both guide behavior and determine the way behavior is judged by the majority, is a socially shared phenomenon. A subculture, therefore, is a distinctive culture within a culture where norms and values differ from the majority. Subculture theory in criminology argues that certain subcultures in society exhibit norms that may be conducive to participation in particular crimes and violence. Subculture theory explains that these groups may create a sense of community to combat alienation and regain power by forming their own new and different culture. This development of separate cultural norms among different ethnic and regional groups may explain the existence of cultures in the US where dog fighting is accepted despite the majority culture being in opposition to it. Throughout human history dog fighting has played a role in various sectors of society. Ultimately, the blood sport became defined less as an accepted part of greater European cultural norms and evolved more into an underground activity with some different subcultural definitions. Using the assertions of A. Cohen’s subculture theory, I intend to explore the world of dog fighting as it exists today both socially and legally.

In his book, Delinquent Boys, Albert Cohen describes subcultures as far more organized segment of society than many theorists before him hypothesized. He argued that these subcultures provide a distinct purpose for those a part of it. Notably, Cohen argues that a middle class measuring stick against which all young men are compared is simply not within the abilities of many working-class boys. This often leads to status frustration whereby many boys find solutions via reaction formation in which emphasis is shifted from middle-class values of “book smarts” to working-class values of “street smarts” and toughness.

In Dogfighting: Symbolic Expression and Validation of Masculinity, Evans, Gauthier, and Forsyth describe a distinct subculture of working-class white males actively participating in dog fighting. In this subculture, much as Cohen described, a strong emphasis on status seeking through toughness is seen. Evans et al. illustrate a culture focused heavily on the dogman’s (dog handler or owner) ability to achieve high status within his cultural group by exhibiting a dog who represents his tenacity and fearlessness. A strong emphasis is placed on Dov Cohen’s concept of the southern propensity for violence as it relates to a culture of honor, a romantic emphasis on one’s ability to protect all that is his. The culture of honor stems not only from the English origin of dogfighting born of using dogs to protect property, but from a need for settlers to protect cattle herds and other property in the south. This culture of honor combined with D. Cohen’s assessment of the precarious state of manhood resulting in a need for constant validation and proof of social worth describes the subculture of dog fighters well.

In order to understand how this subculture came to exist, it is important to discuss the historical nature of dog fighting. As early as the 5th century BC bloody competition between human and dog were depicted in paintings. Regulation of hunting privileges in the middle ages prohibited the ownership of hunting dogs by the poor, leading to the linking of social status to dog ownership. During the 19th century, baiting sports (whereby dogs were used to attack or agitate other animals) were a prominent and accepted part of royal and aristocratic society. Attending a dog fight was considered a right of passage for young wealthy men and a display of masculine bravado for competitors. As a result of favor among the wealthy, dog fighting sports were held in high regard by other classes. Lower classes of society came to emulate the rich in attempt to capture traits of honor and higher status.

As animal baiting became illegal in England, fighting dogs who were still being bred began being exported to the United States. In the United States, the Southern heritage of violence along with a strong social expectation for exceptional displays of masculinity made the south an inviting place for dog fighting to continue. Right in step with A. Cohen’s theory, men from lower class backgrounds began to rely on a more accessible route to higher status and expression of aggression, violence, and strength by using dogs to represent them as symbols where they had few opportunities to achieve success as defined by the dominant culture. Interviews of dogmen by Evans et al. in the United States reveal a very strong desire to achieve social status through the accomplishments of their dogs. Some describe a strong identification with the idea that dog fighting levels the playing field of men. In dominant U.S. culture, there is little chance for a working-class man to compete with a wealthier one, but in the dog pit anybody has the ability to win if they bring a good dog. This basic ideal is quite similar to one held by participants in other, more widely accepted dog sports such as conformation and obedience trials. However, because of the extreme emphasis placed on dogs with tenacity and fearlessness representing their handler’s masculinity, when a dog fails to exemplify these traits he is of great embarrassment.  This is where dog sports differ dramatically from one another. Brutal treatment of these fighting dogs, labeled “curs”, is often the only way for a handler to redeem himself given the shame the dog caused him in front of his peers. Where social status is of such great importance, a man simply cannot afford to be viewed as “soft” or “weak”. A good dog at the end of the leash is comparable to a “trophy wife” in the minds of some dogmen, but a losing dog is a complete disgrace.

In 1874 Henry Bergh, a prominent leader in the pursuit of legislation banning dog fighting and founder of the ASPCA, was able to achieve search and seizure rights resulting in the shift to underground activity by dogmen. At the time, many police and firemen were heavily involved in the sport largely due to its potential for gambling profits. Attempts at legal action continued, but with very little success by police and animal control officers. Often, fight locations are not revealed until right before they occur and dogmen rely almost completely on each other for veterinary treatment of their dogs if they seek any. In 2005, a study of ninth grad classes in Pontiac, Michigan revealed that almost all the students had at one time witnessed a dog fight. In 2007 federal law was passed criminalizing animal fighting throughout the United States. Enforcement, largely simply because offenders are difficult to find, remains a key difficulty.

Currently in the United States dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states. In all but three states, possession of dogs for fighting is also a felony (it is a misdemeanor in the remaining three states). In only two states in the U.S., Hawaii and Montana, is attending a dog fight legal. While the laws exist, the enforcement is lacking as a result of both a lack of funding as well as the underground and secretive nature of the sport.

One major problem in combating dog fighting is that a great many dogmen simply don’t see anything particularly wrong with their sport. Many argue that given the existence of sports such as boxing in dominant culture whereby participants are actively pursuing the harm of their human adversary, dogmen act as nothing more than a coach to their dogs – they do not seek to harm another human being. Boxing is legal in every state, even given the fact that boxers have been killed in the ring, they argue. Also, given the legal standing of dogs as personal property, humane treatment laws carry a pang of contradiction in themselves. The cultural wave of animal rights is significantly younger than the tradition of dog fighting itself. Many animal rights advocates take a hard-line stance on dog fighting based on their own internal moral compass assuming all share their ideals. This kind of ethnocentrism often results in legislative action, but not much help with enforcement or reform. It also result in cases of poor scientific research or articles on the topic whereby the authors seek to express an agenda or belief using biased language as opposed to scientific assessment of the subculture itself. This kind of research fails to lead us to better methods for controlling the problem at a most basic level.

Another issue regarding the enforcement of dog fighting laws relates to the common relationship between dog fighting events and other illegal behaviors such as drug trading and gang activity. Just as minorities are over-represented in perception (and conviction) of who exactly is involved in drug offenses, much media coverage and fear is focused on minorities involved in dog fighting even though a great number of dogmen are in fact white. Certainly, representation by many minorities in pop culture doesn’t help to change such an image. While dominant culture condemns dog fighting behavior, there are a number of places where reference to such acts appears to be considered perfectly acceptable. A number of rap artists who’s music is consumed by the greater dominant society can be seen in photos with “pit bulls” donning thick leather hardware complete with metal spikes referencing dog fighting. Even a Nike commercial is accused of using a dog fighting reference in an advertisement attempting to conjure up the idea of competitiveness.

Given that dominant society, or lack of inclusion in it, is a primary factor in the development of subcultures such as that seen with dog fighting it is important to consider the ways cultural shifts can act to change such behavior. Members of a society are molded by the environment in which they live, and often children are left to feel inadequate when compared to a set of values they are simply not equipped to compete with. Giving children the tools to prove their self worth through pathways other than violence could prove to be significantly more effective in reducing the incidence of dog fighting than attempting to track down acting dogmen. As long as there is cultural pressure to prove ones self worth or masculinity with violence, violence will prevail.

There has been a great deal of emphasis placed on dealing with banning the dogs often used for pit fighting.  The problem is not the dogs.  There are literally thousands of homes across the United States that include breeds often used for fighting that will never experience any incidence of aggression.  There has also been a great deal of effort in tracking down and punishing dogmen.  The people are not the root of the problem.  If we truly seek to end dog fighting, the solution lies in changing our society. 
Unfortunately, there are many truly powerful people in dominant culture who stand to gain an awful lot by keeping society just the way it is.  If we are to change the world - removing THOSE people from power is how we will achieve it.


     Cohen, Albert K., Delinquent Boys, Glencoe, Ill.  : Free Press , [1955].

     Evans, R., et. al., Dogfighting: symbolic expression and validation of masculinity. Sex Roles v. 39 no. 11-12 (December 1998) p. 825-38

     Vandello, J. A., et. al., Precarious Manhood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology v. 95 no. 6 (December 2008) p. 1325-39

     Cohen, D., et. al., Self-protection and the culture of honor: explaining Southern violence [part of a special issue on: The self and the collective]. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin v. 20 (October 1994) p. 551-67

I'm interested to see what you think of the idea that dog fighting is an "us" (society) problem as opposed to a "them" problem.

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