The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, August 17, 2009

Forgive Michael Vick?

Forgive Michael Vick?

The following story has nothing to do with Vick: A year ago, I was asked to take part in a therapeutic intervention designed to rehabilitate the reputation of a disgraced sports star. I declined, on the basis that I didn't believe that he really regretted what he had done, that it was all a cosmetic attempt to save his career, not his soul.

Now, back to Vick. Dogfighting strikes me as one of a couple of different things: either a total lack of empathy for another living thing, or empathy coming from a deep, disturbing sense that life itself is endless war and violence. I'm not sure which is worse. Which version of a damaged human soul is worse.

When I was a child, I burned ants with a magnifying glass, put salt on snails, and swung kittens around by their hind paws until they screamed. Put butterflies in our old Studebaker until they were roasted by the summer sun. Then one day it hit me that they had feelings. Just like that, one day the switch flipped from off to on, and I grasped their "inwardness". But as disgusted as I was by my former actions, I wasn't wholly responsible. How many of you were told by parents, teachers, and authority figures that fish (or other animals you ate) felt no pain? How often are military men programmed to believe that X or Y group we're going to fight don't value human life? The children of slave-owners were told that blacks didn't feel pain the way whites do? The belief that others are not fully conscious to their own misery (or equal to us in their humanity) is one of the most basic means of justifying our mistreatment of them, or demonization of them. Hell, you even get it between different religious or political groups. "They" don't love their children, treasure their old, or embrace morality in its million forms the way "we" do.

From that perspective, it is easy to see how this stuff happens. If bear-baiting was a common sport during Shakespeare's time, that might relate to a lack of empathy, or a different sense of the order of the universe, or other factors I'm not thinking of. But we're not far from that time, not at all, and troglodytes like Vick might remind us that the world is a more savage place than many of us want to believe or acknowledge. It cracks me up when people who haven't spent 1% of the time I have learning how to hurt people think that I'm a Pollyanna. Hardly. But when I look at Vick's actions, and the attitudes that have to be behind them (whether I can suss those attitudes out or not) I believe that we, as a culture, are right to exile such behaviors to the outer edge of the universe.

He has served his time, and I have no real problem with him once again plying his trade. And whatever you say about dog-lovers, if Vick has a winning season, people will cheer for him. After all, Football isn't about being kind and gentle now, is it? In some ways, it's like Meg Ryan whoring around with Russel Crowe. If Angelina Jolie had done it, no one would raise an eyebrow: she just radiates "damaged goods" in the arena of sexual responsibility. Hell, it's part of what she sells on-screen. But Ryan's screen image was the sweet girl next door, and she ruptured that with her behavior. (The fact that her next film was "In the Cut" which featured the first main-stream rimming scene didn't help). This would be like John Wayne getting his ass kicked by a girl scout. Didn't hurt Crowe's career at all...but it would have hurt Tom Hanks'. Remember Tom Cruise jumping on the couch? He hasn't had a hit since. Image is everything.

And in general, the image of a football player is a barely restrained wrecking machine. The fact that this guy would kill puppies comes very close to being an "Ooh! He's a bad mother!" and my guess is that it won't ultimately hurt his career at all. I personally won't pay to watch him, but then I don't watch football anyway. What do I think about this? Well, we have a violent side to our nature, and it's part of what has kept us alive as a species. Denial of this is usually the province of people who have never experienced violence personally, who have been able to hide behind the courage of men and women who hold the line. I think when we look at a Vick, part of what disturbs us is that it reminds us of our own lack of empathy, our own capacity to dehumanize and disconnect.

I love dogs. Dogs will sometimes fight on their own, but except in packs I've never seen them really damage each other. I'm not in touch with the part of myself that could take pleasure in forcing them to tear each other to pieces, and am grateful for that. Is it evil? I find it reasonable to consider it such. The world is a better place with more kindness and empathy. Do I think the world would be a better place if Vick were barred from football?

No. But it might be a better place if fans refused to watch his team play while he was on it.


Can anyone think of a reason that any American citizen shouldn't be able to buy into Medicare at the cost of services? Or even +10% for those under 65? Make it revenue neutral. The only people I can think of who would oppose this are the multi-millionaire CEOs of insurance companies. Maybe there are others, but...


Pagan Topologist said...

Letting people buy into Medicare at cost +10% seems like a sensible option. It makes a lot of sense, since younger folks cost less for treatment(they need less of it) and it would help make the system more solvent.

I confess that I don't much like dogs, with occasional exceptions. I am a cat person. But, I question whether making something like dogfighting illegal does anything to heal the underlying social problem of people who get pleasure from such things. I understand the impulse; I admit to feeling it myself; and it ain't pretty. But is a society which permits professional boxing but outlaws dogfighting any healthier than would be one which did the opposite?

Anonymous said...

If you mention Meg Ryan, you might also want to mention the fact that her ex-husband Dennis Quaid cheated on her for several years before she ever even met Russell Crowe. So it is absolutely ridiculous SHE or even Crowe got blamed for cheating. Quaid was the bad person there.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

You can't really enjoy sports if you're relating to the individuals on the field as people, and for the most part I don't. I don't spend my Lakers games thinking about the fact that Kobe Bryant is (best case) a repeat adulterer who cheated on his pregnant young wife. The guy who got me hooked on basketball in the first place, Magic Johnson, has his own collection of failings.

The public morality play of celebrity is a waste of my energies. I don't care who did what, or why, and X's heartfelt plea for society's understanding and empathy is irrelevant. I almost always do understand and empathize. I get why OJ Simpson and Robert Blake killed their wives; I understand why Michael Vick got off on dog fights. Makes perfectly good sense to the lizard part of my brain.

I only need to forgive my friends and family. I only need forgiveness from my friends and family.

I watch movies made by people of dreadful moral character, without worrying about whether they're good or bad or need my forgiveness. They don't, and it's not on tap anyway.

Shady_Grady said...

I love dogs. I have one and will soon get another one. I don't understand the mindset that would find pleasure in breeding dogs to fight and kill each other.

I also don't understand people like Ted Nugent who legally kill animals for fun across the world or Sarah Palin shooting wolves from helicopters. From my POV all of that is a little warped.

That said Vick did his time, more time than some people who have killed humans. That strikes me as off.

Football is such an intensely violent and brutal game that I can't get too outraged or upset by what Vick did. Many of the people on the field aren't necessarily the nicest folks out there. But you could say that about any industry. What matters, is will Vick be able to produce when called upon?

Mike R said...

I cycled from Portland to San Fransisco this last month (yay me and the wife!) and just got around to scanning the posts over that period. Quick question;

Is anyone aware of any study done on the weight of Americans who did not have insurance (preferably for years or best of all their whole life) and who then got insurance? That is to say, is there any quantifiable data on weather gaining health insurance leads to a lowering in obesity?

Marty S said...

Mike: I can't give you any quantitative studies, but I can give an anecdotal study. Here are the results in my family. Daughter in-law, DDS husband a Doctor too obese. Daughter in-laws parents, good health care coverage fro IBM. Both obese, father in spite of having had heart bypass surgery. Brother in-law no. 1, good health care coverage, both sons doctor obese. Brother in-laws no. 2 & 3 good health care coverage grossly overweight. Brother in-law no. 4, on medicare now, only sporadically employed has been without health care at times, not an ounce of excess fat on him.

Mike R said...

Sorry, but I honestly don't care about anecdotal studies. They aren't really evidence of any meaningful sort.

Marty S said...

Mike: If you insist on a real study try this link

It reports a study which seems confirm my anecdotal one.

Scott said...

About the dogfighting...

How do you feel about killing and eating animals?

Why would dogfighting be as bad or worse?

Reluctant Lawyer said...

I agree with Dan on the whole celebrity morality issue. If you are going to have an issue with a celeb, it should be because of their performance, not what they did off screen/stage/playing field. I don't think of them as role models and I will not encourage my kids to think of them that way either.

Pagan Topologist said...

"How do you feel about killing and eating animals?

Why would dogfighting be as bad or worse?"

Killing animals for food is done typically in such a way as to minimize suffering. Dogfighting seems designed to maximize it for the sadistic pleasure of the viewer.

I believe that most people need meat to be healthy; a few with unusual metabolisms may be able to live as healthy vegetarians, but it is atypical. It is part of accepting what it means to be human, as I see it.

Shady_Grady said...

I am a vegetarian that is healthy and I don't think my metabolism is all that unusual. There are millions of healthy vegetarians (by choice) around the world.

There are multitudes of studies which show that risks for cancer, hypertension, kidney stones and heart disease increase with meat consumption.

I agree that dogfighting is sadistic but I think that the slaughterhouse killings of cattle and poultry and the way in which these animals are raised in their short lives are also incredibly brutal and inhumane.

Although I disagree with hunting for fun, hunting for food is generally more humane than the way cattle are disposed of in the modern world. Whatever the hunter's motives may be he or she is usually not debeaking a bird or feeding an animal ground up animal parts or sawing off tails or ripping it apart while it's still alive or so on.

Vick could have run a slaughterhouse or shot deer for fun and the law wouldn't have been able to touch him.

Marty S said...

Only, a small percentage the population is vegetarian. I am curious. If everybody became vegetarian how would that affect the ability of the world to feed itself? What changes would be necessary?

Shady_Grady said...

The last estimate I saw for US vegetarians was something like 3%. In India it's much higher, close to 25%. I don't know about the rest of the world. The numbers would be flawed because there are a lot of people who can't get meat but would definitely want it.

I think if everyone or at least as sizable percentage of people became vegetarian, that would have generally positive effects on the environment as well as provide for increased amounts of grain and land for human, as opposed to cattle usage. There are non zero costs in sewage runoff, loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions etc associated with modern cattle and poultry production. I think the world would find it easier to feed the impoverished if so much resources were not being diverted to cattle.

I don't think it's very likely though.

Back to Vick though for a moment-it is just interesting to me and shows how taboos work in our culture. If Vick stood up and talked about the thrill he got from tricking a deer with bait and then shooting it with his rifle and sawing its antlers off , outside of a few PETA extremists most people wouldn't have cared. He could have even have used trained dogs to flush out or kill game and that would have evinced a yawn.

But because he killed dogs rather than deer, we all get upset. I'm a dog lover and I find what Vick did disgusting but it's not really a logical stance, is it?

Marty S said...

I think the answer to my question lies in whether animals consume more food than they produce or produce more food than they consume. There are all sorts of side issues which I certainly don't know enough about. For instance a recent issue of Scientific American had and article about us running out of phosphorus a key ingredient in fertilizers. I have no idea how that affects things.

wraith808 said...

The biggest problem I have with the whole Vick debate is that people are more forgiving of those who murder humans than one who murdered dogs. What does that say about us as a species?

Steve Perry said...

Everybody draws the line in different places, for myriad reasons, when it comes to food, animal cruelty, and how close they are to Lord of the Flies.

Mike Tyson was the kind of guy who beat people down for pay, and when he bit off a chunk of somebody's ear in the ring, those people who were shocked! shocked! must not have been from this planet.

Sentience is tricky. How aware is a shrimp compared to a pig? Do plants have any feelings?

We must eat to live. Even the Dalai Lama says that if you have to eat meat to do that, then that's what you do. In today's world, if you have the money and the knowledge and desire, you have options that used to be largely unavailable.

There are people who have no problems eating any kind of meat and who would probably eat human flesh if they could get away with it. There are others who won't eat any animal products at all. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

I prefer the company of my dogs to that of a lot of people. Those people who knowingly mistreat dogs don't rate high in my book. Vick did the crime, and he did the time, and so he should be allowed to get on with his life. (Kobe was found not-guilty -- but so were OJ and Blake and I think they all did it. It colors how I feel when I see them.)

If Vick changed and realizes that he made a mistake and never does it again, that's one thing. If his remorse was feigned, simply to get a lighter sentence and he's the same as he was, that's another. How can you tell?

Hard for a leopard to change his spots. But the idea of redemption is necessary.

Picasso was, according to people who knew him, an egotistical asshole. If you can separate the artist from his art, then you can enjoy the art. If you can't, you probably can't. Kobe is probably the best player in basketball these days, but he will always have an asterisk by his name, as I see it.

Steven Barnes said...


Dogs don't choose to dogfight. I know guys who love boxing, and if they were good enough, would go professional. Not the same thing.

Steven Barnes said...

Never heard about Quaid cheating, so at the least, he didn't flaunt it the way she did. No, she damaged her own career...much as, say, Tom Hanks would if he flaunted an affair, thereby trashing his image.

Steven Barnes said...

I don't have a problem with killing and eating animals. I do have a problem with killing them purely for fun. And more problem with inflicting pain and torment for entertainment. When someone comes up with a vegetable protein as delicious and bioavailable as meat, and indistinguishable in taste, at that point I will consider the killing of animals immoral.

Steven Barnes said...

Countless studies suggest that ovalactive vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters. Vegetarianism is harder than meat-eating...but healthier. Balancing the proteins is far more difficult, and requires more conscious thought. That said, many studies also suggest that if we COULD move away from animal protein, it would have a cascade of positive effects on the environment. But "unconscious" meat eaters tend to be larger, stronger, and more aggressive than "unconscious" vegetarians, and therefore vegetarian cultures had a hard time competing in wartime. That said, we're in a different era now, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more movement toward a non-meat diet. Be great on a lot of levels. Still love cheeseburgers, though.

Pagan Topologist said...

It is true, as Steve Perry writes, that we all draw the line in different places. I won't eat dolphins or whales, and I generally won't eat my fellow carnivores, except for some fish. I have a couple of friends and colleagues who say that lion is delicious, but I will never know firsthand, barring the unlikely event that it is the only food between me and death by starvation. Same with dogs, cats, etc.

Scott said...


Thank you for answering my first question.

My second question was, "*WHY* would dogfighting be worse than the slaughterhouse?"

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Steve Perry wrote:

I prefer the company of my dogs to that of a lot of people. Those people who knowingly mistreat dogs don't rate high in my book.

Or mine. Don't misunderstand my earlier post to think I approve in any way of Vick; I don't. We all have animal natures, but controlling them is part of the package. People who abuse the innocent are the lowest of scum, and dogs are certainly innocent.

Kobe was found not-guilty -- but so were OJ and Blake and I think they all did it. It colors how I feel when I see them.

I'm the wrong person to ask about Kobe's innocence; I think he is innocent, but then, I want to think that. But for whatever it's worth (not much, I know) Kobe was never found not guilty; he was never actually tried. Charges were dropped when his accuser agreed to a civil settlement -- $5 million, if I recall.

If Kobe had been Joe the bus driver, I doubt he'd ever have been charged in that case. Of course, if he had been charged, Joe the bus driver would have been in prison before his coffee got cold....