Michael Vick and the problem with forgiveness

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has conditionally reinstated former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, who was convicted of running a dogfighting ring in 2007. Vick served 23 months in federal prison, followed by two months of house arrest.

Last Thursday the Philadelphia Eagles answered the question as to which team would sign a convicted dog-killer (there were 32 possible answers to the question, and “none of the above” wasn’t one of them), and in doing so touched off a long-awaited PR war for the souls of their stunned fans. That the move is this controversial in Philly is instructive, because this is a city that has some of the meanest, most hardcore fans in the sporting world. Imagine if the team had instead been somebody like Seattle or the 49ers.

In any case, this is America, and as such there was never any doubt that Vick would be reinstated and that some team would pay millions to sign him. If Saddam Hussein had been able to break down a defense and get to the rim he wouldn’t be in Hell right now, he’d be in the NBA. So the controversy, such as it is, has nothing to do with anybody being surprised that Vick would find his way back onto the field.

Nonetheless, the argument is raging, and not just in Philadelphia. As I’ve read what people on “both” sides of the question have to say, as I’ve listened to the takes from local and national various sports commentators, as I’ve heard callers to sports talk stations offering their humble (and utterly meaningless) opinions, I have to admit that I’ve gotten a little tired of some of the memes being trotted out to defend Vick, the Eagles and the league. No matter how self-evidently inaccurate or utterly silly a particular idea may be, once it reaches the point of cliché the chances of somebody not repeating it are about the same as a crack addict not honking on the pipe every chance he gets. It’s true that much of what I’m complaining about comes from a noble place and it’s also true that many of those who are getting on my nerves are in fact good people espousing worthy ideals. Still, we have to understand that good intentions don’t guarantee positive results, and sometimes the pursuit of even the best ideals can effect unanticipated and undesired outcomes.

Here are some examples.

Everybody deserves a second chance…

Really? Everybody? Let’s test this. How about Charles Manson? Does he deserve a second chance? If so, can he stay at your hosue when we release him? Did Ted Bundy deserve a second chance, and if so, would you have let him escort your daughter to the prom? How about TIm McVeigh, or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold or Pol Pot or Stalin or Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer?

Okay, okay. What Vick did wasn’t as bad as those guys. I get that. But two things to remember. First, the meme says everybody, not almost everybody, and this ain’t no straw man – I’m quoting lots and lots and lots of people that I’ve heard with my own in ears in just the past month. If we agree, as I suspect we do, that it’s not really everybody, then what we’re literally saying is that not everybody deserves a second chance.

Second, let’s try a scenario involving nobody famous. Say you’re a parent and you have a brother named Fred. And one day you catch Fred molesting your five year-old daughter. Assuming you’re even vaguely human, Fred’s ass is off to jail (assuming you can keep yourself from killing him on the spot).

So one day Fred gets out of jail. Do you let him babysit your daughter? If not, why not? After all, everybody deserves a second chance.

Give me a few minutes and I think I can convince just about anybody out there, even the most charitably minded person alive, that some people don’t deserve a second chance. Once we get to that point, the only thing left is to decide where to draw the line. At a minimum, though, we’ve demonstrated the ridiculousness of ever saying those words again.

He’s paid his debt to society…

We’re a nation of laws and we must, at some level, invest a measure of faith in the collective justice of our system if we’re to live civilly. Otherwise there’s a lynch mob on every corner, a vigilante lurking in every dark alley, and that’s a prescription for chaos. Who will watch the watchers, right?

That said, it’s hard for an intelligent and moral citizen to take the system at its word, to assume that justice is done in each individual case. If a man breaks into a home, rapes and murders a woman, and winds up pleading to a misdemeanor because the prosecutors can’t cobble together enough evidence to get a felony conviction, has the perpetrator paid his debt to society? Has OJ Simpson paid his debt to society? (Remember, he was found liable for the deaths of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman in a civil case.) Or has he merely paid a fraction of the debt he should have incurred?

The “paid his debt” meme forces us to assume and to assert that the system is always right, and I’ve never yet met anyone who believes that, I don’t think. Yes, the system has run its course, but it’s not hard to find cases where offenses are punished too heavily or too lightly and every day the guilty walk free (and the innocent are sometimes convicted, as well). We do have an obligation to accept the results of the justice system, writ large, though, so while I’m mad as hell that Michael Vick only served a fraction of what I think his crimes merited, I’m not campaigning to throw him back into prison. Given a chance I’ll certainly support much stiffer penalties for dogfighting, but that’s about the future, not the past.

That said, what should I think of people who spout these kinds of clichés when they clearly have no idea of the implications of them? Further, what do we do with those who seem to think that the framers of the Constitution meant that multi-million dollar sports contracts were an inalienable right?

The system has rendered a verdict and exacted a punishment. In one context this means Vick has a right to pursue a life for himself. But in no sense does this entitle him to resume the life of royalty he lived before he was caught.

Forgiveness

Don’t get me wrong – forgiveness is a wonderful thing, taken in moderation. People make mistakes and it wouldn’t be much of a world if we couldn’t forgive the simple fact of human failing. For my part, I’ve made massive mistakes in my life and am the (hopefully worthwhile) person I am today because I’ve been afforded the chance to learn from those errors. By the same token, I have been the victim of the mistakes of others, and have tried to be as generous with my own spirit of forgiveness as possible.

That said, we Americans have some problems where forgiveness is concerned. For starters, not all mistakes are created equal. I do not believe that all things deserve forgiveness (refer to my comments above on Tim McVeigh and your Uncle Fred) and even if I did, I think it would need to be earned by a regimen of penance that was proportional to the offense. Despite what 90% of Americans are required by their religions to say they believe, I don’t think that if we all felt free to voice what we really believe that I’d be in the minority at all.

For example, if you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably had the misfortune to be involved with some form of marital or relationship infidelity. Maybe he/she cheated on you, or maybe you were the cheater. Or both. Or maybe you’ve been lucky enough not to be involved, but you know people who have. In any case, tell me if you have heard some variation of this: “I forgave him/her, but I can’t ever forget.” My guess is that most of us know of a case where person A forgave person B, but nonetheless exiled person B from his/her life forever. Well, is that really forgiveness? If so, then what is the functional difference between forgiveness and can’t-forgiveness? The practical results are the same in both cases – the only distinction is that in one case you repeat the words that you’ve been taught you have to repeat when issuing mandatory forgiveness.

An ever bigger issue has to do with the hypocrisy of forgiveness – in short, the ways we use the certainty of forgiveness to enable all manner of bad behavior. We get a lot of this from those in the ministry, it seems. Jim Bakker. Jimmy Swaggart. Ted Haggard. Henry Lyons. If it isn’t a preacher it’s somebody famous in the news all the time. Right now the happy guys in the spotlight are Louisville hoops coach Rick Pitino and former Senator and presidential hopeful John Edwards. (One wonders if “Catholics in Louisville” would be less forgiving of a coach who knocked up a stranger in public restroom and then paid for her abortion if said coach’s record was in the .500 range.)

The problem here has to do with the concept of intent. It’s one thing to forgive someone who acted improperly in a time of crisis, or who made the wrong choice when the choices were ambiguous, or someone who hurt us accidentally through some form of negligence.

But what about those people who intentionally did that which they knew or believed to be wrong with clear planning and/or forethought? Jim Bakker didn’t realize that he shouldn’t cheat on his wife? Really? All those Catholic priests didn’t know that molesting little boys was bad? Really? Ted Haggard can’t say hello without railing against the abomination of sodomy but he thought it was okay to buy a male hooker for himself? Really? In these kinds of cases there’s a good degree of arrogance associated with even asking for forgiveness, because the regret very clearly isn’t about the action, it’s about getting caught.

To this point, can you actually argue that Michael Vick didn’t realize dogfighting was wrong? If so, then why did he take such effort to conceal it?

We’re not just talking about famous people and preachers here, of course. The certainty of forgiveness plays a big part in the way some of us plan our lives. For instance:

  • Monday-Friday: go to work
  • Friday night: get loaded, get into a fight
  • Saturday night: pick up a hooker
  • Sunday: go to confession

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. How many times do you suppose that the aforementioned legion of priests confessed for buggering altar boys? What do you think is the world record for number of consecutive weeks confessing to buggering altar boys?

At some point, we’re not talking about genuine forgiveness, we’re talking about enabling.

Rehabilitation

The purpose of prison – or at least one of the purposes – is rehabilitation. We send people who do bad things to prison so they won’t do them anymore. Studies indicating national recidivism rates of better than two-thirds tell us what we need to know about the rehabilitating effects of incarceration. Still, it’s a nice idea.

But even in the absence of this data, we’re assuming that all things can be fixed. In truth, an extremely detailed study would probably conclude that some kinds of anti-social behaviors are more easily addressed than others. For instance, a small-time mugger who encounters a strong vocational training program in jail is a very different case from a pedophile. A few experts seem to think that pedophilia can be treated, but I don’t believe this is anywhere near a majority opinion.

So if we’re going to talk about rehabilitating Mike Vick, it’s fair to ask about the nature of the crime and its amenability to treatment.

And here’s my biggest problem: what Michael Vick did was simply sub-human. I don’t mean that word in a pejorative, insulting way. Instead, I’m referring to a clear deficit in human empathy. One of our greatest writers, Philip K Dick, in one of his greatest books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, confronted a world of increasingly human-seeming androids and posed the question: what quality makes us essentially human?

The answer: empathy. In the narrative (upon which the film Blade Runner was based), humans worked hard to cultivate their empathy (which was central to the society’s dominant religious ideology) through the stewardship of animals. A citizen who didn’t have an animal to care for lived a deficient, hollow life, and few sins were more damning than the failure to properly care for one’s animal. In one of the central moments of the novel, one of the replicants kills an animal – something no human could have even contemplated. The lesson is undeniable: only something inhuman could harm an animal.

Dick’s depiction of a strange science fiction near-future was brilliant in its grasp of the fundamental character of our actual humanity, here in the real and now. Empathy makes us human, and there are few measures of empathy that are more revealing than our treatment of animals. Why animals? Because they are helpless. They rely on us.

There’s no absolution here for Michael Vick

We all have our own means of evaluating other people and the moral codes that govern our lives, but for me no bell has ever rung more clearly than the one PK Dick sounds in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? From where I stand, there is no more meaningful and reliable measure of human character than how one treats the innocent and those who cannot take care of themselves. Animals are one case, and a good one. So are children. And if you’re a man, especially a strong one, I know all I need to know about you if you abuse women. You are sub-human.

I have no forgiveness for that, and I’ve never really understand people who do.

So here’s how I see it from the context that I’ve described here. The NFL has said that sub-human behavior doesn’t disqualify you from membership in their highly paid club, and the Philadelphia Eagles have gone a step further and said they’re willing to subsidize those who exhibit sub-human behavior.

You do what your conscience tells you is right. For my part, though, I won’t be spending a penny on the NFL this year. Further, I’ll be paying attention to who advertises with them and making sure I don’t patronize their businesses, either. It’s not much, I know. I don’t have a lot of money and the NFL doesn’t care what people like me think. But my principles must matter to me and I won’t apologize for having a code that isn’t subject to compromise on something as essential as the default qualities of humanity.

Meanwhile, it’s a shame that Rae Carruth isn’t up for parole anytime soon. I’d like to see if the league would at least put its foot down when the victims are human.

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45 thoughts on “Michael Vick and the problem with forgiveness”

  1. What’s funny is that he would have received little to no jail time if he simply wouldn’t have “trafficked” across state lines. He may have only been suspended for a few games if he simply kept this in state. I’m not going to argue the culture thing, but it seems like a monthly occurrence in B-Lo with dog fighting rings, and of course it’s all Pitt Bulls. If you visit the Buffalo dog shelter it’s almost all Pitt Bulls, go to petfinder.com and type in Buffalo zip and it’s almost all Pitt Bulls. I can’t imagine the amount of euthanasia that is used each year to put these dogs down, there’s just so many of them and people don’t want them. I personally think he should have been kicked out for life, but people have a short memory when you win. I guess the moral of the story is to do this stuff after you’re out of the game. After all the Bills still have OJ’s name on the wall at the Ralf.

    On a side note this year Bills fans could vote online for your “all time team”, at RB was Thurman Thomas and not OJ. I loved the Thurminator, but clearly OJ was a better player. Either the fans voted becasue of their disdain for Juice (which I like to think), or the organization took the guy with the 2nd most votes to avoid a PR nightmare.

  2. I will say only this: let’s see the same attitude taken concerning a young, black man caught on the South side of Philly with a bag of crack. There’s no call to rehabilitate him. First, he’ll spend more time in prison than someone (a cracker) caught with the same mass of cocaine (even though said cracker actually has more cocaine by volume). Second, no one will give a rat’s ass about him when he finally gets released. His restoration in American society will consist of never being able to get a student loan to improve himself through education. His best chance at a job will be working for minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant. And when he ends up back in prison – not that anyone will notice – nice, white people might say, “See, you can’t rehabilitate criminals.”

    America is not a melting pot, but a toilet bowl where the shit that clings to the rim hangs around forever and everything else gets flushed. Vick’s fame simply makes him the shit that clings to the rim. There are millions in prison, right now, for crimes far less heinous than Vick’s and nobody’s talking about them.

    I’ll save my thesis that America began its moral and philosophical decline when football became the national sport for some other time.

  3. The problem with your argument you oh-so-carefully construct is that you commit the fallacy of “if not A, then B” re: “everybody deserves a second chance”. And there’s something just not right about arguing against cliches in general, yet deconstructing them logically as if they were meant to be taken literally.

    Look- I love animals; I was appalled by Michael Vick’s actions. And I know super-star atletes, celebrities, and rich people get a better outcome from the legal system. BUT, first of all, this man lost a 135 MILLION dollar contract and two years of his life. That’s no small price to pay. Secondly, there needs to be a line drawn somewhere as to who deserves or even GETS a second chance, you can’t compare mass-murderers and child-molesters to a dogfighter, especially when that person comes from a culture which finds that thing socially acceptable. And third, without a second chance, this VERY high-profile black athlete will get no chance to effect change in that community. He’s got Tony Dungy as his mentor. He’s under a microscope in his new role as Star-turned-Pariah, If he makes no effort to promote the fight against Animal Cruelty, if he gets caught at a dogfight, chickenfight, barfight, or watching Fightclub, for godssake, he’s DONE. And good riddens.

    I admire that you are passionate about the issue of animal cruelty, and it’s your right to spend your money and your free time on whatever you want. But Michael Vick is not the Animal Anti-Christ, so give him a chance to prove himself- just one. Or is my opinion as worthless to you as the talk-radio-callers you so casually dismiss why espousing your own as Gospel?

  4. So, colinjames, should we say nothing about female circumcision in Africa because it’s culturally accepted? It seems that we have thousands of troops half a world away, and one of the reasons that gets trotted out is terrible treatment of women…but that treatment is socially accepted where it happens.

    I see your point and agree with it to a great degree, but i’d like to know if you continue that thought process on to people and things besides football stars.

  5. a well thought out position, SAM…i will however quibble with your use of “entitle” in the following sentence:

    “But in no sense does this entitle him to resume the life of royalty he lived before he was caught.”

    entitlement is tricky business…as LEX mentions at the end of his comment, professional football might well be the prevailing symptom of moral decline in the 20th century (reality TV being the symptom for the 21st?) & the NFL, our version of ROLLERBALL, has all the earmarks of ritual warfare & warriors have been stars since ancient times…stardom insures entitlement…people create & embrace heroes because they need them…

    narcissism, greed, cruelty…these are common threads in the tapestry of literature but we live in an age that has forgotten the moral of the story…an over-riding notion has evolved that anyone, anywhere who is a “winner” deserves entitlement…as the disease of FAME spreads to eradicate the ideals of public service & compassion for one’s neighbor, we face the plain fact that the strong & fierce have typically held sway over the thoughtful & meek who follow in their wake with mops & bandages trying to mitigate the damage to the helpless…

    i think about what makes us human everyday & believe your use of empathy as a major touchstone of humanity is appropriate but too narrow to eliminate its other, less ideal aspects…our spiritual nature is at odds with our biological nature…at war even…maybe ritual war…maybe professional sports…

    i won’t have any trouble joining your boycott of the NFL…i just wonder when they’re going to start taking the losing team & their wives as slaves? sounds like successful reality TV to me…

    1. Hey Don – thanks for dropping by. Perhaps on that “entitle” thing I should have said that he ought not be entitled. In a normative context that seems right.

      In the fact of our cultural life, of course, that’s just pure nonsense. If you’re famous, all bets are off, and your fame is de facto entitlement to everything you can haul off.

      Thanks for a well-articulated corrective….

  6. I had this Pollyanna-ish hope that, when it cam time to claim Michael Vick, everybody was just going to pass. That sidesteps almost all the tough arguments. In that scenario, the NFL looks forgiving (whether that was the intention or not) and the individual teams appear to have backbone (whether they did or not). Once that happened, Michael Vick can get a job selling used cars…or whatever it is the rest of us who don’t play professional sports do.

    As it turns out, I think Goodell did enough to avoid a discrimination lawsuit and to benefit from the sideshow Vick’s return would bring. And I applaud all the teams that passed on Michael Vick. I’d give the Eagles the benefit of the doubt, except they had the opportunity to pass as well, but they didn’t.

    The only mitigating factor in all this for me is I have no personal relationship with Michael Vick. If he was my son, or my nephew, or my friend I might feel differently. Not to excuse what he did. There will never be an excuse for what he did. But maybe to say that, since he is now out of jail, what are we going to do with him? If you are his father, uncle or friend, you support him to the degree that you can. All the while you hate the sin but maybe not the sinner. I’m glad I’m not in the position where that’s my choice.

    Since the die is now cast, I hope we can look back on this and say that everything turned out ok in spite of the decisions that were made. I hope Michael Vick uses this second chance to do something meaningful with his actions and with his money and doesn’t just skate by. I watched an HBO special recently on Marion Barry that suggests that I could be in for a disappointment, though.

  7. Perhaps Vick thought this sort of thing is okay since people pay big bucks to watch other human beings beat the s#%@ out of each other in giant arenas while betting billions on the outcomes. He may have been a little better attuned to the underlying psychology as opposed to the philosophical rationalizations for why it’s okay to treat violence a spectator sport.

    So where to you stand on dwarf-tossing and paying homeless men 5 bucks apiece to beat the s out of each other for Youtube videos?

  8. I can’t believe jeff and I agree on anything, so I won’t totally repeat his statement. How about this…..
    I KNOW he go off WAY too easily, and it has nothing to do with animal cruelty or dogfighting, because he was not really convicted of that. He was convicted under the RICO act of violating interstate commerce laws regarding the transportation of animals BECAUSE he was fighting them. He was not convicted of “dogfighting” per se.
    What Vick was doing was operating an organized crime ring that was violating many federal laws on a daily basis. If one of us more humble citizens were caught doing what he did, we’d get hit with everything they could write down. Money laundering, conspiracy, you name it. They probably would not even mention the actual animal cruelty, because nobody really goes to jail for that, but they would get us for a litany of criminal acts and we would be lucky to not get 20+ years.
    This is where the rich get over on the rest of us big time in our pay-to-play justice system. He has money and heaps of lawyers, so they did a sitdown and negotiated what charges he would plead guilty to, and the judge got to sentence him according to that criteria. I give the judge credit for giving him as much as he did under the circumstances, due to him lying to the court, but if he faced
    money laundering, conspiracy, perjury AND RICO stuff, wow. He would be well past his playing days by the time he got out.
    As for me, I will never forgive him. I am an animal rights guy and own two pit bull mixes that I love too dearly for words to do justice.

  9. Howie: Yeah, I can’t imagine what would happen to me if I’d been running an interstate crime ring, but odds are good that I wouldn’t be pulling down any multi-million dollar contracts right about now.

    Pit bulls are wonderful dogs. You can make them vicious, but it’s not their nature. Their nature is closer to teddy bear.

  10. @Jeff
    Dwarf tossing and bum fights are never right. Since my opinions don’t matter around here anyways, I could probably find someone here to endorse those activities just because I am against them..

    I said that Vick got off too easy.

    As far as the NFL is concerned, reinstating him was a business decision, pure and simple. If I were in charge of things, I wouldn’t ever hire him, but since I’m not, that’s not my worry. The team that picked him up thinks that he’s a good investment, and they may or may not be right. The free market will determine whether he is or not.

    Jeff

  11. Okay, okay. What Vick did wasn’t as bad as those guys

    Really? I guess I’m just too much of an animal welfare person, because I don’t see the difference. To suggest it’s different smacks of anthropocentrism or suggests that dogs are just organic machines, somehow incapable of really processing pain or fear. This guy was the ringleader of a non-consensual fight club, where losers were often tortured to death. Just because our laws have yet to catch up with our understanding of the animal mind does not make the crime any less serious.

  12. @Slammy: Whenever I see Vick giving teary eyed apologies, I get flashbacks to the “I have sinned against you my lord!” speech. Glad I’m not the only one.

    @NFL Pick:
    He’s not sorry he did it, he’s sorry he got caught doing it. There’s a world of difference.
    Even if he were genuinely sorry, aren’t there transgressions for which “Hey, sorry!” aren’t good enough? Shouldn’t torturing a helpless creature just because you can be in that list? If it isn’t, what’s the cutoff for you? (By “cutoff” I mean the absolute worst crime you’d be willing to forgive someone if they seemed genuinely sorry.)

  13. I happened to be watching ESPN right when the Eagles deal was aired and then a preseason NFL game shortly afterward, and not once was the word “dog” mentioned as the commentators droned on endlessly about the deal. They talked about him getting back into shape and “paid his debt” and his threat to McNabb, but not a word on the crime that was committed.

  14. You’re vegan, right?

    Trying. I’m a vegetarian and I’m trying to get the last bits of cheese out of my diet.

    But for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m a meat eater. Let’s go even further and say, damn it, I can’t call it a meal until I’ve had a pit bull steak. What then? Does that put me on the level of someone who fights dogs and tortures them to death? Would it have lessened his crime in your eyes if they had sent the dead off to a meat-packing plant?

    Yep, animals are killed every day. Predators are part of a healthy ecosystem. If a person says “hey, I like eating meat; primates are omnivores”, I can accept that argument. Everything in the animal kingdom has to eat. It’s not for me anymore, but I’m not going to get preachy about it. If you say “hey, dairy animals may have it worse than meat animals”, I’d say “you’re probably right and that’s why I’m trying to cut out dairy as well”.

    1. Lessened the crime in my eyes? No. But I’m not the person who’s equating animals with people here. I’m rather proud of my anthropocentrism, thanks, and think that people DO matter more than animals.

      Don’t get me wrong – animal welfare matters. But when it comes to animals vs. people, I’ll happily and unremorsefully choose people 80% of the time. It makes me much happier knowing that my drugs were tested on transgenic mice, rats, and monkeys before human trials, for example.

      And those other 20% of cases, when I choose supporting the Northern Spotted Owl over loggers, for example, I also vote and spend in ways that support the logger communities that are affected.

      1. Brian and Mike: let’s VERY quickly dispense with “animals vs people,” because that’s not the argument. I’m not sure its AN argument. The issue here is baseline humanity. Whether you’re doing it to an animal or a human, it’s APPALLING and unacceptable by any standard. If you’re doing these things to another living being, you need to be locked away forever because you lack the fundamental empathy and humanity to be allowed into society.

        It’s like arguing over who was worse, Hitler or Stalin. Well, if you’re killing people the way they were and for the reasons they were, the point of no return arrives several million corpses before you can start comparing resumes.

        If you enjoy purely academic arguments, knock yourselves out. But let’s make sure we get some perspective up front. This is energy wasted on each other when there’s not enough actual, meaningful point of disagreement, in the larger context, to even notice. Our energies are better spent examining those who commit atrocities against both people AND innocent animals.

  15. The great thing about Michael Vick is he gives us someone to hate, and when the whole world hates him with me, ah what a warm, wonderful feeling that is. You gotta love the hate. We were born to hate, and a justifiable hate that we can all get behind, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

  16. Terry,
    Very sagacious idea about hate and the fact that we were born to hate. Hell, I feel the hate over here on a daily basis. If we didn’t have something to hate, what would we do?

    Jeff

  17. Great article, Sam. I agree completely, although most football fans would call you a tree hugging vegan fairy, provided they could get through the article. And that’s what troubles me the most about this whole neo-gladiatorial situation. A lot of football fans would probably watch dogfights if they were on TV.

    Dick Butkus once said “I wouldn’t ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately unless it was, you know, important — like a league game or something.” And it’s funny because it’s true. In football, which is the national sport and something like the state religion in the South, the aggressive, the merciless, and the strong are rewarded, and the only time anyone is sorry about breaking rules is when they get caught.

    This is the culture Michael Vick comes from. He was throwing a football at three and weight training at 13. Of course, there were disciplinary problems at school, but he made varsity as a freshman, so all was forgiven. Violence has been not so much accepted as rewarded prodigiously in his life. Is it really surprising that he has grown indifferent to suffering? I can see certain parallels between the training and competition of these dogs and the training and competition of football players. Although they don’t kill football players who sustain career ending injuries, yet…

    Josh

  18. Sam, you’re wrong on this one here – it’s not academic at all, and it’s a critical argument to have. Mike said that he wasn’t sure that a dogfight was less bad than murder, and I’m saying that he’s wrong. Empathy for an animal is fundamentally different from empathy for another person.

    I don’t think you realize how hard a line you just took. You’ve essentially made the argument that it’s inhuman to intentionally harm animals. And that’s an argument that PETA makes all the time in the process of resisting life-saving medical research using animals that, for example, have their backs broken to test spinal regeneration therapies.

    So I’ll ask you point blank – is it sub-human, lacking in empathy, to intentionally injure animals to advance human medical knowledge and/or training? Would you change you mind knowing that most medical schools in the U.S. used to teach anatomy by vivisecting a sedated dog (that was later killed), and that as of 12 years ago only about 50% of medical schools had abandoned the “dog lab” in favor of manufactured simulators?

  19. Brian, I’m too concerned with the discussion that we’re having to sucked into a conversation we aren’t having. I’m almost certain I never said it was evil “harm” or “injure” an animal in the context you’ve now asserted. If I did, let me know where.

    There are those who make a radical argument that would equate torturing an innocent animal for fun with research. Again, I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them. There are certainly types of animal research I’d ban if I could – cosmetics, for instance – but that’s as far as I’m going.

    What Vick did (and what others like him do) is sub-human. That’s what I said and that’s the context I’m addressing. I certainly encourage you to do a post on why that’s not the same thing as research, though. I’m just not sure I’m in love with the idea of THIS thread being put to that use. Doing so distracts and undercuts the impact of what I’m trying to do.

    1. I’m pretty sure you’re not one of them either, Sam, which was why I asked. Your comments about empathy defining what makes someone human didn’t include any limits or qualifiers, explicit or implied, and so I wanted to know where you were placing those lines in sand (fuzzy though they may be). It’s clear that you’re saying that Vick’s behavior crossed that line, and I’ve got no argument with that. But the last few paragraphs of your post broadened that specific point to incorporate the philosophy of what makes someone human or not.

      It sounds like that’s not what you intended, but I’m reasonably sure I’m not alone in interpreting what you wrote toward the end of your post in that fashion. I took Mike’s responses to be along those lines, and a number of comments at some of the social networking/news sites suggested that others interpreted your post that way as well.

  20. Hey Sam, I agree with Brian. I don’t think this one is academic at all. After reading his replies, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on some points. That’s fine. I apologize in advance for my dissertation.

    To clarify, I acknowledge that people kill animals. I’ve eaten more than my share of meat during my life. Like I said, I’m not going to get preachy there. As such, no, I’m not going to go so far as to say that anyone who intentionally harms animals is necessarily evil and should be punished. If you hunt for food, that’s part of the natural order. If there are too many predators and there isn’t enough meat to go around, well, mother nature has a solution for that too. Hell, if the Alfred Packard situation was as he described it, then, yes, I think he was right to eat his fellow travelers and would have been right to kill at least one if that was the line that separated the living from the not-so-much.

    To further clarify, I think you could make a compelling argument to suggest that the concept of survival be extended far enough to vouch for limited animal testing of products. I’m not going to get holier than thou on this one either though I think this one is stretching it. I tried to use a deodorant for a month that wasn’t tested on animals. I broke out in a rash and was itching my arm pits for weeks. The deodorant I use now was tested on animals. I wish it hadn’t been. I would have been content to use my body as a laboratory on that one, but it is what it is. Is it possible to acknowledge something’s value without necessarily agreeing with it?

    Anyway, let’s get to it. Where I’m going with this is that what makes Michael Vick lower than ambulance chasers and lower than Texas congressmen who pretend global warming isn’t happening is that he wasn’t fighting dogs for sustenance. He wasn’t doing this under any pretense that could have posed for animal testing. He wasn’t doing this for any reason beyond his cheap, sadistic entertainment. He was doing this because he had absolutely zero respect for animal life and loved to watch these poor creatures beat the hell out of each other. Between he and his fellow criminals, hell, this was better than talking about the big game at the water cooler. As far as he was concerned, this was adult male bonding at its finest.

    Furthermore, he got off on pounding the losers to death. In the same way a rapist rapes — not out of sexual frustration — but to establish a sense of superiority over the victim, Michael Vick beat these dogs to death because he needed to do so to prove to himself in some fleeting way that he, unlike them, wasn’t a loser.

    When you value your vanity or your entertainment over another living thing, yeah, I think your life isn’t worth the spunk it took to spawn it. Yeah, I think you forfeit any right to incredulity and had better accept whatever fate comes your way. There’s a not-so fine line between people who make mistakes and people who make choices. Vick made his and the state of Virginia and the NFL are also culpable in their mishandling of the situation. As far as they’re concerned, the Beaver lied about his homework, and now that he’s had a night to think about it, we can all agree he’s learned his lesson and let’s all get past this in time for the next episode.

    So, since we’re putting this on a spectrum, where does Michael Vick’s fate lay? What is fair punishment? On a scale of zero to a hundred, with zero being absolutely clear of conscience and one-hundred being a deep french kiss with Beelzebub, where do you put the following?

    1) the insufferable vegan who would rather practice cursive on his wrist with a straight razor than sneeze at a rabbit?

    2) Pol Pot, Hitler, Goebbels, et al.

    3) John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy

    4) Joe Six-Pack who got drunk one night and DWI-ed a mother and her kids in a station wagon

    5) “Fanciful Farms”: the non-existent dairy farm where “we only milk cows that want to be milked and we go out into the field to do it!”

    6) The ringleader and executioner at an animal fight club

    7) Proctor & Gamble – where anything with fur should spend six months with Head & Shoulders in their eyes so we can make sure its safe for people!

    8) Rupture Farms – the factory farm that reminds you of the classroom scene from Pink Floyd’s _The Wall_

    9) The fearless deer hunter who hunts purely for sport

    10) The exec who does a quick bit of math and decides that doing nothing and paying out accidental death claims is cheaper than recalling his product.

    1. See, here’s the issue with me. 2,3,6 and 10 are all 100s. Do I think raping and murdering lots of women or committing genocide is no worse than dogfighting, no. But dogfighting gets you the ultimate penalty. This is what I was trying to get at earlier with by baseline argument.

  21. I did no such thing, and it is disappointing that you would recur to petty —and false!— accusations to somehow justify your deletion of a comment that contradicts your views. Are you really that self-conscious, that insecure, that you feel you need to justify everything to your readers?

    “I condemn the NFL for reinstating Vick, because it is a universal truth that animal abusers derive great pleasure from playing football, and not because I simply despise the guy based on my own moral convictions. I deleted that guy’s comment because it contained offensive name-calling, and not because I simply refuse to have people contradict me in my own blog.”

    In both cases, your opinion should stand on its own, and is more than enough to validate your actions. But in both cases, you feel obligated to justify your actions in some higher court of public opinion by painting it not about a personal choice, but as an upholding and protection of some mythical universal moral truth.

    That is just sad.

  22. I suppose you did, because I distinctly remember writing the following (which can be found in the final post on my blog):

    […] the author’s attempt at comparing the well-being of a five-year-old to a stupid game of football is not only retarded, but insulting to his readers’ collective intelligence.

    … which explicitly states that, in my opinion, your argument is retarded. If you see that as a personal attack toward your person, as opposed to an attack on your argument, then I believe that is what some would call a persecution complex.

    Goes to show that one need not be versed in the field of critical thinking to acquire an array of academic titles. Again: sad.

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