Brutality as Entertainment

A while back I picked up Will In the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,by Stephen Greenblatt. It is filled with vivid descriptions of the world in which the bard lived. I was particularly struck — and horrified — by the cruelty of his society. For example, Shakespeare was caught in the middle of the Christian strife in which Catholics tried to kill the queen and the queen had traitors executed in the most barbaric of ways.

For example, here is Greenblatt’s description of the torture and execution of Thomas Cottam:

[T]he scavenger’s hoop… was a hoop of iron that slowly closed around the prisoner’s spine, bending it almost in two. … On May 30, 1582, he was executed in the grisly way designed to demonstrate the full rage of the state: he was dragged on a hurdle through the muddy streets of Tyburn, past jeering crowds, and then hanged, taken down again while he was still alive, and castrated; his stomach was then split open and his intestines pulled out to be burned before his dying eyes, whereupon he was beheaded and his body cut in quarters, the pieces displayed as a warning. (page 98)

You know it’s a bad day when getting your head chopped off is the good part.

Chapter 6 is titled, “Life in the Suburbs.” In the sport of “baiting,” a bull or bear is “penned up in a ring or chained to a stake and set upon by fierce dogs.” Greenblatt writes:

In a popular variation, an ape was tied to the back of a pony, which was then attacked by the dogs: “To see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape,” wrote one observer, “beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable.” (page 177)

Why might people find such a sickening spectacle funny? Greenblatt notes that this violence against animals mirrored the routine violence against people:

[P]arents frequently whipped children, teachers whipped students, masters whipped servants, beadles whipped whores, sheriffs whipped vagrants… Almost daily [Shakespeare] could have watched the state brand, cut, and kill those it deemed offenders. (page 178)

It was, in short, a nasty time to live.

Obviously, we moderns gasp at these “very laughable” deeds. Yet looking at the horrific violence of the past might give us pause about certain practices of the present. Here are a few examples:

* Should modern laws protect animals from abuse? If so, what is the basis of such laws, and what should be their limits?

* The Supermax prison of Colorado, recently featured on 60 Minutes, keeps inmates isolated for 23 hours per day. Does that drive people insane? Does that matter?

* We have modernized our punishments; should we also see the death penalty as outdated because of the horribleness of putting somebody to death?

* On the other hand, rape is common in American prisons. People on TV and in the movies often joke about prison rape or suggest that rape is part of the expected punishment of prison.

* Let us say that we have overwhelming evidence that a nuclear bomb is planted in a U.S. city, and we also have overwhelming evidence that the suspect in custody knows where it is. Do you consider the use of torture? But there’s torture, and then there’s torture. There’s the “scavenger’s hoop,” and then there’s waterboarding. Would you rather be Thomas Cottam or a prisoner in Abu Ghraib (after the fall of Saddam Hussein)? But should anyone have to contemplate either horror? At what point does interrogation become torture? Are there any circumstances in which any sort of torture is justified?

* On two occasions, I have accidentally gone to a bar during “fight night.” People pay money to watch “Ultimate Fighting” on television. The idea is that two contestants are locked in a cage, where they proceed to beat each other to bloody pulps, often until one gets beaten to unconsciousness. There are various rules to protect contestants, but it’s perfectly legal to pound somebody in the face with a knee, for example. Boxing seems quite civilized by comparison. Should this be legal? Assuming that it should be, should people watch it? And why do they watch it? What does that say about the state of our culture that a sport like that gains in popularity?

The Power of Moral Suasion

C. Bradley Thompson’s sixteen page history of the abolitionist movement — comprising the introduction to Antislavery Political Writings, 1833-1860, which Thompson edited — makes for fascinating reading.

Prior to the 1830s, Thompson points out, arguments against slavery tended toward pessimism and compromise. “Like most Americans at the time, [Thomas] Jefferson favored gradual emancipation and the expatriation of the slaves to Africa” (page xv).

During the early 1830s, antislavery thought took a radical turn. Inspired by the Enlightenment natural-rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, a new moral sensibility — indeed, a moral revolution — swept over the American landscape that promoted an uncompromising vision of good and evil. (page xv)

However, within the decade, the abolitionist movement fell into schisms. Is political action necessary to achieve results, or does it compromise and water down the core principles? Thompson reviews the history of the Liberty Party, founded in 1840, and the continued debate over political strategy. Thompson also summarizes the debate over the Constitution: was it fundamentally a proslavery or antislavery document?

What emerges from Thompson’s overview is that abolition inspired various tactics, from apoliticism to electoral politics to outright violence. In the end, historical circumstances determined what tactics won out. But those circumstances were made possible only because of the fundamental moral vision of the abolitionists: slavery is immoral and a great evil, and it should be done away with. And it was done away with, within just a few decades of the inception of the movement.