Banning bullfighting: does the motivation matter?

Catalonia, a so called “automous region” in Spain, banned bullfighting in 2010. “Torture is no culture” was the argument offered by animal rights organizations. Catalonians didn’t want bullfighting on their grounds. Now, the Spanish national government has overturned Catalonia’s decision, saying it is the responsibility of the regions to conserve national heritage.

I felt outrage when I read this. Bullfighting is one of those things where you wonder how it can still be going on, how it can not be, at this point, utterly, terribly illegal. Fortunately, the overturning of the ban doesn’t necessarily mean bullfights will be reintroduced in Catalonia.

Catalonians against bullfighting: what are their real reasons, and does it matter?

If you wonder how the Catalonian ban against bullfighting came to exist in the first place, you might think that it was this very same outrage, in collective form, that led to it. Undoubtedly, moral outrage did play a part, but it was not the only thing that drove Catalonia to impose the ban.

First of all, an important factor was that in Catalonia, the bullfighting arenas were already quite empty, and it was mainly an older population that still seemed to enjoy them. The fact that people stayed away may have been for moral reasons, but it could also have been that they had other, more interesting things to do. You can imagine that in such a context, it’s a lot easier to abolish something (kind of like how some countries have prohibited circuses with wild animals, but where there never were such circuses in the first place).

Secondly, the motivation to ban bullfighting was in part political. Many Catalonian nationalists were all too happy to see something that they considered as typically and traditionally Spanish disappear forever. Banning bullfighting was a statement of independence, a symbol of a breach with the Spanish culture and customs. These sentiments helped many Catalonians to vote in favor of the ban.

I wrote on many occasions that in our movement, we often attach too much importance to – and put too much faith in – moral drivers for change. We would love all change for the animals to be inspired by the right reasons, but caring or outrage are often not enough in and of themselves. In this case too, there were different drivers.

It’s of course hard to know to what extent political, economic and moral reasons were each responsible for the ban. Even today, looking at the reactions of prominent Catalonians who are pushing back against the Spanish court decision, it is hard to make out whether the statements given by Catalonian officials are actually motivated by concern for animals, or whether concern for animals is used to further a political agenda. “Barcelona has been an anti-bullfighting city since 2004. Whatever the court says, the Catalan capital will not allow animals to be mistreated,” tweeted Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. And, according to The Guardian, Josep Rull, the Catalan minister for public works, said: “The constitutional court can decide what they want, but we have already decided that there will be no bullfights in Catalonia. (…) We want a country where it is not possible to make a public spectacle of death and suffering to an animal. This is what we decided at the time in Catalonia and is unalterable for us.”

The question I want to ask, however, is: does it matter what the motivation was or is?

It may matter less than we think. I imagine that proud Catalonians who don’t care all that much about animals but who suddenly pick up animal rights slogans because they feel it’s a good argument to further the separation from the Spanish may start believing in these very arguments, just by using them. It’s what we call “fake it until you make it”, in psychology. Feelings and attitudes can follow actions, even if they were not initially there.

As a movement, we need to be pragmatic. We need to find as many possible arguments and drivers that can help animals. When people further the cause of animals to further their own agenda, I think we should support that – as long as that agenda is, of course, not immoral.

Of course, now that the ban is being challenged, we will see whether the motivations behind it are strong enough for the Catalonians to take a stand against the Spanish. Maybe the story of the Catalonian bullfights will turn out to be a story that actually confirms the necessity of ethical, moral outrage for permanent change. I think, however, that it’s rather the opposite: in this case, the ban may hold exactly thanks to the added support of the fiery and feisty Catalonian desire for independence.


2 thoughts on “Banning bullfighting: does the motivation matter?

  1. Does anybody know of anecdotal or empirical instances where a region taking a small step to improve animal welfare has led them to develop a sense of animal protectionism or take greater steps?

  2. Of course, the opposite can happen as well. Unionists (or however those who are not Catalonian nationalists are called in Catalonia) may accept that bullfighting is a proxy-discussion for Catalonian independence (something the pro-independence people have “proposed” by making it a political playing field against the national government) and thus their identity as unionists may force them to accept a pro-bullfighting position. In that case, everyone who cares about the issue itself loses, especially those who want to ban bullfighting for reasons of animal protection (who ideally favour having both pro and anti independence forces united against bullfighting)

    I am using this example to talk in more general terms. But I absolutely do not expect that what I described will happen with bullfighting. The practice is very controversial in the rest of Spain as well (if I remember correctly, most Spanish nationals reject it, whether in Catalonia or elsewhere) and unionists (again, I don’t know what word to use) can thus only lose by linking it to the question of Catalonian independence. But there are similar cases (not related to non-human animals), where what I describe has happened, in my opinion.

    So while I absolutely agree that we usually should not care whether someone does the right thing for the right reasons, it is possible to take that sentiment too far.

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