Friday, September 7, 2007

Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Vick, Culture and the Individual

If you’ve been following news of popular culture, you’ve probably encountered news and commentary about Whoopi Goldberg’s statements on the television show The View concerning the Michael Vick / dogfighting issue. If not, you can read one news account at this link:;_ylt=AobHyCW1Ii4QsNT3msS74xsPLBIF

Here are two quotations from the article:

“He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing," Goldberg said of the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, whose recent fall from grace has been one of the most stunning in the history of U.S. sports.

“For a lot of people, dogs are sport," Goldberg said on the show. "Instead of just saying (Vick) is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."

I’d like to address Goldberg’s comments in two ways, first in terms of the factual veracity of her claims, and second in terms of a more theoretical issue, the relationship between individuals and culture.

Goldberg’s first statement is reasonable enough – there are specific contexts in the south (and other parts of the country – when doing ethnographic field work in the El Paso/Juarez/Las Cruces area, I encountered allegations that specific sites in one southern New Mexico town were dogfighting sites) where dogfighting is part of the culture. But there’s no place in the south today where dogfighting goes unquestioned – in fact, there’s no place in the south today where most people don’t find it reprehensible.

I’m more interested, though, in the assumptions at play about the relationship between culture and the individual. Goldberg presents Vick as simply a product of his culture. (I’d like to be clear that it’s not clear to me if Goldberg’s intent in doing so was to justify or defend Vick, or simply to contextualize him.)

Culture plays a strong role in influencing all of us and in shaping the ways in which we think and make decisions. That’s largely what cultural anthropology is all about, and I’d be a very strange anthropologist to say otherwise. At the same time, culture doesn’t determine the individual, nor what individuals think and choose to do. (For example, culture doesn’t produce identical individuals.)

If claims like Goldberg’s are meant mainly to contextualize Vick, then I disagree with some particulars but have no basic quarrel about the types of claims being made – Vick isn’t a monster but a human being whose decisions were shaped in part by his cultural context.

If Goldberg’s claims (or anyone else’s similar claims) are intended to justify or defend, then there is a problem, for such a defense only works if the individual couldn’t have decided and acted otherwise on account of the cultural context – something clearly not the case here. Just as culture doesn’t dictate the terms of an individual’s existence, it can’t justify the individual.

Similar sorts of claims could be made about other individuals in the South’s past. Imagine if I or anyone were to say of Bull Connor (or Orville Faubus, or any other famous southern white racist of the civil rights era):

“He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing,"

“For a lot of white people, blacks are just inferior."

"Instead of just saying Connor is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."

Neither the content nor the form of such an argument would wash with almost anyone today, and though I’m sympathetic with Goldberg’s attempt to contextualize Vick rather than demonizing him (if that was her intent), the form of her argument is problematic.


Richard said...

How does racism even come close to comparing with dog or cock fights?

Robert Philen said...

Thanks for the comment.

The thrust of my argument is not to equate dogfighting with racism, nor to even draw an analogy between those two things per se. As I indicated, I don’t have any problem with Goldberg or anyone else attempting to contextualize the actions of anyone. Instead, I found the form which her argument took to be problematic, and I do have a problem with anyone justifying the clearly problematic actions of any individual using cultural determinist arguments.

To further illustrate this, I gave an example of Bull Connor (not racism in general). I presented a hypothetical argument that paralleled the form of Goldberg’s about Vick. In other words, my analogy is between the form of two arguments, not between the content or referent of the arguments. The hypothetical argument I presented about Connor is, I think (I hope), clearly problematic to most anyone today, and the form of Goldberg’s is problematic for analogous reasons.

That said, from your question, I’m not quite sure in which direction you find fault with the equation of the two settings. So, I present a case for either scenario.

If you don’t think that racism is equal to dogfighting in the sense that racism is not as bad as dogfighting, I would say again, that my example was about Bull Connor specifically. Using attack dogs to go after peaceful civil rights protestors is right up there with anything Michael Vick might have done. If you did want to frame the comparison in terms of the more general history of racism, the history of lynching, just to pick one example, has to be seen as at least equal to the brutality found in animal fighting.

If you don’t think that racism is equal to dogfighting in the sense that racism is far worse than dogfighting – in terms of historical significance and pervasive influence, I’d agree. But I’d also point out that, while the brutalization of an animal may not equal in moral significance the brutalization of a human being, it’s nonetheless an instance of brutalization.

Richard said...

I understood what you were saying completely. I feel like if you wanted to make a comparison why not use other forms of animal cruelty such as; horse racing, circus’, greyhound racing, or even bull fighting.

See people want to get on Vick for his operation yet, we continue to handout hunting permits. So if you want to make a comparison that is on the same level then compare animal cruelty but, do not in anyway attempt to say that any attack on humans is comparable to dogs fighting.

Our society fully endorsed and promoted dog fighting until the mid 19th century. Suddenly they decided it was too barbaric. And somehow we continue to brand cattle for purpose of identification is that not barbaric? So if we want to think about things ethically then lets us remember that ethical theory shall be applied universally and not pick and choose what types of animal cruelty we deem socially acceptable.

With dog fighting there is not hatered towards the dogs. Those trainers love their dogs as much as you love your pets if not more. Racism was and is about hate. Simple. With that fact alone I still continue to stress that dog fighting and racism are not comparable.