On Bullfighting

Alan Coffin - Apr. 4, 2024 - 8 min read - #Culture

“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

In life, there are certain hills you shouldn’t die on. If you die on Mount Everest, for example, your body probably won’t get retrieved. You will subsequently be left to freeze until the whole thing becomes a massive water slide in a couple hundred years.

Defending bullfighting is one of those hills. 

In Britain, the general consensus is that Spanish bullfighting is reprehensible. It is an example of blatant barbarism, a remnant of the ages of bloodsport and bear-baiting, something wholly inappropriate for our modern age. 

The whole idea of receiving gratification from watching the slow termination of an animal’s life at the hands of a team (yes, the bull is ‘up against’ more than one person) of people is deeply shocking. A special place in hell exists for bullfighting aficionados, you may say.

However, whilst I am unprepared to die on the hill that is a defence of bullfighting, it is my belief that in our society’s current state, we should be far more accepting of it. I believe most of us should not be so quick to condemn the matador. 

The one thing we need to realise about bullfighting.

Before I make my argument, as to why society should be accepting of what it currently considers barbaric, one thing needs to be made clear about what bullfighting actually is.

Firstly, this essay references Spanish bullfighting, using the standardised structure of the tirada (the name given to the process of the bullfight) as my reference point. 

The most important thing to realise about Spanish bullfighting is that it is not a sport. The Hemingway quote at the start of the article is factually wrong, since Spanish bullfighting can be more accurately described as an execution. The bull will always die, and that fact is crucial. A human or a horse may die or get injured too, although rarely. The victim of the bullfight will always be bovine.

In fact, the structure of the tirada is set up in such a way that a bullfighter ‘losing’ is not him dying or coming to injury, but rather him failing to kill the bull ‘well’. The bullfight becomes good or bad based on the way in which the bull is killed: Spanish bullfighting without a bull’s death would be the equivalent of watching a football match with no ball. 

Therefore, the aim of the bullfighter is to kill well and to command, rather than to merely survive.

This clarification is essential when we come to compare bullfighting with something I consider to be very similar, if not identical: the beef industry. 

The first premise of my argument: a bull and a cow must be valued equally. 

Both bulls (that fight in bullfights) and cows (that make beef) are born and bred for the same purpose, to have their death satisfy humans. That is the ‘destiny’ assigned to them at birth. As established, the tirada is structured so the bull will always be killed in a bullfight, and a cow, bred for beef, will always be killed in an abattoir for its meat. 

Bulls and cows are both part of the same species, the only conceivable difference between them is their gender. In the same way we’d say a male human and a female human are equal, we can say bulls and cows are equal too. It is 2024, after all.

So, bulls and cows are the same. They serve the same purpose, and they’re part of the same species.

The second premise to my argument: the products of beef and bullfighting are the same.

Both beef and bullfighting are non-essential commodities. 

Humans can survive without beef, and indeed, have for the majority of human history. The reason why banning beef would be uncomfortable would be primarily because we gain experiential value from the taste, not because it is essential to our survival. 

There are nutritional benefits to beef whilst there are none in bullfighting. However, there are nutritional benefits in all sorts of things we do and don’t eat. 

The same amount of protein you could gain from a steak could also be found in 131 grams of chickpeas (a food both cheaper and similarly available). The steak is normally chosen over the chickpeas, despite both having the same amount of protein, because we prefer it. Hence the beef option is chosen because of the experiential value it provides.

People also choose to go to bullfights due to the experiential value as well, with spectators choosing them over other non-violent forms of entertainment such as football or the opera.

Whilst the levels of experiential value both commodities provide are impossible to compare, since they are dependent on the consumer and how much enjoyment they personally receive from them. Nevertheless, since neither are necessities, their industries rely on the enjoyment they provide to the consumer. 

However, we cannot claim beef is any more ‘necessary’ than bullfighting since people eat beef because they enjoy it - not because they have to anymore than someone has to watch a bullfight. It just happens the industry is bigger because there is more demand for beef.

However, we can analyse whether the source of enjoyment found in both products originates in the same place. 

A common argument to disprove the link between beef and bullfighting is that aficionados get their satisfaction from the matador harming and killing the bull, whilst meat eaters get satisfaction from the taste of the meat - not the act of the meat being produced. Some would also use this argument to claim that therefore eating meat is more detached from the death of the animal. 

I argue that in both actions, the satisfaction is reliant on the death of the animal. The enjoyment an aficionado finds in a matador killing the bull well is reliant on the bull being killed. The meat eater finds enjoyment in the preparation and consumption of the animal, after its death. However, this enjoyment couldn’t be created without the cow from which the meat originates being dead.

If neither party found enjoyment in either of these death-related things, neither industry would exist.

The main difference between the two, however, is that a steak-lover will find experiential value from an additional ‘death-related’ source. This is the physical consumption of the animal’s flesh. This is not a factor in bullfighting.

As a result, if we are to discuss the ‘directness’ of one profiting from an animal’s death, the meat eater does so more ‘directly’. The meat eater’s body will physically benefit from the death of the animal, through their consumption of their nutrients, from the taste of their flesh.

Whether this fact makes beef any worse or not is subject to your own interpretation, but what is undeniable is that the product bought in both industries is death. 

So why do we treat them so differently?

Now that it is clear that really, by watching a bullfight and consuming a steak, you are engaging in very similar actions, why is it that one is so taboo and why is it that the other is okay? Why would admitting to being a bullfighting aficionado be a stupid thing to include in a Tinder profile, whilst it being an excellent idea to take a Tinder date out for a steak dinner - perhaps the very same person that would have condemned you for supporting the killing of bulls for entertainment?

Why is Catalonia, one of the first (although probably not last) Spanish regions that has banned bullfighting, still legalising Catalan cuisine containing the slain female equivalents of the bulls they’re trying to save? Both are non-essential cultural traditions, are they not?

It all makes very little sense. In this article I have failed to mention the environmental and health impacts of the beef industry. What I am certain of is that bullfighters won’t be the ones most heavily responsible for ‘Everest becoming a waterslide’ as alluded to in my opening lines. 

Everything points to the fact that there should be an equal condemnation (or acceptance) of both, but there simply is not.

The more one considers this discrepancy, the more it becomes apparent that the issue people have with bullfighting isn’t the killing of the bull. It is of my opinion that the disgust and horror in public reaction to the spectacle can’t be based out of a concern for the animal, but out of what it reveals.

Bullfighting is the beef industry in its purest, most unadulterated form. It demonstrates to us the joy humans gain from the destruction of animals. The difference is that this destruction isn’t packaged behind a plastic wrapper, or prepared in an appetising way. Bullfighting is real, it demonstrates brutal, raw reality. That’s why some people love it, that is why most people loathe it.

By banning bullfighting, society congratulates itself for defending animals, when in truth it simply pulls wool over its eyes, unwilling to see the reality of what our society is. 

I am not a vegan trying to proselytise you. I eat farmed fish that feed on their own excrement, and chickens that live in 18x20 inch cages. I have given patronage to animal suffering and I don’t think I am going to stop. 

However, what I see as an important takeaway from this comparison, is that by banning bullfighting, we achieve nothing.

Bullfighting may be abhorrent, and I suppose that amongst the industry’s many crimes the dullness of the whole ‘spectacle’ is one of the biggest. It will probably die, and it will probably die soon. Attendances are dwindling, progressive Spanish politicians are becoming more outspoken and less tolerant on the issue. 

Yet, it shouldn’t be banned, because by doing so, a gross hypocrisy is being committed.

This year, around 250,000 bulls will be slaughtered by the bullfighting industry. If the governments of the countries where the practice is still legal were to prevent every single one of these deaths, that would account for around 1/1173th of the amount of cows killed for meat.  

In my opinion, there is simply no point, and simply no justification, when there is a far bigger issue that remains unaddressed, and indeed, risks remaining unaddressed. If we rid ourselves of reminders of our tastes for animal suffering, we risk forgetting that it’s all around us. 

Dying in an arena or dying in an abattoir is death nonetheless. Perhaps if I was a bull I’d be able to have a good go at the matador. Perhaps if I was a cow I could live my final minutes in a less stressful manner. It doesn’t really matter. 

Be comfortable with both, be comfortable with neither, but don’t choose one over the other. Don’t be against bullfighting if you eat beef, because by eating beef you are doing the same thing.

I doubt a day will come where bullfighting becomes normalised again. Perhaps the day will soon come in which we realise beef shouldn’t be normalised either. But until that day, we are being hypocritical in condemning what is, in my opinion, an action that is objectively the same. Indeed, an action that becomes an industry, which due to its scale, becomes the greater of two evils.

As Brits, we may imagine we’ve escaped those gladiatorial days in which the Spaniards are supposedly still stuck in. Maybe we’re mistaken.