This is the famous photo making the rounds in email and the Facebook of the Spanish bullfighter Alvaro Munera overcome with compassion for a bull while in the ring. Except it isn't. It isn't Alvaro Munera, and it isn't a bullfighter being overcome with compassion. What it is, and how the famous Alvaro Munera did come to reject bullfighting is actually a more interesting story, and it says something very important about the nature of compassion.
Debunking the Meme
It only takes a quick Google search to find that the photo is real but the caption is only tangentially related to reality.
- The bullfighter in the image isn't Alvaro Munera;
- The bullfighter in the image is not showing a moment of compassion or being overcome with emotion;
- The quote that accompanies the image is not from Alvaro Munera but another man who never was a torero.
Why Tell Lies?
Why, then, this fabrication? In particular, the image itself shows a bullfighter playing at being defiant and displaying showmanship in the face of danger. The meaning is the opposite of what the caption tells.
Alvaro Munera's Animal-Rights Beliefs
The real story of Alvaro Munera's conversion to anti-bullfighting came after being paralyzed in the ring and then living the U.S. for medical treatment and physical rehabilitation. He relates that his conversion to animal-rights beliefs took place in this context:
When I went to the U.S. [for medical treatment], where i had to face an antitaurine society that cannot conceive how another society can allow the torture and murder of animals. It was my fellow students, the doctors, nurses, and the other physically disabled people, my friends, my North American girlfriend, and the aunt of one of my friends, who said I deserved what happened to me. Their arguments were so solid that I had to accept that it was me who was wrong and that the 99 percent of the human race who are firmly against this sad and cruel form of entertainment were totally right. Many times the whole of society is not to blame for the decisions of their governments. Proof of this is that most people in Spain and Colombia are guenuinely anti-bullfighting. Unfortunately there's a tiny minority of torturers in each government supporting these savage practices.
Social-Psychology - The Effect of the Group
What Munera describes is the real reason why bullfighting can have very different meaning in two different cultures. He is absolutely correct that it was all of these people who accused him and convinced him. But this could have been about anything, any particular value or meaning of some aspect of the world. The effect of a culture on individuals within that culture, and the effect of the groups we are a part of, shape our beliefs and our values. They actually go so far as to shape us evolutionarily, as is well-documented in the most recent work by E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth.
And so the truth of conversion of an individual to another cultural value system is becoming a member of that cultural value system. The lie is that the value system (in this case, compassion for animals) is somehow beneath culture and exists already at the level of psychology (which is supposedly more embedded or authentic). The idea that animal-rights beliefs are somehow natural is a complete fabrication. Those who believe this don't realize that this belief itself has been shaped by the culture in which they live, the groups to which they belong, and the people with whom they interact.
This isn't to say that everything one believes is somehow culturally conditioned. But values are especially shaped and informed by groups.
Brutality, Danger, & Indomitable Fighting Spirit
The sport of bullfighting is brutal, but not merely an orchestrated slaughter. Rather, it is extremely risky for the bullfighter, though for the bull there is only death at the end of the encounter. Juan Jose Padilla is a recent example of both the brutal danger and the fighting spirit that are both embedded in bullfighting. After a horrific goring which left him blind in one eye and unable to chew food, and speaking with a lisp, he returned to the ring after only five months and was able to fight and win again.
Those who would wish that matadors would turn their athletic abilities to more animal-friendly pursuits are missing the point in two senses: the culture and history of bullfighting cannot be so easily replaced, and the contest with the possibility of maiming and death has a meaning far beyond sport.
Hemingway and Bullfighting
The existential elements of bullfighting should not be so easily dismissed. Many readers of Ernest Hemingway have encountered bullfighting, most poignantly portrayed in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. The later work A Dangerous Summer is largely disappointing compared with the earlier works.
The Triumphant Return
Personally I am with Hemingway on this issue. I've seen bullfights in Mexico, and found them to be a unique experience. Perhaps I am somehow resistant to my own culture, but in fact I live as an expatriate, and perhaps have a more introspective personality. That is, others exert less control than perhaps they might otherwise.
Does that make me a barbarian? Yes, it does, using the word barbarian in the original sense of the word used by the Greeks, for those who were not Greek, did not have the same culture. Those who we accuse of barbarism for holding cultural values and practices that we condemn, are simply saying that these people come from another culture. These days, however, even when we are so globalized, those who make these condemnations don't understand culture in this way.