Simplistic (as distinct from simple) philosophies attract – and corrupt.
Whenever someone reduces the whole complexity of life to a straightforward proposition or two, people feel grateful. They no longer have to think for themselves.
Just apply the ready-made stencil to the problem at hand, cut away everything that sticks out and the problem is no more.
But then a curmudgeonly pedant points out something that stubbornly resists the excising scissors. Suddenly Bob’s no longer your uncle – and Fanny is emphatically no longer your aunt.
True to character, I propose to cast myself in that spoilsport role today, using the boxing ring as my battleground.
Boxing is very much in the news following the heavyweight bout between the American Deontay Wilder and our own Tyson Fury. The two pugilists manfully slugged their way to a draw, with the latter twice picking himself up from the canvas to withstand more battering.
(Allow me to paraphrase: Mr Fury was twice knocked unconscious, suffering two concussions and each time taking multiple additional blows to risk lasting cerebral damage if not instant death.)
Whenever boxing attracts public attention, it attracts public debate. Should such brutal displays be banned? Or should people be allowed to do as they please, provided they hurt no one else but themselves?
Matthew Syed jumped into the debate swinging with libertarian haymakers. In turn, I’ll try to point out gaps in his defences, but without landing the knockout blow of advocating a ban.
For what interests me here isn’t so much boxing qua boxing as the weakness of any dogmatic libertarian argument, however it’s applied.
Mr Syed shows enviable erudition in pointing out the historical provenance of boxing in classical antiquity and quoting nineteenth century accolades for “the science of sweet bruising”. Yet he also acknowledges that boxing is a dangerous sport.
Fighters get killed in the ring. Barring that, they suffer brain damage. Having taken thousands of punches to the head, they develop things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s at a prematurely young age.
My Syed is aware of this: “The lasting harm of boxing can be gleaned from any number of interviews with former champions, the slurred words and slowed speech as instructive as any medical report.”
But then he throws a libertarian counter: “They [the fighters] know the risks, they recognise the dangers and are willing to encompass them.” And oh yes, many of them are grateful to boxing for the life they otherwise wouldn’t be able to have.
It’s true that one doesn’t immediately see how Messrs Fury and Wilder could have split $15 million for one night’s work in any other way, at least legally. It’s also true that the choice of this profession was their own, and it was made freely.
However, now we appeal to antiquity, all the same arguments would apply if Messrs Fury and Wilder wielded gladii, not boxing gloves – provided they hadn’t been forced to become gladiators.
Granted, the likelihood of death or serious injury would be even greater, but statistical probabilities shouldn’t be allowed to affect the core principle. If two adults freely agree to kill each other, who are we, libertarians, to object?
However, if we’re horrified at this suggestion and insist that gladiatorial combat is an inappropriate public spectacle, then we acknowledge that the libertarian argument has its limits.
Once we’ve agreed on that, the issue becomes eminently debatable. A line can be drawn, and it’s up to us to decide exactly where. Entering into our consideration would be, inter alia, such retrograde notions as the inviolability of the person and the sanctity of life.
Assuming that Mr Syed wouldn’t enjoy the show of two gentlemen trying to kill each other with their swords, he seems to see a qualitative difference between that and seeing them trying to kill each other with their fists.
I don’t – but then, though I don’t believe in progress, I do believe in civilisation. Etymologically opposite as this word is to militarisation, it presupposes the existence of a social and cultural arrangement wherein grievances are settled peacefully, not with brute force.
Since propensity for violence is demonstrably part of human nature, the role of civilisation can be defined as a never-ceasing effort to discourage the bad parts of our nature, while encouraging the good ones.
Conversely, casting civilisation aside and allowing the bad parts of our nature to triumph is sheer atavism, a throwback to a time when people expressed themselves with the untrammelled brutality that always accompanies unchecked freedom.
Viewed in that light, any violence hurts not only its immediate victims but society at large. For example, European society was for all intents and purposes killed by the Great War, even though a relatively small number of Europeans perished in the conflict.
Downscaling from there, two young men bashing their brains out don’t just hurt themselves. For they aren’t the only ones exercising their free choice to engage in atavistic savagery.
The reason Messrs Wilder and Fury were paid all those millions is that throngs of panting viewers around the world enjoy the show of two feral men suffering repeated concussions. They love the sight of blood in the ring – and beyond.
I don’t know if they still do it, but in the old days the proud holders of ringside seats at Madison Square Garden would come equipped with newspaper sheets to protect themselves from the scarlet spray. They knew what was coming – and looked forward to it.
One would find it hard to argue that boxing civilises by encouraging the good side of human nature to come to the fore. Hence I’d suggest that the damage done to the viewing public, and therefore to society, is greater than that suffered by the two sluggers.
It’s the public, not so much the boxers’, health that concerns me.
It’s true that most professional boxers would find it hard not only to match their income in any other occupation, but indeed to earn any income at all.
For example, Mike Tyson’s IQ is just over 70, and I suspect most boxers have something similar – that’s before they take thousands of blows to the head. This isn’t a good qualification for remunerative employment in our value-added economy.
Moreover, since these men are innately violent, one could feel relieved that their natural tendencies are manifested in a roped space 20 by 16 feet rather than in the High Street, where Christmas shoppers could otherwise find themselves on the receiving end of crosses and uppercuts.
So yes, boxing isn’t without its positive effects. But these are barely noticeable compared to the heavy blow it deals to civility, and therefore civilisation.
Whether or not it should be banned is a separate argument, and one I’m not prepared to make. Too many unrelated variables would go into a decision of this sort, such as the encouragement it would give to some central authority to ban anything its sees fit.
My task is merely to point out the inherent weakness of the undiluted, unvarnished libertarian argument in this and most other instances. Life is too complex to lend itself to simplistic reductions.