Taking the bull by its horns of a dilemma

I am still somewhat haunted by childhood images of sheep and cows being slaughtered for Eid, in commemoration of the legend of Abraham who was ordered by God to sacrifice his first-born, only to have Gabriel intervene at the last moment and offer a ram to Abraham. The bellowing and bleating of these animals, waiting in a truck while the men gathered in the mosque, will remain with me. The sight of a cow – often stereotyped as a dumb beast but nevertheless a magnificent animal – lying on its side with its neck over a pit, its blood draining, giving a last few futile kicks, will always remain with me. The smell of half digested grass with its overwhelming note of cow shit as the carcass was skinned and the entrails drained and cleaned, will also always remain with me.

So let me state at the outset that I find the idea of killing a large animal sporting horns by using only one’s hands quite a dauntingly disturbing task. I imagine that the animal’s bellowing would haunt me, the frightful look in its eyes, the ropes of saliva and snot hanging from its mouth and nostrils, the pain from its crushed testicles searing through its bulk to its brain.

And let me state also at the outset that I am immediately skeptical in arguments that deploy ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ to justify or establish any practice or behaviour. Arguments that do so inevitably seek to justify one or other thing and set it beyond criticism, no matter from where the criticism and to which purpose. And these arguments do so by placing it beyond history: ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ operate by automatically appealing to our wish that what we do has an origin that stretches back and disappears in the mists of time. This sense that what we do has a mythical and/or mystical origin then reflects back onto what we call ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, granting them the mythical power that reinforces one’s own behaviour and sense of belonging to a set of practices, for both inclusionary and exclusionary purposes: who belongs and who do not belong. Who can speak/criticise and who cannot.

Sometimes the uses of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ to mask the invention of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ can be amusing because, once re-historicised, it can expose the culture and tradition that one steadfastly clings to as originating at a time, place or intention that clashes with the perspective or habit of that particular newly-invented tradition. The Christian assimilation of pagan customs – Easter, Christmas – for instance, is well known. The Scottish clan tartan that denotes a surname’s purported link to a mystical Celtic past is a relatively recent invention:

For as Trevor-Roper points out with ill-concealed glee, tartan and kilt, those universal badges of Scottishness, are about as authentic as Disneyland. Until the 18th century, no one north of the Tweed had ever seen a kilt; nor did the clans, as legend has it, distinguish themselves by the pattern of their tartans, until they were taught to do so by an enterprising clothing manufacturer. (Adam Kirsch, “Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland“, The New York Sun, 2008)

The invention of tradition happens often as some form of political endeavour. As Trevor-Roper points out (from above review), much of Scottish history at some point was invented by Henry Boece in the 1400s, to compete with an Anglo-Saxon claim of antiquity. In his History of the Scots, Boece then invented 40 kings, numerous of whom were deposed or executed because they were bad or downright evil rulers.

A century later, George Buchanan would use this invented history to claim a tradition of Scottish rebelliousness as apologist for those seeking to depose Mary, Queen of Scots. In other words, an invented tradition now used as real historical force.

It goes without saying that all people invent traditions – this is neither a good nor a bad thing. But it is important to understand that culture and tradition – all cultures and all traditions – are not static entities. They are historical; they are fashioned and used often for historical and political purposes. The Scottish tartan’s more recent, 18th-century rise in popularity was also an act of protest against union with England:

This apparatus [tartan kilt and bagpipes], to which [Scots] ascribe great antiquity, is in fact largely modern. It was developed after, sometimes long after, the Union with England against which it is, in a sense, a protest. (Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland”, in Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, 1983/1988)

Thus sometimes something good can come out of the use of tradition, invented or not. The important thing is that ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, being invented, is open to change, and that this change occurs often at crisis moments, through contestation (think of various religions privileging the male as office-bearers, and how that is slowly changing). These changes then more often than not spark resistance, and the resistance is justified by appealing to culture and tradition, as if the latter are not open to change. Most often, this kind of change is brought to bear on a particular culture from within: women priests and imams demanding and agitating against the status quo.

Sometimes, cultures and traditions clash, as in the present controversy over the bull-killing ritual in South Africa, but I doubt that such a clash will make for change.

I do not know enough about this ritual, and while I have my own personal feelings about the ritual, in line with my feelings about the Muslim ritualised slaughtering of animals on Eid, I am reluctant to voice an opinion on either of them.

What I do know something about is the history of a colonial discourse, especially when that discourse grants itself the power and the right to bring enlightenment to people whom the colonial discourse deems are in darkness. I may think that the Zulu ritual is cruel, or the Muslim one for that matter, but before I go and chase down Muslim or Zulu about that, I might try to understand, also, the history of admonishing people for something that they do, in their backyard or on a field unbeknown to me, because it upsets me and my sensibilities. I may try and understand the history of doing so and where it has landed us. I may try and understand that arrogation of the right to admonition and what results it has had. If I then still feel compelled to admonish or criticise, I might temper my criticism accordingly.

This is where the Animal Rights Africa activists have it wrong, and place themselves on the side of a colonial discourse that in the past has granted itself the right – self-righteous and arrogant – to tell people, of whose lives and practices they know little or show little interest in, until they hear the cow bellowing, how to live.

Despite claims that they seek not to be confrontational (IOL, 16 November 2009), ARA’s conduct has been nothing else but confrontational: a court order to stop the activity. And it is no surprise that the people who engage in the bull-killing ritual respond as if they are under attack. According to news reports all over, it seems that a meeting with concerned parties was set up only in hindsight.

Does ARA have anthropologists as members? Do they know this ritual happens every year? Is/was there not a different approach than suddenly jumping on some ethical high horse, the invention of which, certainly, is also open to scrutiny?

I believe that there are some foundational ethics that cannot be subject to cultural relativism – murder, for example, cannot be justified. But, in a country that is still struggling to really address racism and the colonial legacy (yes, apartheid goes back almost 400 years in modern South Africa), and where people quite happily, on both sides of the fence, care not about how they address each other, how they look at each other, where they care not how such address or look hurts each other, I find the suddenly ethical hysteria about the bull-killing despairingly blind to a history in which the forces of enlightenment simultaneously subjugated people as it claimed it brought such enlightenment. If one wants to carry the torch for enlightenment, would it not be best to exhibit such enlightenment by one’s behaviour towards each other, in stead of saddling the good steed Self-Righteous?

I’m not saying that one should be obsequious, but in demanding that one’s own sensitivities be considered while trampling on another’s is in bad taste, counter-productive and neo-colonial. No wonder South Africans are all crawling back into their hide-bound little enclaves.

And, however much we want to argue about the relation between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humanbeings, we still haven’t resolved our own cruelty to human beings. I have to draw the line there. In exercising our concern over animals at the expense of our concern over humans, how can we wonder that some humans turn from us and care not what we think?

Update: An eyewitness account of the 2007 ritual by blogger Wizzy. Pierre de Vos at Constitutionally Speaking also addresses the issue.

3 Responses to Taking the bull by its horns of a dilemma

  1. TLS says:

    Well said good steed! :D

    And did you know that that fabric that everyone thinks is African, those prints that women use to make those often brightly coloured “African” dresses, like Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma likes to wear, are actually made on the other side of the planet. My memory fails me, unfortunately, but it’s either in Indonesia or Malaysia where they are actually made.

  2. BSE says:

    Yes, I was looking for some references for that, but couldn’t find much online. Also, I think it was in Malawi that a ‘traditional’ female dress was actually designed by an old colonial, to be worn by her domestic workers.

  3. samboerou says:

    These so called Dutch wax prints originated in indonesia,based on Batik.Interestingly the printing block used to stamp the pattern on the batik is called a tjap,which is used here as a slang word,for tattoo.Have a lookout for the work of Yinka Shonibare,who uses this fabric in his work in order to adress these issues,of race,class and authenticity.

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