News analysis by Barbara Kay
When I began writing regularly for Canada’s National Post, my editor told me that two kinds of news stories can be counted on to attract heated response from readers, and plenty of it: sports and animals. Even thus forewarned, I was taken aback by the virulence of the feedback my first column on pit bulls provoked. “Heated” is a euphemism for the abuse in some of those emails (this was pre-Twitter; social media is where most of the anger ends up nowadays).
But it wasn’t all invective. Many pit bull owners and advocates believed that I had arrived at my position – pit bull type dogs pose a high risk for unprovoked aggression, and are therefore a public-safety issue demanding regulation – out of ignorance, or because I had naively placed my trust in biased sources. They sincerely wished to educate me, and were prepared to spend a great deal of time in earnest dialogue to effect my conversion.
Nobody ever came close to converting me, even though it used to be my custom to engage with my more intelligent responders at some length. Their failure to persuade wasn’t for lack of open-mindedness on my part. It was because of the poor quality of the argumentation: the near-absolute indifference to logic, statistics and objective evidence, and the near-absolute dependence on personal feeling and personal narrative to make their case.
Indeed, if any cultural observer were seeking strong evidence of just how thoroughly the mantra “the personal is political” has penetrated our culture, he or she would find a cornucopia of evidence in my reader-correspondence files, or in virtually any online debate about pit bulls.
I am often asked, for example, with withering condescension, “Do you even own a pit bull?” as if owning a pit bull were a prerequisite to forming an opinion about the level of risk inherent in this type of dog. This question is often accompanied by a paean to the writer’s own excellent pit bull, who has never hurt a fly.
In the past I would patiently observe that, following their curious strain of logic, which would preclude commentary on subjects not personally experienced by pundits, we would have no historians, medical researchers or jurists. I would also explain that if a responsibly owned pit bull who had never hurt a fly were an acceptable argument for generalizing about all pit bulls, then by its own logic, the generalization can be neutralized or reversed by stories of responsibly owned pit bulls that have killed family members. Sadly, my argument never made the smallest dent in my correspondents’ armor-plated certainties.
A recent case in point, published in Animals 24-7, perfectly illuminates the impasse rational polemicists too frequently encounter in this domain, an article entitled, “Why pit bulls will break your heart.” In it, veterinary technician, humane volunteer and former animal control officer Beth Clifton recounts her passage, from disillusion with the pit bull advocacy she had once endorsed, to advocacy for the victims of pit bulls. For Beth, it was a personal experience with a rescue pit bull named Trooper that no amount of love could render trustworthy with family members that was the catalyst for change.
Since it is rare for pit bull advocates who have been mugged by reality to publicize their defection, and in this case, moreover, with eloquence and compelling candor quite devoid of rancor, Beth’s article attracted a great deal of reader response.
Given the editorial disposition of this publication, much of the commentary was supportive. Some, though, expressed indignation, such as commentator Anne Streeter, who wrote, “If Animals 24-7 advocates for breed specific legislation what comes next after Pit Bulls – German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Dobermans, Huskies and many others – or mixes of the same for that matter. Things are never black and white. Surely you must be able to find one positive story. If not, I have one. Her name is Annie and she is an absolute gem.”
Ms Streeter’s opening ‘slippery-slope’ argument about regulation of other breeds associated with aggression, often adduced by pit bull defenders, is not without merit. It is rebuttable on statistical grounds (and was rebutted by ANIMALS 24-7 Merritt Clifton in a reply), but it at least springs from a rational impulse. However, the words “one positive story” then leapt off the page for me, provoking the familiar irritation.
Beth Clifton did not turn her cognitive world upside down on the basis of ‘one negative story’ with Trooper. Her negative experience set her on a path of interrogation of the received wisdom of pit bull advocacy that she had not previously doubted. It was the knowledge she gained on that path that confirmed her suspicion that she had been adhering to a false belief.
And so I added a comment in reply to Ms Streeter: “Nobody advocating for [breed specific legislation] has adopted that position because they were unable to find “one positive story.” Nor did they become BSL advocates because of “one negative story.” One comes to a policy position through exposure to epidemiological trends, not personal anecdotes. Moreover, just about every case in which a family’s pet dog mauled or killed a family member was a “positive story” until the tragedy happened – randomly and suddenly. Public policy is not about “you” or “me” or anyone in particular. It is about risk assessment. There are many people who smoke all their lives and never get lung cancer. That does not mean that smoking is safe. Pit bulls present an elevated risk to other animals and to humans. That is settled fact. What to do about it is the question you should be considering instead of limiting your focus to your particular pet.”
In a domain as charged with emotion as the pit bull debate, we cannot make much progress if there are no common rules governing discourse. Personal stories are what bring most people involved in this debate into the combat zone. But personal stories are not in themselves knockout punches. On the other hand, they should be collectively acknowledged as important empirical evidence in support of the real knockout punches of objective, scientifically based evidence.
Learning to make the distinction between anecdotal and hard evidence ourselves, and insisting that our opponents recognize the distinction as well as a pre-condition for engaging with them may raise the tone of individual confrontations, and in the process diminish the frustration that is the besetting scourge of this ongoing conflict.
[Barbara Kay taught English Literature and Composition for many years both at Concordia University and in the Quebec CEGEP system. She is a Woodrow Wilson fellow. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Barbara was a board member of the magazine Cité libre and a frequent contributor to its pages. Barbara has been a National Post columnist since 2003. Barbara is the co-author of Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter's Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, published May 2011. Barbara's latest book, Acknowledgements: A cultural memoir and other essays, was published in 2013 by Freedom Press Canada.]