Graphic Animal Gore

  There are some nature shows on TV which feature animals chewing up and swallowing chunks of other animals -- often while the animal being eaten is still alive. And Americans have a fascination with such programs -- a fascination one cultural observer warns borders on depravity. Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College and the author of a new book called A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age. In an essay titled, "In on the Kill," Jacobs describes the growing popularity of graphic animal gore-shows that feature lions chewing up zebras or tigers tearing into antelope. Some people shrug and say, "Well, that's just the way things are." Nonsense, Jacobs counters. A lioness will spend a dozen hours sleeping for every hour she spends hunting-yet how often do these programs feature sleeping cats? Far from giving us "an unedited version of The Way Things Are," Jacobs writes, "filmmakers give us pictures of predation because they, and we, are interested in predation. We would rather see a praying mantis eat the head of her mate . . . than watch a caterpillar eat a leaf." These programs are, Jacobs writes, the modern equivalent of bear-baiting or cockfighting. Viewers justify their interest by saying, "I'm only watching what others have filmed," or "They're just filming what the animals are doing." But a fascination with killing is deeply unhealthy and can lead to our own degradation. By watching these kinds of programs, we render ourselves less humane by destroying the respectful kindness -- the humanitas -- which is a characteristic of the virtuous person. As Jacobs puts it, there may at times be good reasons for us to force ourselves to look at animals killing and eating other animals -- just as there may be good reasons for forcing ourselves to watch films about the Holocaust. "But if we do not have to force ourselves, if we look upon such scenes with pleasure and fascination, something is dreadfully wrong," Jacobs writes. And he adds: "Those who can look without flinching upon animals having the flesh of their bellies eaten while they are still alive are morally numb; those who seek out such scenes for their viewing enjoyment are depraved." According to Jacobs, one of the reasons the viewing of cruelty is nearly as bad as perpetrating it has to do with the Fall. He quotes John Spencer, a seventeenth-century gentleman who chastised his brother for his addiction to cockfighting: "You make that a cause of your merriment which should be a cause of your grief, for you take delight in the cruelty of the creatures, which was laid upon them for the sin of man." When it comes to acts of cruelty, sometimes the only proper response is to avert our eyes. This is not a denial of reality, Jacobs notes; it is an acceptance of the fact that reality is often terrible as creation groans because of human sin. Jacobs is right. We need to resist the temptation to watch documentaries that revel in the cruelty of the animal world. Programs like that attack our humanitas -- our respectful kindness -- and, therefore, twist our worldview in ways that are a detriment to ourselves and the culture around us. For further reading: Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press, 2001). Alan Jacobs, "In on the Kill," First Things, February 1997. BreakPoint commentary no. 020208, "Must-Close-Your-Eyes TV."


Chuck Colson


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