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Rhetorix Archives

    Oklahoman Cockfight: misdirection vs. mental images
    by Rhetorix

    October 31st, 2002

    Rhetorix has not attended a cockfight. Rhetorix is not presently attending a cockfight. Rhetorix never will attend a cockfight.

    With that anaphora having been committed, let us now examine some rhetorical flourishes caused by one of the stranger ballot initiatives of Campaign 2002.

    On November 5, 2002, Oklahomans will vote on a ban of cockfighting. Battles between specially-bred roosters equipped with metal gaffs on their legs originally were outlawed in 1907. This law was overturned in 1963 when a judge on the state's Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Oklahoma had laws banning animal fighting, but that chickens were not animals.

    There is a rhetorical term for a nonsensical argument: unwarranted assumption, a belief that has insufficient justification to support it. Miserabile dictu, the judge did not rule chickens to be vegetable or mineral.

    Other statements in the initiative debate have been more definitive and descriptive:

    "The cockers say it's natural for roosters to fight, and that's true, as far as it goes. But it's not natural for them to fight pumped full of stimulant drugs to make them more aggressive. Or for 2 ½ inch razor-sharp knives to be attached to their spurs, after which they're tossed into a dirt pit full of blood and feathers to perform for a howling mob of men, women and children. They fight for minutes if their windpipe is slashed or lungs pierced, but fights can go on for an hour before other wounds take their toll. Often the badly injured "winner" is thrown into a barrel with the loser to die. Death, there, can take up to 24 hours."

    This is enargia, a powerful description that brings the scene to life as though it were occurring before one's eyes. This description is from the United Animal Nations website. Enargia engages the audience and sways their opinions with vivid immediacy. If the audience can be made to feel the dying agony of a rooster, its opinions may turn against those who obtain entertainment from that pain.

    More descriptive phrases, one from each side of the cockfighting argument, demonstrate another type of vividness:

    "It's barbaric abject cruelty to animals," said Janet Halliburton, who led the petition drive to put the measure on the ballot. "It makes us look like a bunch of knuckle-dragging animal abusers."

    However, a former governor, David Walters, opposes the measure, saying it would halt a source of income for some impoverished rural communities. "Some of these people are dead-dog poor and I have a hard time telling them we're going to take your livelihood away," he said.

    "Knuckle-dragging animal abuser" and "people [who] are dead-dog poor" both are vivid mental images. The former invites contempt - who could support subhuman cruelty? The second calls for sympathy - who could take money from those too poor to own a live dog?

    Now, add to the last image an argumentum ad verecundiam, an appeal to accept traditional values or authority:

    "Nancy Savage, 54, a former teacher who grew up going to cockfights, now edits an industry newsletter The Cock 'N Bull [said that] cockfighters are some of the finest people I've ever met and include doctors, lawyers, preachers, postmasters and firefighters." (The Nando Times, op. cit.)

    Pity the Oklahomans who deplore animal fighting, but who respect authority - how can they decide? Perhaps this Frequently Asked Question from the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting (OCAC) website will help:

    Question: Is cockfighting a big industry in Oklahoma?

    Answer: There are thousands of birds killed at cockfights, but it's hardly a significant source of economic activity. Money changes hands in bets on birds, but that simply transfers money between individuals. The state obviously gets no share of the dollars illegally wagered at cockfights. (

    Nota bene: Not reporting your gambling earnings upsets the tax man. Also note that this does not answer the question. Big industry is not defined as something that pays money to the State of Oklahoma, but as an industry that generates lots of money, which cockfighting does. Charles Berry, president of the Oklahoma Animal Coalition, a group that supports cockfighting, states that $100 million is spent per year on building materials for cockfighting arenas, feed and care for birds, and the sales of birds. (

    Other opponents of cockfighting acknowledge the money:

    There are big bucks at stake. The major cockfights a battle royale that tosses all the fighting roosters able to stand into one pit can have purses of $500,000, and there are 80 such pits in Oklahoma. A breeder advertising in The Gamecock recently drew bidders from Guam, Hawaii and Mexico and auctioned a champion-line rooster and 2 hens for $1500. (United Animal Nations, op. cit.)

    So, what is the purpose of OCAC's answer? It's a classic example of misdirection, a sleight-of-hand meant to distract the audience from an uncomfortable argument. OCAC does not want voters to think about lost sales at their local businesses, but to have images of dying birds and howling humans firmly in their minds while they vote.

    If the opponents of cockfighting have crafted their arguments with care, their proposed ban will become law. If not, then those descriptions of poor, honest, hard-working people who spend lots and lots of money in Oklahoma will convince voters to support cockfighting.

    © 2002 Tocqevillian Magazine