The Westminster Dog Show and the Benign Lie

Tonight is the finale of the Westminster Dog Show. The show is always entertaining if you are dog lover and educational whether you are or not—what the heck is a Plott?–but it is also a strange epitome of what human beings will accept as fair and reasonable because of tradition alone. The pretense that the judging at this stage of the show, after the best of the individual breeds have been selected, is anything but deluded arbitrariness presented as scientific expertise is astounding, because so many intelligent people not only accept it, but accept it with good humor and certitude.

A Scottish Deerhound

The American Kennel Club has exacting standards for each breed, and its judges are well-trained and knowledgeable to be sure. The Group competitions and climactic Best of Show determination, however, are blatant exercises in the suspension of disbelief. It is a true apples vs. oranges extravaganza that the owners, crowd and commentators treat with the solemnity of a major Supreme Court ruling, yet has no more real meaning than a series of coin flips. Last night, for example, a Scottish deerhound, one of my favorite breeds, won the Hound Group. This meant that the Group’s judge determined, in a matter of minutes, that the winning deerhound was a better deerhound than the best long-haired dachshund was a long-haired dachshund. How? What does that even mean? If someone was to dispute the decision, how would they go about it? Nobody ever does, of course. All the dogs are wonderful representatives of their breeds, and the fact that the cross-breed comparisons are logically impossible has the ironic effect of making disputes impossible as well.

Not that the results of the arbitrary determination of “best” doesn’t have consequences for the winners; they certainly do. The titles increase breeding fees, inflate the value of puppies, and if the dogs are offered for sale, they can translate into thousands of dollars. But challenging the judging criteria would serve nobody’s interest, loser or winner. Dog shows promote the AKC, the breeds themselves and dog-owning generally. The Westminster is a massive public relations bonanza for the entire industry, and whichever breed wins the arbitrary prize gets a photo on front pages across the country and an immediate bump in popularity.

The price for all this is the perpetration of a lie: that the competition has integrity, that the judges really have the magic ability to compare completely dissimilar dogs with fairness and precision. Without the lie, and everyone’s voluntary embrace of it, there would probably be no dog shows at all. The industry would suffer, many breeds might vanish, and casual TV viewers  would miss a chance to see Neapolitan Mastiffs, Redbone Coonhounds and Leonbergers. Is this an example of a beneficent lie, and one more proof of Marshall’s Ethics Incompleteness Theory: “No ethical principle works in every situation”?

It might be. Similar acceptance of institutionalized myths are not so harmless, such as the belief that the Pope is literally “The Vicar of Christ”—despite an election process as political as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process—and that whatever he decrees is an edict from God. In the world of award competitions, even the Academy Awards and Tonys don’t approach the Westminster in pretense of  legitimacy, for they are determined by votes, not exalted “acting judges” who can really discern in scientific fashion that Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right” wasn’t quite up to Natalie Portman’s performance in “The Black Swan.” Nobody believes there is any integrity in the process, and nobody cares. The Oscars exist to sell movie tickets.

Perhaps the essential dishonesty of the Westminster and other dog shows, representing arbitrary comparisons of superiority and legitimate, is tolerable because the objects of the lie, the dogs themselves, don’t believe the lie or care. To them, it’s just a big party, with lots of attention and love. And they are exactly right; it’s only the human who are fooled, or perhaps willing to fool themselves.

_______________________

For a discussion of a different ethics controversy relating to the A.K.C. and its dog shows, go here.

UPDATE: Hickory, the Scottish Deerhound, won Best of Show, the first of her breed to do so. It may have been arbitrary, but it made me happy anyway. Great dog.

12 thoughts on “The Westminster Dog Show and the Benign Lie

  1. Some off-the-subject nitpicking. JM, you need to do a little honest research, re “…the belief that the Pope is divine”. I am a “recovering Catholic”, i.e., a former member. In 8 yrs of parochial school, 4 yrs Catholic high school and 2 yrs Catholic college, I never once heard anyone, nun, clergy or lay person, say that “the Pope is divine”, or that anything he decrees is “an edict from God”.

    The RC church does claim papal infallibility when he is speaking, only ex cathedra, and only on matters of faith and morals. I leave it to you to discover what they mean by that, thru your belated ethical research.

    There’s a story told of James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921), archbishop of Baltimore. Somebody asked him if the Pope was really infallible. He replied:

    “Well, all I know is that the last time I saw him, he called me ‘Jibbons’.”

  2. I fixed it. “Divine” was sloppy and wrong, and it’s not that germane to the article. I’ve lived with Catholics all my life and was Christened in the Greek Orthodox Church—I know better than that. My research just went to the dogs for a while. Thanks.

  3. I think we can all agree, though, that Scottish deerhounds ARE divine. And probably infallible, too, whether barking “ex cathedra” or not.

  4. I was really hoping to see you weigh the ethics surrounding confirmation shows and the breeding practices these shows encourage. I appreciate the link at the end, Jack, but already being aware of the controversy myself, I’m much more interested in what you might have to say about it.

    (Personally, I don’t feel the term “breedism” captures the full extent of the ethical controversy either, but some of the discussion at that link does touch upon my other concerns.)

    • On that issue, I don’t like the AKC, and I don’t like what they do to the breeds. I’m a two-time owner of a Jack Russell Terrier, which, as you may know, was the subject of a war between the AKC, which would have ruined the breed, and the Jack Russell Association. the latter eventually won, with the AKC creating its (inferior) version of the Jack, the Parson Russell Terrier. I do love the differentiation among dog breeds, and I like being able to use breed characteristics to find the dog that is right for my situation, personality and family. But the AKC could do its good work without encouraging the breeding of unhealthy dogs, or making breed shows solely dependent on appearance. You get your Jack Russell certified by how smart, agile and terrier-like they are, not how pretty.

      • About the statement that the dogs enjoy dog shows. When I was 10-12 years old, I was a devoted reader of the semi-autobiographical “dog books” of a singularly bad American novelist, Albert Payson Terhune (1872–1942). At that idealistic young age, I took everything he wrote as truth.

        He claimed that dogs hated dog shows, would do anything to avoid them. I have since recognized Terhune for what he was: a blowhard, an ethnic bigot, a man with an inflated sense of both his righteousness and his importance.

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