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The Bully XL reveals the fraying of community life

We don’t need a moral panic about ‘dangerous dogs’, but we do need to talk about them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

Over the past week I’ve found myself wondering: who would walk an American Bully XL through their local town? Why would anyone take one of these muscled beasts, these frightful creatures that can weigh up to nine-and-half stone, on to streets where there’ll be mums with pushchairs and elderly people hobbling to the shops? Yes, the risk of a bully going nuts and attacking someone is low. But they do unsettle people. They do get our backs up. The vulnerable, in particular, are apt to feel anxious in the presence of these dogs ‘bred to look like armoured tanks’. You wouldn’t drive an actual armoured tank through the town square – so why walk a fleshy, toothy canine version of one?

Amid the political storm over these fierce dogs, following a spike in attacks, it’s this question that’s niggled me. The public parading of these beasts can feel like a provocation, right? Like a noisy statement of disregard for one’s own community. My status matters more than your sense of security – that’s what I hear when I see a swaggering youth or ageing tough guy walk a bully down the street, often with an ostentatiously loose grip on the leash. The media’s furious focus on physical attacks by bully dogs risks overlooking the low-level attack on social life that these dogs seem to represent. The fashion for bullies seems to me to be of a piece with a ‘growing decay of manners’, as Slavoj Zizek recently described it, that is making itself felt in communities across the country.

The American Bully XL is all over the UK media right now, following the emergence of video footage showing one attacking an 11-year-old girl and two men who came to her aid. It happened in Birmingham on Saturday. All victims needed hospital treatment. The dog in question is a crossbreed: half Bully XL, half Staffordshire bull terrier. That’s a Frankenstein mix that was bound to end badly. Its owner has been arrested on suspicion of possessing a dog dangerously out of control. The mutt itself is banged up in secure kennels. Home secretary Suella Braverman is now seeking ‘urgent advice’ on whether bullies should be banned.

Two stances have emerged on the bully question. One depicts them as a mortal threat to public safety; the other coos that they’re lovely, happy, placid dogs and it’s only bad owners that turn them feral. I’m not convinced by either case. Yes, there have been horrific maulings by these beasts. They’re now the worst canine killers in the country. In 2021, there were four fatal dog attacks in the UK, two of which involved a bully. In 2022, there were 10 deaths by dog and six involved a bully. This is concerning. Society has a responsibility to look into it. But we shouldn’t panic. There’s a salacious element to the bully-bashing in the press, which seems designed to whip up social foreboding. That helps no one.

As to the other side – who do they think they’re kidding? Those Guardianistas and RSPCA types who insist these are sweet pets in the right hands must think we were born yesterday. We have eyes in our heads. We know that a dog born from the crossbreeding of pit bulls, mostly for the purpose of fighting other dogs, is going to be different to a Chihuahua. One commentator points out that dachshunds are the worst biters, not pit bulls. Okay, but I reckon I could take a sausage dog – an American Bully XL, not so much. It is not irrational for people to feel at least angsty around bullies. It isn’t proof that they’ve been conditioned by tabloid hysteria about ‘devil dogs’. People just have pretty good instincts around animals. We don’t stand behind horses, and we don’t pet American bullies.

If we move beyond both the ‘devil dog’ and ‘sweet dog’ narratives, we might start to unpack the social dynamics of the bully phenomenon. It goes without saying that this won’t be the case for all bully owners, probably not even the majority, but it does seem to me that the popularity of these dogs speaks to our era’s depressing elevation of individual status over social solidarity. I see these mutts almost as a feral expression of the politics of identity, where the bully owner’s need to advertise his persona takes precedence over the norms of the community he lives in. Like those brats who play tinny music out loud on the bus, or those big trans fellas in dresses who insist on using women’s bathrooms, strutting down the street with a nine-stone canine pretty much says: ‘I’m so important that I don’t have to care about your feelings or your social standards.’

Some people will feel uncomfortable around American bullies not because they think they’re about to be eaten alive, but because they’re concerned about what is becoming of their communities. People feel that community life is fraying. From the small things, like conspicuously anti-social behavior on the bus, to the medium things, like those bizarre TikTok shoplifting stunts, to the big things, like the scourge of knife crime or the menace of grooming gangs, social disarray has become a key ‘domain of dissatisfaction’ for the working class, as Zizek says. Throw into this mix a dog that looks like it was designed to kill – probably because it was – and it’s no surprise people feel pissed off. It’s not just what the bully sometimes does but also what it seems to symbolise that makes some of us feel uneasy.

The left’s response to all this stuff has been worse than useless. Chill out about shoplifting, some say. Shut up about knife crime, they insist. Stop being a Sun-reading reactionary, they wail at anyone who bristles at mad dogs or misbehaving youngsters. The pseudo-left elites have no understanding of how important calm, connectedness and shared values are to community life. There are ‘clear signs of the growing decay of manners’, Zizek writes, and yet ‘mentioning this decay is often dismissed as reactionary’. The left too often ‘disregards public safety’, he says. But people want to feel safe. There’s no shame in that. Safe from crime, safe from disorder and, yes, safe from dogs.

‘Everyday insecurity hurts the poor much more than the rich who live calmly in their gated communities’, Zizek writes. Indeed. How easy it is for the professional classes who live in communities full of pugs and English setters to look down their noses at working-class people who just want to get to the local Morrisons without encountering a dog that could kill them if it wanted to. Normal, peaceful, safe communities in which we look out for others – it’s not reactionary to long for that.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Twitter.

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Topics Politics UK

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