On the Ethics of Moshing
Before a typical show, concertgoers start to clump up near the stage as the sound check commenced with shockwaves of double bass drumming that shook our chest cavities like the blasts of a belt-fed .50 caliber machine gun. Sound engineers tweaked the PA system while the screeches of vibrating guitar strings and vocal cords trailed off into the distance, attracting passersby. I could feel the tension mounting as people gathered. Sure, that sounds like a generic description, but it fits because I could tell that people waited eagerly for the first breakdown the way starving lions crouch in long grass, anticipating the passing of a zebra. Sure enough, at the first whiff of a breakdown, people started smashing into one another. It was not long before the blood began to flow and EMTs hauled bodies off to the hospital. A lady told me this year that over the many decades of this festival, nobody has ever died at Sonshine and I suppose I have to believe her because I have never seen someone get killed in the pit, but after observing the stupidity of some people at the shows, I would not be terribly surprised to learn of a fatality. For some reason, people at Sonshine seemed to be uncommonly vicious this year.
When I started going to hard music concerts, it was all the rage to crowd surf. However, crowds at rock concerts now mosh much more often, at least at the shows I have attended. On the other hand, “hardcore dancing” currently is probably even more widespread. “Dancing,” for short, does not harm anybody in most instances. It involves pusillanimous emo kids performing absurd dance moves with lots of aimless spinning, kicking, and punching through space. The dancing strikes me as incredibly stupid and random, but dancers actually have pre-choreographed moves and even routines involving multiple people. Emo kids and dancers frequently wear ridiculously tight girl jeans and often have long swooshy hair styles. Girls and guys look nearly indistinguishable in this crowd of people. Their whole scene disgusts me, so when I went into the mosh pit and had to start smashing people, I would usually look for the emo kids. They were my least favorite demographic (note: emo kids are not synonymous with dancers, but there is a lot of overlap between the two groups).
Moshing is a whole different matter and it does entail people getting hurt. There are ways, though, of hurting people that are less immoral than others. For example, during one concert at the Sonshine Mainstage, where the bass is strong enough to jiggle your pectorals, I saw a guy in the pit with blood leaking out of both nostrils and dribbling down his lips. Someone had likely smashed him in the face with an elbow or some other swinging appendage. Had the person who struck him been immoral? It is possible, but the bloodied guy with a smashed face had invited this abuse when he stepped into the mosh pit. In fact, after having his face smashed, he gritted his teeth and charged back for more after being shoved out of the pit several times. In other words, he asked for it. The pushing, hitting, throwing, and other random violence of the mosh pit can be condemned easily in other settings where such conduct is unquestionably unethical. On the other hand, in the pit, when people smack into one another during one breakdown and then grin, waiting for the next opportunity to resume the collisions, can we really cry foul?
This is different than the scenario where a large stage diver lands on unsuspecting small people and breaks their necks. I have never seen broken necks at Sonshine, but I do know it happens elsewhere. In the past, I have had fat people surprise me by landing on my head and snapping my neck until it cracks (thank God it did no lasting damage). In a different instance, a stage diver unexpectedly hit me so hard that I thought my eyeball had been popped by his heel. In cases like these, people act unethically by hurting those who do not volunteer for bodily harm.
At Sonshine this year, one girl had to be carried out of the concert by the EMTs and hooked up to oxygen after being squished by a big stage diver. On the ground, outside the concert, she sucked air in and blew it out so violently it appeared that she was convulsing from the shock delivered by the heavy body. After this happened, one of the concert organizers ordered everybody to stop stage diving because of its potential to cause serious injury. I became upset when people began stage diving even more frequently during the next few concerts. It angered me that some individuals could have such a reckless disregard for the safety of the other fans. Clearly, this is wrong, but what about normal moshing?
As beings created in the image of God, we have a responsibility to treat one another in ways that recognize our human dignity. One of the big questions that I continue to wrestle with is whether or not a person acts contrary to this identity when he moshes. Consider two young brothers who enjoy wrestling with one another just for the fun of it. It can be a wonderful and natural recreational activity for boys who need to burn off energy. While wrestling, they squeeze, twist, and tackle one another, exerting their strength in ways that could be considered “violent” by some. Does this conflict with their human dignity? No. Then why would simple moshing deviate from the respect due to the sons of God?
Obviously, people break their noses and have serious accidents while playing sports like rugby. Though people may complain that it is a rough sport, they do not look on in horror as they do when viewing violent moshing. I am guessing that the loud music and disorganized appearance of moshing intimidates people worse than rough sports played on an open field. Believe it or not, there are rules of proper conduct in the mosh pit. For example, if someone suffers a blow so hard that it knocks him to the ground, it is customary for everybody nearby to stop immediately and heave the crumpled body to a standing position before the person gets trampled by others. This is in the interest of preventing serious injuries and maintaining a spirit of fun instead of outright bloodlust. The goal is not to kill people. Rather, a sense of camaraderie and concern for fellow moshers represents the most common mentality. In this aspect, moshing respects the individual more than many sports do since it is rare for a whole sports team to drop everything in the middle of play to assist a single fallen man.
However, the moral landscape of the mosh pit changes dramatically with the introduction of women. My crushing of a guy is not morally equivalent to my crushing of a girl. Let me state here that I firmly believe in the equal value and dignity of men and women. This does not mean, though, that I think it is right for a man to treat women the same way he treats other men. Women deserve special honor and consideration. Men are obligated to cherish women in ways that go beyond any kind of esteem shown to other men. As one simple manifestation of this, women should expect men to show them a higher level of courtesy. Sadly, in the pit, it is impossible for men to be very courteous at all toward the female moshers. In fact, it is almost necessary to smash into the girls. When I first threw bodies spiraling across the pit and crashed them into other people, I actually did pitch a few women. This lasted only a short while before I felt the moral weight of my actions tugging at my soul. The guilt of treating women in this way seriously disturbed me. At all costs, I avoided bumping into girls while in the mosh pit for the remainder of the festival following that initial experience.
In addition, I did not allow my sister, who attended the concerts with me, to enter any of the mosh pits, mostly because it threatened her safety. I, however, did mosh a bit. To avoid getting injured seriously, I had to make sure nobody hit me from the rear, since unanticipated strikes are the most threatening. I defended against blows from behind by circling around the perimeter of the pit, always facing the center. This way, I only had to guard against frontal assaults and did not have to worry about being hit from behind. The most dangerous thing to do is to jump into the middle of the writhing bodies because it is there that one most easily gets knocked to the ground by blows from the rear and then trampled (sometimes you get stomped on before people can pick you up). There in the middle, the most feral people, the ones who end up bleeding and injured, shove and hit each other from all directions, making defense impossible. Consequently, I only ventured into this dangerous area a few times and when I did, it was for brief periods. Strategically, it made more sense to circle around those in the middle, keeping the action in front of me. While circling, I picked up stray bodies (ideally, emo kids) and hurled them at others near the middle. A few times, I even launched people past the center and all the way to the opposite side of the pit. It reminded me of the way some children will shoot Matchbox cars across the kitchen floor, sending them into head on collisions with the wall or with other cars.
The circle pit is a bit of a different story. Participating in a circle pit is probably the safest alternative to traditional moshing. For those who do not know, a circle pit involves people running, skipping, skanking, or dancing in some other fashion around a circle in the counterclockwise direction. When a band calls for a circle pit or when the audience decides to form one, those in the middle of the crowd will shove people back, clearing a circle on the floor that can be big enough to accommodate anywhere from a few people to the entire audience. Larger crowds and faster music usually lead to bigger circle pits that more closely resemble an organized stampede. Those around the perimeter bounce people back in, like bumpers, if they stumble out of the cyclone of flesh. When a person falls, the same rules apply as in the mosh pit where those nearby must assist the fallen to their feet in the interest of preventing serious injuries.
Still, circle pits can be frightening. At the pleading of my sister one time, I jumped into a circle pit with her and circumnavigated it a couple of times. While doing so, she slipped on the concrete floor, fell, and almost got trampled, but while running, I scooped her up with one arm and kept her moving ahead of the people behind us. To my surprise, we got out safely. There are of course, variations on the simple circle pit, such as “The Meat Grinder,” where three simultaneous circle pits rotating in different directions “grind” into one another. One can imagine the potential for injury in this sort of pit, as seen at Flatfoot 56 shows.
Ultimately, I see no serious ethical problems with circle pits. Though they lack the grace of contra dancing and the like, circle pits are merely large-scale organized dances, in their purest form. Guys and girls, big and small can all enjoy circle pits because they are not based on violent activity. This contrasts with moshing and other crowd participation activities of the more dangerous variety. Head Walking is one practice that seems particularly wrong because it is almost guaranteed to harm others, at least to some extent. As I have seen it done, people will leap off stage and try to walk/run on the heads and shoulders of the fans standing below. With their weight distributed over a very small area, “head walkers” can easily hurt even the toughest front row fans. “The Braveheart,” a.k.a. “The Wall of Death,” is hard to condemn in the same way. If people get hurt while performing The Braveheart, they probably deserve it. This one requires fans to split down the middle of the venue so that both sides face each other across a divide of twenty yards or more. Then each person picks out someone on the opposite side and at the correct moment of the song, they all charge toward their targets like infantry trying to break an enemy’s front line. When the bodies of both sides smash together, it becomes clear how this maneuver received its titles.
While all of this can be amusing in a way, it distracts from the show. Admittedly, bands like to stir up the crowd and get people moving, but when moshing, one’s attention gets taken away from the musical performance. When I go to a concert, I intend to enjoy the musicianship of the artists on stage. That’s what I pay for when I buy a ticket. The last thing I need is for my kneecap to break off in the middle of a show (that happened to a cousin of our friends this year). Such medical emergencies take one’s attention away from the band and completely spoil the evening. Obviously, when somebody gets knocked unconscious by a moronic stage diver, he cannot enjoy the show from the stretcher that carries him off to the emergency room. Even if one’s activity in the pit does not result in a trip to the hospital, its distracting nature prevents the best possible enjoyment of the performance. For instance, the hardcore dancers certainly cannot witness the handiwork of a talented guitar player when they are preoccupied with their hairdos or with the next “cool” move they plan to show off. For these practical reasons, all the nonsense that goes on in or around the mosh pit can be very detrimental to the concert experience. This alone should be enough of an incentive to avoid the mosh pit area, even without considering the inherent ethical problems.
So we are left with the question, “Are concertgoers obligated to avoid the mosh pit?” No, not necessarily. It is acceptable for a guy to participate in normal moshing, as long as he accepts the risks involved and does not put himself in extraordinary danger. If this rule is followed, moshing poses little more risk than regular roughhousing with friends. Also, if a guy wants to mosh, he must avoid manhandling women. If this becomes impossible, he should exit the pit. In addition, he must make every effort to prevent women around him from being smashed by other guys. Smaller girls are especially at risk of sustaining injuries from larger males. Stupid decisions made by women in the pit can lead to their injury more readily than idiotic choices made by men. Guys have a special obligation to look out for the ladies and treat them with the utmost respect, even when those of the fairer sex make imprudent judgments while moshing. Though the broadly accepted code of ethics allow for women in the pit, I believe it is generally distasteful for them to join in the most violent sorts of moshing. Also, during moshing and its derivative activities, women put themselves at great risk for being groped. Sadly, not all men treat women with due reverence. Thus, women would be wise to keep their guard up.
Then again, the circle pit is a different story. As stated previously, women should feel free to take part in the circle pit. However, both women and men must wear adequate shoes that prevent slipping and tripping. One slip could result in not only the trampling of one person, but the pileup of many people who trip consecutively over the first body. Deviations from the traditional circle pit, such as The Meat Grinder, can fall into the violent moshing category and thus may be subject to the corresponding set of rules. These cases must be judged on the spot by a well-formed conscience.
The Braveheart, and similar voluntary orchestrations of pain are morally unacceptable if a participant uses them as opportunity to hurt other people. This kind of thing is unobjectionable only if it is done with the intention of having innocently rowdy fun. Malice and other unstable emotions should never factor into one’s motivation. Suffering personal injuries in this type of scenario is morally equivalent to blowing off your own hand with a firecracker. The blame for all injuries falls squarely on the injured person who willingly engaged in the dangerous activity. As one should avoid lighting firecrackers with short fuses, one should also stay out of excessively dangerous pits. Failure to do so is self-destructive and immoral.
Lastly, Head Walking and other practices that intentionally hurt other people are totally unethical and morally condemnable. No one should engage in these because they conflict with human dignity and the overall spirit of a good rock show. The best way to enjoy a concert is to engage in pit activity for only short periods, if at all, so that one has sufficient opportunity to appreciate the musical performance.