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Gimli from Lord of the Rings: Dwarf tossing must never be undertaken frivolously or publicly, only in situations of extreme emergency, and always with the utmost discretion.
Gimli from Lord of the Rings: Dwarf tossing must never be undertaken frivolously or publicly, only in situations of extreme emergency, and always with the utmost discretion.

JOHN SAINSBURY

The ethics of dwarf tossing Add to ...

Windsor, Ont., has reclaimed its title as the dwarf-tossing capital of Canada. On Saturday, Leopard’s Lounge and Broil, a strip club in the city’s west end, was the venue for a dwarf-tossing competition that attracted hundreds of onlookers. In case you don’t know, dwarf tossing is a competitive bar sport that involves picking up a dwarf in a harness and hurling him as far as you can. (With luck, the dwarf lands safely on mattresses.)

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On this occasion, the dwarf was a local man, with the stage name of Tripod, described by one of his tossers as “a solid little bugger.”

This is the second time that Leopard’s Lounge has played host to this sport. When it did so in 2003, it raised the ire of a local MPP, Sandra Pupatello, who (unsuccessfully) sponsored a bill to outlaw it.

Depending on your point of view, Windsor is now either a bastion of libertarian resistance to the nanny state or a miserable backwater of moronic culture.

Dwarf tossing has a curious way of creeping into the headlines. It recently prompted lively debate in Florida. Once popular in the Sunshine State, dwarf tossing was banned in 1989 after the death of a noted dwarf tossee. But, in October, a state legislator, Ritch Workman, sought to overturn the ban and reinstate dwarf tossing as a legal pastime.

On the heels of that episode came publicity about dwarf tossing in New Zealand, where the sport is both legal and popular. England’s rugby players – more famous for their drunken revels off the pitch than for their performances on it – were said to have indulged in a spot of dwarf tossing in a Queenstown bar while relaxing between games in the Rugby World Cup. Mike Tindall – the newly wed husband of Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of the Queen – was alleged to have been a participant. Their team manager indignantly denied the charge but conceded that some of his players witnessed a dwarf-throwing contest and may have engaged in some playful wrestling with the dwarf participants.

Meantime, in an incident that recently came to light, Martin Henderson, a 37-year-old British dwarf, was out celebrating his birthday when he was suddenly picked up and thrown by a “hooded thug” while trying to enjoy a cigarette outside a pub in Wincanton, Somerset. He is now confined for much of the time to a wheelchair. Police believe the perpetrator was inspired by reports about the alleged antics of the English rugby team.

Proponents of dwarf tossing will argue that the small people involved in such contests have consented to being tossed. And if a small person consents to be thrown, what right have the authorities to intervene, especially if the intervention deprives the small person of income?

A powerful argument, no doubt – yet, surely there are issues of human dignity involved as well. If you toss one dwarf as if he were a mere object, doesn’t that degrade the entire dwarf community? The question of dwarf tossing posits the competing claims of personal liberty and human dignity so neatly that it’s sometimes debated as a hypothetical case in university philosophy classes.

But it’s in courts and legislatures, not in Ethics 101, that the legal status of dwarf tossing will be ultimately determined. One case reached the United Nations.

In the 1990s, 3-foot-10 Manuel Wackenheim argued that he’d been unfairly deprived of his employment as a human missile when the French government banned dwarf tossing. The ban was upheld by France’s highest court on the grounds that dwarf tossing was an affront to human dignity and, as such, an incitement to public disorder. (The case of Martin Henderson would seem to support that proposition.)

Mr. Wackenheim took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, and it ended up – in 2002 – before the UN Human Rights Committee, which upheld the ban. Part of the committee’s reasoning was that “dwarves are the only persons capable of being thrown.” Thus “the differentiation between the persons covered by the ban, and those to whom it does not apply, namely persons not suffering from dwarfism, is based on an objective reason and is not discriminatory in its purpose.”

There’s some useful ethical guidance on the dwarf-tossing conundrum from the film version of The Lord of the Rings. “Nobody tosses a dwarf,” declares Gimli the dwarf, before leaping across a large gulf. But, later, confronting an even larger obstacle, he allows himself to be tossed, but only after committing his tosser to utmost secrecy.

The message is clear: Dwarf tossing must never be undertaken frivolously or publicly, only in situations of extreme emergency, and always with the utmost discretion. Saturday’s disgraceful event in Leopard’s Lounge is not covered under such a rubric.

John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.

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