Saturday, June 13, 2009

Where Community and Cruelty Collide

Someone I met earlier this year who'd been asking me about my veganism and my reasons to support an abolitionist approach to animal rights left me a little perplexed a short while ago upon my own questioning him about the reasons he chooses to keep consuming animals. This person was an intelligent omnivore who'd had great love for the companion animals with whom he'd once shared his life. He struck me as being incredibly perceptive and empathetic towards people and far from being callous. He'd communicated to me that he could never bring himself to watch videos about factory farming because they'd make him hate people, but insisted that he'd already seen plenty of imagery of the harms inflicted on animals and was indeed aware of what went on in factory farming and understood, theoretically, why a logical step for vegans would be to want to see the abolition of all use, regardless of the degree of harm inflicted upon the animals.

He told me that the only difference between us in how we treat others around us is how far we each choose to extend our "circle of community". For instance, he pointed out that his community extends to most people (excluding those deemed threats to himself or his circle of community) and to non-human animals in his care, or in the care of those in his circle of community. Those non-human animals, he explained, would obviously include friends' companion animals. When I presented him with the theoretical scenario of my having a small sanctuary with rescued chickens, pigs, cows, et al. (i.e. animals he would usually designate as "food"), he asserted that by being in my care, they'd also be part of his community.

I pointed out to him that there were two ways of looking at his incorporation of non-human animals into his community. On one hand, it seemed that he acknowledged non-human animals as the property of the human members of his community (i.e. animals "in their care"). The other way of looking at this would be to say that he is willing to extend his community to those others the members of his circle of community include in their own respective circles. Since he asserted that my own circle of community extends to all non-human animals, though, this would have meant that by virtue of his including me in his own circle, he'd need to treat all non-human animals as members of his community, thereby ceasing to use them as means to an end. When he denied feeling the need to extend his own circle thus, it became clear that the former of my interpretations of his inclusion of non-human animals in his community was the valid interpretation.

The whole conversation drilled home to me yet again how wrong-headed it is for activists to focus on lessening harms to animals people use, while allowing the consideration of animals as property to continue to be the status quo. Until we get people thinking differently about non-humans, the degree of suffering to which they're subjected will be completely irrelevant to many, even if it's the stuff of token gestures for others.


Ben said...

I don't know your friend, and I don't know you. But for my money, when people get all philosophical like that, it's as a way to avoid saying, "Because I don't care," or "Because I don't want to change."

LiDi said...

Interesting post. I think we need more conversations with omnivores about their reasons to support non-human animals abuse. This way we could get lots of useful information and understand the thinking that stands behind this behavior.

M said...

Ben: I don't disagree. I think that in this individual's case, it's very likely a way he's reasoned out his behaviour to himself to justify not having to change. On some level, he's tried to make it more about his right to set his own boundaries than an issue concerning the ethics of using animals. Maybe it's a way to detach himself from the actual issue at hand. It makes it less emotional, but that doesn't entail its being any more logical.

LiDi: I honestly think that most omnis either haven't wrapped their heads around what goes on behind the scenes, or that if they've gleaned a bit of it, they've given it a wide mental berth. I know that when I'd first stopped eating animals, I couldn't understand how I hadn't gotten to that point sooner. I'd always been the sort of kid who dragged strays home to feed them, or injured wild animals to adults I knew could heal them. Yet, I ate animals and did so for no other reason than that it was just what I had always done.

I think that if more people were given and/or took the opportunity to really honestly consider where the "meat" on their plates comes from that some of them would seriously reevaluate their dietary choices. I just don't think that most people are willing or able to really give it that level of honest consideration. Maybe initiating this sort of dialogue in a non-confrontational manner would be effective--to not tell them why they shouldn't, but ask them how it is that they can.

Joe said...

Interesting ideas. I think transitive incorporation into one's community is awfully complicated, though. A friend's pet is almost always incorporated in my community. A cat-hoarder with a hundred pets won't see me treat them with the same affection as if she had only a couple. An anthropophagous Rottweiler at the side of a skinheaded Neo-Nazi is entitled to no charity at all.

M said...

A friend's pet is almost always incorporated in my community. A cat-hoarder with a hundred pets won't see me treat them with the same affection as if she had only a couple.

So you're saying that the individual cats would have less inherent worth to you because someone decided to hoard many of them? What if it they were a hundred cats spread across fifty friends? Would this change your consideration of them? (I'm just curious.)

An anthropophagous Rottweiler at the side of a skinheaded Neo-Nazi is entitled to no charity at all.

Actually, the person with whom I had the discussion made it a point to specify that threats to himself and his community would automatically be excluded from his circle of community. The issue at hand had to do with who he would include in his community in terms of those members--who are of no threat to his own safety--being safe from his inflicting any harm upon them, though (or preventing harm from being inflicted upon them by others).

For the record, though, I can't help but mention that in terms of "charity" and the Rottie stereotype you brought up that I would have a hard time faulting a dog for what he or she had been trained to do by a human. If anything, I would think that in terms of "charity", that dog would be entitled to it in heaps.