Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Pressure Cooker

I am occasionally criticized and challenged for my lack of condemnation of the more extreme tactics used by some activists in light of my claim that I care about humans and other animals equally. Because I don’t condemn the vandalism of Edythe London’s home, I must not care about her and thus, I am a hypocrite. In other words, it is claimed that I don’t think we should harm animals, but I think harming her is ok.

But it’s not that I don’t have concern and respect for Edythe. If she came to my door begging for food, I’d feed her; if she were thirsty, I’d give her water. I would defend her in certain circumstances, even with my life. If she were living her life without intentionally hurting others, anti-cruelty activists would never have noticed her.

We have a responsibility to speak out and even intervene in situations where people are seriously harming others for personal gain, be it economic, political, or any other reason. I think we had a responsibility to intervene in Rwanda that we shirked; I don’t think it is wrong to use violence in some cases when other means have failed or even without trying other means in especially dire circumstances.

In the case of the animals, I hope we can invent new means to address the problem since everything tried to date has pretty much failed to stem the terror and carnage.

When other means have failed, and we can find no new means to try, in some cases, especially in cases where much harm is occurring even as we stand by and wonder what else we can do, violence might be the only choice. Sometimes there isn’t a choice.

Choiceless choices

Animal rights activists, not surprisingly, are frequently big fans of ahimsa. As a group, they are quick to condemn occasional property-damaging direct action such as the flooding and subsequent fire at the home of Edythe London. Such action evokes criticism and condemnation. This is understandable and would be a laudable normal response in a sane world.

But this isn’t a sane world.

If you can, put yourself in the place of a Jewish woman in 1942 with her child and ten or so other people hiding in a boat’s false bulkhead and trying to make it to safety. A Nazi cruiser comes alongside and soldiers board the boat looking for stowaways. Your baby starts to whimper. If they hear her everyone will be discovered.

The horrific fact is that during the course of the Holocaust similar scenarios forced people to do things that under any normal situation would be completely unimaginable. Parents suffocated their children to keep them silent.

Lawrence L. Langer coined the term “choiceless choices” as a name for the impossible decisions made by Jews and others in Nazi Germany that under normal circumstances would have been absolutely unthinkable. Choiceless choices are options between one form of abnormal response and another, both imposed by a situation that is not in one’s control or of one’s making.

There are circumstances when violence might be the most reasonable abnormal response available.

Right now, millions of animals are suffering and being killed because we like the way they taste, like their skin, fur, or enjoy seeing them killed, or believe that hurting and killing them will help us somehow. Millions. Right now.

This isn’t rhetoric. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2007 there were 9,031,035,000 chickens slaughtered in the U.S. That’s almost twenty-five million a day, a million an hour. And that’s just the chickens.
Commercial cattle slaughter during 2007 totaled 34.3 million head, up 2 percent from 2006.

Commercial calf slaughter totaled 758,100 head, 7 percent higher than a year ago.

Commercial hog slaughter totaled 109.2 million head, 4 percent higher than 2006.

Commercial sheep and lamb slaughter, at 2.69 million head, was down slightly from the previous year.

262,791,000 turkeys were slaughtered in 2007.
It is estimated that 30 million animals are killed in research labs every year and that fails to account for the large number of mice produced during the production of exotic mutants.

In 2007, there were 8 billion pounds of fish landed by the US commercial fish industry and 667,443,000 pounds of crustaceans. No one takes the time to count the individual animals.

And then there is recreational hunting and fishing, the zoos, the puppy mills, the circuses, the rodeos, the cock fights…

To those who believe that animals’ lives and experiences matter to them and should matter to us, these numbers mean something much different than they might to an agricultural economist. When you consider what these incomprehensibly large raw numbers represent, when you consider the cows too sick to stand who are drug to slaughter behind a tractor, and the monkeys strapped into chairs while chemicals are pumped into and sucked out of their brains, the situation is accurately understood to be bleak and overwhelming. When you listen to the industry’s excuses and propaganda, see the public sleepwalking through life, oblivious to the cries and moans, you could come to believe that the human species is insane.

What choices should a sane caring person make in such an impossible situation?

If one believes that at least some of the billions of animals we frighten, hurt, and kill every year might be suffering in ways not unlike the ways we might suffer in similar circumstances, what we might call an abnormal response begins to look reasonable and understandable.

Silence seems abnormal. Repeating the same behavior over and over again does too, and it can be a symptom of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mental illness seems a not altogether unlikely response to an understanding of the widespread evil. Letters, lobbying, petitions, protests, bumper stickers, donations, tabling, and all the other non-violent means are understandable reactions to the reality of our role in the animals’ suffering, but the problem remains unsolved. Yet another letter must seem futile or unreasonable to a growing number of people. Some of them must be questioning whether peaceful means will ever slow the growth of this massive global horror.

What should a sane and reasonable person do? In the face of suffering on such an incomprehensible scale, it doesn’t seem abnormal or wrong to me to decide to stick a hose in someone’s window. I understand why some people might feel like they don’t have a choice. People who publicly criticize this sort of behavior should suggest a rational alternative.

The current situation, growing worse by the day, is a sort of pressure cooker. Society must find a way to relieve the pressure. In the past, some pressure has been vented through regulatory means. Bans on animal fighting, laws governing animal slaughter, experimentation, hunting regulations, etc., have been occasional pressure-relieving events. But the fire under the pot has never been turned down, and once the effect of regulation was widely understood to have led to no fundamental change in our grotesque relationship with other animals, the pressure began increasing once again.

The response from those who control the flame has been to reinforce the pot. They have done this by passing laws that make public protest more difficult. They have established new penalties for formerly legal forms of protest. They have made secrecy easier for labs and other animal enterprises to maintain and defend. And all the while, the heat is increasing.

Reducing the pressure is a responsibility we all share.


Anonymous said...

"This is understandable and would be a laudable normal response in a sane world."

"But this isn’t a sane world."

"What choices should a sane caring person make in such an impossible situation?"

Clearly, you seem convinced you are one of a handful of caring and sane individuals in the world.

Then, you justify violence to deal with your frustration with the "insane world".

One wonders what psychiatric disorders might explain these symptoms.

I suggest you seek professional help.

animalearthhuman said...

Dear Anonymous, What are you really all about? Did you read one word of Rick's thoughtful essay? I don't see evidence of you thinking and reasoning on this subject but simply having an egocentric reaction to Rick.

Great essay, Rick. Thanks for expressing what many of us feel. Frustratingly though, as thoughtful and clear as your expression is there will always be those incapable of perceiving your point - which is your point!