Marginalizing Animal Cruelty
In both the U.S. and the rest of the world, there seems to be momentum behind recent efforts to protect animals of all kinds. While most of these efforts – and the changes that result from them – are far from abolitionist, they are meaningful steps toward creating a more compassionate society. An important move in the direction of eliminating animal suffering is to marginalize the more obvious acts of animal cruelty such as dogfighting and crowding hens into tiny cages. The question is: how can we push animal cruelty even further into the margins of acceptable behavior?
Is it possible to create a culture of intolerance for animal cruelty? Absolutely, and public perception is already most of the way there. The vast majority of people oppose cruelty when they see it or when they’re asked about it on surveys. It doesn’t matter if the victim is a pet or a farm animal or an elephant in the circus – most people abhor acts of animal cruelty. The problem is that many of those same people do not allow themselves to think of common abuses of animals as cruel acts. When these “institutionalized” forms of animal abuse are brought to light, however, people almost always side with the animals.
The Proposition 2 campaign in California (which improves conditions for farm animals) is an obvious example, but there are many others. The Michael Vick case highlighted the horrific nature of dogfighting and has led to increased criminalization of animal fighting in almost all U.S. states. Public support for wearing real animal fur has eroded consistently over the years despite the recent increase in popularity of garments trimmed with fur. While these may represent some of the most egregious and superfluous uses of animals, they are good examples of the increasing marginalization of animal cruelty.
Not long ago, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posed this question: “In recent years, the issue has entered the mainstream, but even for those who accept that we should try to reduce the suffering of animals, the question remains where to draw lines.” The answer, of course, is always “further.” The lines must be continually redrawn and people must be constantly exposed to the cruelty that has become so typical of our treatment of animals. For this reason, undercover investigations are an essential tool to help open the eyes of the average consumer and they deserve support from all animal advocates.
Eventually the challenge for animal advocates will morph into the need to convince people that breeding and slaughtering animals for any human purpose is inherently a cruel act. The decades (perhaps centuries) that we will have spent marginalizing animal cruelty will lay the foundation for a much more abolitionist ethic. We may not be able to eliminate every cruel act, but over time animal advocates will be able to shift the paradigm. In the future, those who violate the rights of sentient beings will be labeled as animal abusers and marginalized in ways that are similar to our marginalization of racists and misogynists today (although, of course, we have not yet achieved liberation for people of color or women).
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the author Milan Kundera wrote that “true human goodness… can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” By demonstrating to people that animals are powerless and at our mercy, we can convince those people to be merciful. It will take time, but eventually society at large will come to understand that any form of animal abuse is unnecessary and indefensible, and animal cruelty will exist only at the margins.