What institutionalised cruelty towards animals says about us as a civilisation
While the context in which it was said recently was awkward,the idea of respecting all forms of life is more important to our civilisational future than our present political climate might acknowledge. The trouble is that our ideas about civilisation have been reduced to a narrow,confrontational shell in ways that might have made Samuel Huntington proud,rather than in the more universal Gandhian sense of the word.
I suspect that many of us still prefer to view civilisation as something pertaining to ones mode of conduct,as the Mahatma advocated. The fact remains that the Indian subcontinent has been home to one of the most compassionate ideals for mastering ones conduct,and for reining in the violence our existence demands.
We are now well aware of the great ecological havoc in the wake of reckless consumerism. But apart from obvious concerns,such as energy consumption and emissions,our political debate has failed to address a deeper issue: our growing cruelty footprint towards animals. One deterrent has been that any mention of animal suffering seems to invoke a fear that it is regressive and disenfranchises the oppressed. The political baggage surrounding vegetarianism in India cannot be denied. But we need to move beyond the increasingly pointless debates about whether our Vedic ancestors really ate beef or not,and turn our attention to what our civilisational future is going to be if we are unable to question our complacency about our dependence on a system of widespread cruelty.
We must begin by examining the impact of colonialism on our indigenous understanding of animal life and suffering. Over centuries,a deeply cruel and deluded view about animal subjectivity has shaped modern thought. Some of the father figures of the Western Enlightenment are known to have beaten dogs to death to prove that a dog is a mere machine. As Tristram Stuart writes in The Bloodless Revolution,some of the greatest minds of Europe were shocked by their discovery that humans could live without ever having to eat animals. Newton,Descartes and others debated vegetarianism as a serious philosophical issue (though Descartes was the one responsible for the poor dog that did not know it was supposed to be a machine).
Unfortunately,colonialism then spread not only a worldwide system of mass industrial slaughter of animals (Jeremy Rifkins Beyond Beef charts a detailed history of this process,including the role Euro-American beef-consumption played in the Native American displacement and genocide),but also a propaganda about native diets and values regarding nature.
In India,which had one of the strongest intellectual traditions of recognition of animal life,a tremendous post-colonial cultural legacy has warped our common sense on animals. Macaulay may not have directly bothered about our dietary habits,but the fact remains that we no longer even see animal cruelty for what it is. Even the Mahatma,in his early years,bought into a Social Darwinist idea about meat-eating and its evolutionary superiority. We would do well to remember we are essentially living in the aftermath of a monumental encounter between a worldview that celebrated the diversity of life and an imperialist worldview fashioned out of pseudo-religion and pseudo-science. These days,there is no official imperialism,but the global media system allows fast-food giants to invest millions of dollars to distract consumers from animal suffering. Our common sense remains colonised.
The irony is that,while awareness about animal suffering has grown,our politics has been bereft of any such vision. We should not ignore human suffering,but we must understand that many forms of institutionalised cruelty to human beings today (especially towards women,as Carol Adams shows in Pornography of Meat) resemble a way of thinking that has also institutionalised cruelty to animals (as Jonathan Safran Foer says in Eating Animals). Our politics should stop thinking of this issue through electoral identity calculations and evolve a broader,civilisational vision. In practical terms,parties should offer such a vision in their manifestos,articulating what they could do to reduce our indifference to the growing violence against animals (and how to help poorer citizens economically dependent on animal violence).
We should also address this issue internationally. In the early liberalisation years,we were perhaps eager to embrace a new image as a practical,business-friendly country unburdened by quaint Gandhian notions like animal welfare and ahimsa,but we are surely more secure economically and culturally now. It is on questions about nature and humankind that our civilisational legacy perhaps has the greatest global role to play. Our true soft power may be our tolerance and respect for all forms of life,and it is for us to make it relevant again.
The writer is professor of media studies,University of San Francisco. firstname.lastname@example.org