The Work At Hand

A young boy helps feed an abused, neglected street dog.

A young boy helps feed an abused, neglected street dog.

The standard way of thinking about those who concern themselves with the lives of non-human animals is that they are sentimental, overly emotional, and even childish. Such scorners of sentimentality often frame any rigorous discussion of human treatment of non-human animals as either radically unimportant in comparison to human suffering, or as exceedingly uncomfortable. When a dialogue about the matter is raised, advocates for even the slightest increase in compassionate concern are often dismissed for even slighter occurrence of nuance or pragmatism.

While I acquiesce to the view that we who concern oursevles with the treatment of non-human animals are likely sentimental, I do so because I disagree that this quality is anything but something to be cultivated. Sentimentality is something we applaud in our children as a sign of qualities like compassion and selflessness; yet, we deride its appearance in adults, particularly in areas such as ethics, philosophy, and politics. Sentimentality, seems to be a characteristic that often acts as a first step for many of our ethical considerations of all kinds of "others." To consider others and to act selflessly are qualities we need more of, not less of, in our ever-globalizing, diverse world.

I agree that rigorous, honest discussion of the treatment of non-human animals is uncomfortable. However, I think our discomfort makes it painfully clear that the violence and wanton cruelty we find inflicted upon animals by the hands of humans is extremely important. That we hide what we do to great apes in laboratories behind jargon and euphemism, that we make it illegal to visually document abattoirs, and that we turn our gaze away from witnessing violence toward animals in general are all signs that the way in which we treat non-human animals is very important. That we do not want to talk about the matter, well, that signifies something else entirely.

Though I concede that nuance and pragmatism can appear as contradiction, I insist that this cannot be a good reason to cease the ongoing debate about how and why to increase our compassion for non-human animals. Indeed, the need to struggle our way through complex debates (such as many "human rights" issues), accepting contradictions and half-measures, has never degraded the importance and urgency of those issues. Rather, that a topic demands complicated resolutions illustrates only its relative difficulty, it makes no comment upon its significance or insignificance.

In my current work, I am finding that many writes over the past quarter of a century are deeply concerned about the way we treat non-human animals. Reasons range widely from the global ecological impacts, the creation of new and the sustaining of existing structures for the oppression of human "others," and even for the commentary such violent treatment of other living beings makes about our own "human" nature. However, most writers and poets appear to be most concerned with the terribly simple fact that we are both randomly and systematically killing billions every day. Indeed, far too often it seems that we are doing so without any discernible need or benefit. 

The research work on this topic matters for many reasons. As I will share here and in my dissertation, some of our most popular and critically acclaimed writers over the past quarter of a century have been squarely focused on the treatment of non-human animals. Often, these writers seem to be agreeing that if ethics and philosophy have, perhaps even willfully, failed to address the seemingly inexorable cruelty and violence that is now entrenched in our daily lives and global commerce, then perhaps we need other tools, different guidelines for our actions. 

This topic matters deeply to us, evidenced by the fact that, uncomfortable as it may be, we are obsessively glancing toward it, obliquely.