Editorial: Culture and cruelty
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1996:
“Caged birds have been outlawed by Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers,”
Christopher Thomas reported in the October 8 edition of the London Times. “Pet canaries
flutter hungrily about Kabul, the capital, waiting to die in the fast-approaching winter.
Mynah birds bred in captivity sit bewildered and starving in the trees. Women have been
beaten on the street for simply being there, regardless of whether they are veiled, because
of a rule confining them to the home except when shopping.”
The Taliban shocked other leading Islamic fundamentalists as much as anyone.
As many hastened to argue, the stated intent of Mohammedan law circumscribing female
freedom of dress and movement was to protect women from male predation. Though obviously
reinforcing patriarchal customs now widely recognized as abusive in themselves,
Mohammed plainly did not intend his laws to increase violent abuse. Likewise, as some
scholars pointed out, Mohammed opposed keeping caged birds because he opposed the
cruel capture of wild birds; his decree was not meant to incite cruelty.
Indeed, the Kabul bird release coincided with World Wildlife Fund distribution of
Islamic journalist Abrar Ahmed’s expose of the capture for sale of more than a million live
birds a year in India, just so they can be released as a display of faith by Hindus, Jains,
Parsis, and Sindhis, as well as Moslems, whose teachings on the subject are parallel.
Islamic response to the Taliban was so swift and critical that Boutros BoutrosGhali,
Secretary-General of the United Nations, broke his habit of stepping lightly where
culture is involved to warn the Taliban that abusive conduct either toward women or in general
would not be tolerated by the international community.
Yet abusive conduct is tolerated internationally, in countless situations involving
both people and animals, even though almost every major ethical tradition bars cruelty,
where perceived. Though laws and ethics often protect the interests, habits, and even the
perversions of the mighty, the stated reason for virtually any law or ethical practice is protecting
the weak and vulnerable, to the point that even the most overtly cruel laws and
practices are rationalized by redefining the beneficiaries as victims.
Suttee, for instance, was and is the ancient Indian custom of burning alive the
wife of any man who died before her. This kept her from receiving her husband’s estate,
enriching male heirs; but suttee, still occasionally illegally practiced, was rationalized as a
means of protecting men from being poisoned by wives seeking control of their wealth.
Recognizing suttee as cruelty, and as a perversion of the teachings of the several
ancient Indian religions, Akhbar the Great issued a fiat against it circa 1582, reinforced by
the British administration of India in 1829. Influenced by the rise of the humane movement,
the Crown as represented by Queen Victoria forthrightly declared that in any conflict
among rights, culture, humane conduct and justice, humane conduct and justice must prevail––the
precept that inspired Gandhi in his lifelong advocacy of nonviolence, not only in
the pursuit of political freedom but also in daily life.
Gandhi’s political method was to confront the British rulers of India in situations
where their actions seemed to contradict their declared concern for humane conduct and
justice. He would first respectfully request and then demand that such concern be placed
foremost––ahead of either expediency or tradition, despite the high regard that he demonstrated
throughout his life for those traditions that he believed encouraged the best of
human nature. Gandhi appealed to the highest of British values, which he recognized as
the highest of Indian and human values as well. In any conflict between culture and
humane values, Gandhi put humane values first, albeit as a wise and gentle enough teacher
that he managed to “remind” listeners of their own beliefs more than preach his own.
Of course cruelty persists in Britain, as everywhere, exemplified by fox hunting.
In the 1964 Walt Disney production of Mary Poppins, set in 1910 London, the father listed
fox hunting among pastimes he found unsuitable for his children, then hedged: “Actually,
I don’t mind fox hunting so much; it’s traditon.”
Tradition is still almost the only public rationale for fox hunting. Tradition is also
the reason Peggy-Sue Khumalo, 23, named Miss South Africa in September, reportedly
sacrificed a goat to her ancestors, and proclaimed that if she is named Miss World this
month in India, she will kill a cow and 10 oxen––blasphemy to the 90% of Indians who are
Hindu. Tradition is why Hegins, Pennsylvania, massacres 5,000 pigeons each year on
Labor Day; is one of the excuses Canada cites in defense of fur trapping and seal clubbing;
prevents French landowners from evicting hunters; lends American hunters unconstitutional
protection against criticism and protest; is the pretext the Makah tribe of Neah Bay,
Washington, cites for their efforts to rip a hole in the International Whaling Commission
moratorium on commercial whaling; is likewise a leading pretext for Norwegian,
Icelandic, and Japanese whaling; is the reason at least five states refuse to ban cockfighting;
underlies a push to legalize dogfighting in the Virgin Islands; is the defense merchants
offer for keeping live animals under atrocious conditions for sale as food in San Francisco’s
Chinatown; is why increasing income around the Pacific Rim coincides with such demand
for medicinal products made from wild animal parts that most large wild mammals are now
either endangered or threatened; and is why bears and tigers are now “farmed” in China like
hogs and chicken, whose tormenters in bigtime agribusiness hide behind traditional reverence
for the bygone family farm––which agricubusiness itself destroyed.
Again and again, tradition is confused with custom, custom with vice, and vice
with culture, the self-definition of whole communities, despite the existence of strong cultural
traditions opposed to the vice at hand. People who profess utmost respect for humane
values and justice then shy away from denouncing even the most flagrantly inhumane and
injust behavior lest they be labeled culturally insensitive, or be overtly accused of racism,
for ostensibly advocating “ethical imperialism” and “cultural genocide.”
The Missionary Position
No one wants to be attacked and ridiculed along with the generations of rigidly
right-thinking Spanish Dominicans, French Jesuits, and English Methodists et al who in
Rudyard Kipling’s unfortunate phrase took up “the white man’s burden” during the Age of
Conquest to “save” the sorely wronged Noble Savage.
Indeed, resentment of the self-righteous excess of some of those moral crusaders,
including some founders of the humane movement, is aggressively whetted by organizations
with something to gain by cruelty, long after the less high-minded entrepreneurs who
raped and pillaged the same continents––often against missionary outrage––have been all
but forgotten, even by their few surviving victims.
Missionaries are resurrected and rhetorically maligned for teaching that the proper
degree of respect for an inhumane or injust practice, once recognized as such, is zero, a
legacy haunting practitioners of cruelty to this day. Missionaries of every faith traveled at
great personal hardship to remote and dangerous places where, typically alone, they stood
up at frequent risk of death by slow torture to proclaim that cultural traditions which depend
upon cruelty are vice, to be abhored and changed, because they not only harm the victims
of cruelty but also degrade and defile those who do it.
There was much the missionaries did not understand, and sometimes they introduced––or
more often, inadvertantly facilitated––cruelties comparable in effect to those
they abolished, as when fortune hunters brought alcohol and the fur trade to the Native
Americans, whom the Black Robes had won over with little more than faith and courage.
Despite their failures, missionaries stamped out slavery, infanticide, polygamy,
public torture, and both human and animal sacrifice, among many other atrocities, around
much of the world. Even where religious and cultural outreach failed, missionaries successfully
sold the notion that humane conduct and justice must be paid lip-service, at least.
Attacks on humane conduct and justice ever since have been predicated on allegations of
hypocricy, such as the purported failure of opponents of hunting and fishing to quit eating
meat, or the pretense that victims of abuse don’t really suffer––or defenders of cruelty simply
change the subject, talking about “sustainable use” instead of suffering.
Missionaries meanwhile brought back into western culture the elements of other
cultures that are consonant with living in a more humane manner, from the governmental
structure of the U.S., semi-borrowed from the Iroquois Confederacy, to the practice of
karate, developed by the vegetarian Buddhist monks of Shaolin, China, to enable them to
defend themselves without using weapons or even having offensive capability.
Imported into the humane movement was the Native American recognition of kinship
with animals, taken a step farther than the hunter/gatherer economy of pre-technological
peoples permitted: one does not harm kin, not for sport, not for profit, and most certainly
not just to preserve tradition.
As official Iroquois Confederacy historian Ray Fadden fiercely testified to visitors
for more than 40 years at the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, New York, harming
animals for either fun or profit is profane; Mohawk participation in commercial fur trapping
was the sin that destroyed the Six Nations, along with their wildlife family, and continues
to spiritually oppress the descendants of European invaders, as well. Fadden lectured by
the hour about how the European treatment of Native Americans and wildlife presaged
atrocities from Auschwitz to factory farming––and he didn’t excuse, either, the torture of
prisoners practiced by the Mohawk, denouncing all torture by anyone anywhere with one
breath. A lifelong opponent of hunting and trapping, Fadden emphasized that it is today the
moral opposition to sport and commercial hunting, trapping, whaling, and sealing, too
often rationalized by association with traditional Native American practice, that most honors
Native American religious belief, much as it is kind treatment of birds rather than indiscriminate
release that honors the teachings of Mohammed.
There is nothing either “imperialist” or “genocidal” about reminding anyone reciting
the mantra of “culture” or “tradition” to drown out the shrieks of agonized victims that it
is human nature to invent a religous and cultural imperative for economically expedient
activites that otherwise profanes holy values; that it is to the credit of humanity that we
have transcended religious and cultural pretexts for atrocity even to the extent that we have;
and that while every culture still has far to go, no culture has any moral entitlement to continue
atrocity simply because it has invented a religious or cultural pretext for it.
A ray of hope that this is again beginning to be recognized, after years of guilty
waffling before cultural claims, came just before the 104th Congress recessed, with the
passage of a bill banning female genital mutilation, or clitoridectomy, inflicted on two million
young women a year in Africa and brought here by African immigrants, who have clitoridectomized
as many as 150,000 of their daughters. Besides prohibiting the procedure in
the U.S., the overdue new law requires U.S. representatives to international financial institutions
to oppose loans to nations which do not have active educational programs to combat
clitoridectomy, which typically renders sexual intercourse lastingly painful, is not required
nor even recommended by any major religion, increases vulnerability to AIDS, and has
persisted, one suspects, chiefly because of undue regard for cultural sensitivity over the
suffering of victims who have been victimized to the extent that most don’t even realize
they have moral right and reason to protest.
True cultural insensitivity is ignoring cruelty, not obliging people to rethink misinformed
beliefs and abandon cruel behavior.