If ever there was a phrase that seems so clear but hides so much, then this is it.
We all say we hate it, we all agree with those who say they oppose it, and we all condemn those who perpetrate it. But – and this may come as a surprise – almost every one of us is thinking of something completely different when we use it. However we almost never acknowledge this, finding it much more comfortable to assume a shared frame of reference with others who use it.
‘Cruelty to animals’ is a completely subjective phrase. Now just to be sure I’m completely clear about the meaning of the word subjective – here’s the definition from an online dictionary:
1- existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.
2- pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual: a subjective evaluation.
3- placing excessive emphasis on one’s own moods, attitudes, opinions, etc.; unduly egocentric.
All of which boils down to the notion that something that is subjective means different things to different people.
So why might that be a problem?
Why indeed. Lots of other things are subjective and in general, little harm is done. For instance, when each of us thinks of ‘young’ and ‘old’ people, we tend to use ourselves as a benchmark. For example, I am way past the age that I thought of as ‘old’ when I was in my 20s. To family members, I refer to myself as ‘elderly’ in a tongue-in-cheek kind of a way but to be absolutely honest, I’m not sure what it will take for me to see myself as truly old. I don’t suppose there’s any harm in this and if it serves to make my sons shake their heads fondly at my delusions, I don’t mind at all.
Some subjective references are not inherently harmful. However, I firmly believe that the seemingly innocuous little term, ‘cruelty to animals’ is one of the most dangerous and harmful there is, not in terms of grammar or language, but in terms of the ones who always suffer while we’re mincing our words. The animals.
Part of the harm lies in the fact that we all think we know what it means, and in our certainty that we know, we rarely question its meaning when others use it. We tend to assume we’re on the same page, on the same side, sharing the same values, and we find comfort and are reassured about our own behaviour in sharing the sentiment.
What we almost never do, is ask what exactly others mean by ‘cruelty to animals’. Before I became vegan, if someone were to have asked me exactly what I meant by it, I’d have struggled to be precise. I’d have done a bit of hand waving to indicate how nebulous the concept is, and I’m sure there would have been a few ‘you know what I mean’s and ‘sort of’s in my explanation.
Why don’t we check our frame of reference?
There are several reasons for this that I have learned through what now amounts to more than three years of seeking truth about our use of other species, reading, watching videos, doing online advocacy and blogging and listening to the views of hundreds, if not thousands, of different people. Of course as I am living my sixtieth year on this planet, it would be fair to say that life has taught me a thing or two. Sometimes what is not said is just as telling as the things that we say, however I have come to the conclusion that for the majority, we subconsciously use two main strategies:
- We stick to what we know
- We use ourselves as the benchmark
Sticking to what we know
What do I mean by this? ‘Sticking to what we know’ means that we hold to our own, personal, deeply-rooted beliefs of necessity and entitlement. For most of us – even those who are ‘young’ by my reckoning – the roots of these beliefs are lost in the mists of time. We were taught them at about the same time as we were taught not to poke our fingers into electrical sockets or put beads up our nose. We become adult just ‘knowing’ these things but can’t recall where the ‘knowledge’ came from. No one ever sits down to consider or challenge why we should not put our fingers in sockets etc. because we regard these truths as self-evident.
And so it is with our beliefs about those of other species, our importance and moral worth when compared to them, and the uses we believe we need to make, are entitled to make, by dint of our importance and perceived superiority. We rarely challenge these beliefs and in fact deride the suggestion that we should, in much the same way that we would rightly react to a suggestion that we have a serious debate about the existence of the tooth fairy.
Use ourselves as the benchmark
‘Using ourselves as the benchmark’, means that in general, we consider ‘cruelty’ to be what others do. We invariably start from the premise that we ourselves are doing nothing wrong, as evidenced and emphasised by our ready declarations of condemning ‘cruelty to animals’, and we look outward at other people, other nations, other cultures, always others. We look outward, we find fault and we point fingers of blame and condemnation.
Thus armed with our ‘knowledge’ and clearly believing ourselves to be above reproach, we confidently condemn ‘cruelty to animals’. We do this before we have even heard of veganism.
Why do we scorn veganism?
There are two main obstacles to veganism in the eyes of those who have never challenged what our species does to others.
The first obstacle is that we believe animal use to be necessary for our well-being. In fact, the opposite is true.
The second obstacle is that we consider ourselves somehow better, more important, more worthy than other species. In our unchallenging eyes they occupy a no-man’s-land in terms of definition. We are aware that they are not things or objects, however we resist the natural conclusion to which this awareness should lead. We refuse to acknowledge their moral value, their sentience, our glaringly obvious similarities. In fact we determinedly ignore the fact that they are the same as us in every way except species because to do so would undermine – even in our own eyes – the foundations of the systematic genocide, brutality and violence in which we are complicit as nonvegan consumers.
We resist facing the fact that every nonvegan choice is a choice to violate the rights of peaceful and powerless individuals who are exactly like us in every way but species. Their lives matter to them. They share the bonds of love and friendship with their family and friends. Each one is a unique individual who experiences life as we do, through their senses, their interactions with others, through their memories.
We think we’re on the same page but we’re not
So coming back to the phrase that started this essay, ‘cruelty to animals’, what does this shifting frame of reference mean in real terms? When we are nonvegan and living in our western society, and we declare this to others, we are thinking about acts or situations that hurt dogs, cats, horses, ‘pet’ rabbits or members of the other species that we fetishise.
We are thinking about acts or circumstances that fall outside our own, personal, accepted and internalised range of ‘necessary’ actions, although we will sometimes concede that even these should be done ‘humanely’ (which is another loaded word but I’ll leave that for another day). Examples of this are when we call for ‘compassion’ (a subjective concept), ‘kinder choices’ (a subjective concept), and for what amounts to the regulation of the torture and the denial of rights that form the bedrock of all the uses that are made of other species.
This is a path that invariably leads to xenophobia and ‘otherisation’, because other cultures have a different set of species to fetishise and a different range of actions that are perceived as ‘necessary’. It’s a path littered with grey areas, with personal definitions of ‘essential’, little individual justifications that we each invent, our own set of ‘necessities’. It’s a path where we always ensure that the parameters excuse our own behaviour, regardless of what we do .
So is there an objective definition?
‘Cruelty’ is the inflicting of harm or distress on another and let’s presume for the sake of avoiding argument that we accept the (debatable) qualification that all humans tend to adopt; that in certain circumstances ‘harm’ may be justified as being unavoidable or even necessary, and further define cruelty to mean ‘unnecessary or avoidable harm’. Is is possible to define ‘cruelty to animals’ objectively?
objective: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
I believe that it is, by defining our frame of reference.
Humans do not need to use or consume members of other species for any purpose whatsoever. We have a myriad alternatives and as a highly inventive species we have no trouble at all in finding them. (Even if we did not have these alternatives, it would still be immoral for us to confine, enslave and kill countless billions of unconsenting sentient individuals every year simply because we can – but this is a moot point.)
The recognition of the fact that we have no need to consume or otherwise use other species and the decision to live true to this ethic is the definition of becoming vegan.
So in fact, the objective definition of ‘cruelty to animals’ may be summed up in a single word; nonveganism.
My simple view
So let’s stop talking about ‘cruelty to animals’, because as a phrase it is meaningless. I have seen so many arguments arise between ‘animal lovers’ (a subjective concept). These arguments invariably accuse vegans of splitting hairs and being divisive , claiming that since we all condemn ‘cruelty to animals’, we’re all on the same side.
Make no mistake, we’re not on all the same side at all and in our complacency about our shared (mis)understanding, is a continuing bloodbath and nightmare for billions of innocent, vulnerable creatures who need us all to be absolutely clear on their behalf.
There are definitely two sides and there’s definitely a line between them. That line is the crystal clear one that separates being vegan from being nonvegan. That’s the one we need to recognise and cross, and on the day when we all finally stand on the vegan side, then we can truly, sincerely and joyfully say that we condemn cruelty to animals.