Compassion and Consistency

Compassion and Consistency

by Merle Hoffman

I have always had a problem with a style of consistency that demands seeing things in black and white holding the line for political purity. The kind that the Catholic left preaches, a “seamless ethic of life” (argued most clearly by Joseph P. Cardinal Bernardin) which states that those who oppose nuclear war and the death penalty (because of a belief in the sacredness of all human life and an opposition to taking it) should naturally be of like mind and oppose abortion. Not limited to the Catholic left, this argument has been taken up by those on the catholic traditional left, particularly articulated by Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff who sees inconsistencies in the politics of those who espouse a woman’s right to choose along with supporting the concept of animal rights. “Why can’t the pro-choicers see that the fetus is like a baby seal in utero?”

Personally, I have been ridiculed on numerous occasions for my vegetarianism, refusal to wear furs and support of a concept of “radical compassion” in which animals are viewed and related to as beings in and of themselves, as opposed to products for the use of human greed and desire. The argument diluted to its basics goes something like “How can you not eat animals and argue for their ‘rights’ when you are involved in the killing of thousands of unborn babies every year? After all, isn’t a fetus as important as a kitten?” This thinking argues for a style of superficial consistency that assumes that the driving force behind both the pro-choice and animal rights movements is a type of sloppy sentimentality -misplaced “love” for the cuteness of animals on the one hand and misplaced understanding of the ultimate humanity and moral authority of women on the other.

I have always “loved animals.” Not the kind of love that wallows in metaphor and anthropomorphizing, but the kind that includes respect, awe and awareness of “otherness.” Most particularly, I have been moved by their purity. Seemingly untouched by “free will” (as we have philosophically defined it), unable to change themselves, filter themselves, redefine or mythologize themselves, they remain as they are, who they are and what they are.

When I was 16 years old, there were two things that I wanted: A dog and a red fox coat. The animal represented a friend and ally for a reclusive only child who spent four hours a day practicing the piano. The red fox coat was glamour, sexual power and the ultimate “rites des passage” into womanhood. I was 18 when I bought my first fur coat, and, by the time I was in my 30s, had three of them.

Getting the dog was more of a problem than the fur coat. My father and I prevailed after many tearful scenes against my allergic, mother’s refusal and we went to the ASPCA where I immediately fell in love with a black and white mutt.

“Sheba”, as I called her, was short lived in my home. My mother’s allergies proved stronger than my need and I was sans animal again after only three weeks.

Years later, my first act of independence after leaving my parents’ home was the acquisition of Pascha, a red Persian cat, the first of many animals who would eventually share my life. I remember someone asking me once “How can someone like you who loves animals so much wear fur?” My answer to the best of my recollection was “It’s just because I do love animals so much that I like to have them close to me. All life is sacrifice -each part of the ecological process gives itself to the next level so that all can survive.” I thought I was being consistent.

But even then there were rumblings. Slight hints of problems, like visualizing.menus. Baby lamb chops, roast suckling pigs, milk-fed veal, baby back ribs and other epicurean delights started to take on lives of their own. I started to think about what or should I say whom, I was eating. But not for very long. These quick jolts of reality were like a chronic sense of deja vu just below the surface of my mind. The existence of another reality that was buried would emerge in little bursts of I disturbing awareness from time to time.

In the past I was fond of telling the: stories of my adventures in the Cornish countryside, of which the highlight was always the fox hunting. I remember the pickets at the pubs where we would begin our hunts at 6 a.m. There were always one or two elderly women with signs – -quotes from Oscar Wilde, “Fox hunting is the unspeakable chasing after the uneatable.” These women were always a source of amusement and ridicule to us. I thought they were slightly off balance.

Because I “loved” animals so much, I traveled thousands of miles to view them in their natural habitats and visited East Africa twice. I remember many evenings in the African bush talking of the four legged wonders of the day, all this taking place in opulent, animal furnished rooms, my feet resting on the beautiful skin of a slaughtered leopard and the stuffed heads of antelope and cheetah looking at me from the walls.

Then there were the souvenirs that enabled us to take a little of Africa home; the elephant foot coffee table, the giraffe tail bracelets, the ivory I pendants, etc. All the animal memorabilia that reminded me so much of all the animals that I “loved.”

In graduate school, as a student of experimental psychology, I was required to learn the principles of Pavlovian conditioning. This was accomplished by “training” a laboratory rat to press a bar in a cage at specific intervals. The length of the intervals were varied to prove the psychological learning axiom of the benefit of intermittent positive conditioning. You give the rat a pellet every other time he presses the bar and he learns to press it very quickly. Of course, after the rat learned his lessons well, he was “sacrificed,” the normal animal experimenters’ euphemism for killed.

We reverently studied Harlow’s classical experiments in maternal deprivation. Reading how baby monkeys were torn from their mothers at birth and put in cages with “wire mothers.” How they would feebly attempt to nurse the cold hard steel and eventually become withdrawn and neurotic and how this was an experimental prototype for human childhood maladaptive behavior. I remember feeling disturbed by this but I was in graduate school for psychology -you didn’t question these things. It would be a few years until Jenifer Graham, a brave 15 year old, would challenge the psychological academic establishment by refusing to dissect ‘a frog, and the morality and necessity of all animal experimentation would become a passionate public debate.

I also remember the basement. The rows and rows of cats in cages. There was always an odd feeling, as if some dirty secret was kept down there. The dirtiest part of all was my not asking about it. Not really wanting to know.

Four years ago, the love/death connection was severed forever. I had my epiphany one summer in the country when the click of consciousness occurred and the connection was made between theory and reality. My mind, which had used false ideology to shield itself from both truth and pain, opened. After reading The Slaughter of the Innocent by Hans Ruesch and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, descriptions of the horrors and brutality of vivisection filled my waking and sleeping moments for months -particularly the stories of Descartes, who in order to prove his theory of mind/body duality in which he asserted that animals were merely mechanistic stimulus response machines, would nail young dogs to wooden posts and amusedly deride those students who expressed horror at their screams.

All the protective layers that I had developed from childhood to keep me from these realities were ripped away. The insights that existed just below the surface burst forth with an intensity so powerful that direct action was the only course. I immediately did two things. I stopped eating meat, chicken and fish and stopped wearing and buying fur forever.

The change in my diet was radical. Having been a lover of “animal junk food” (McDonald’s, et al) I now had to become accustomed to a very different reality -restaurants that used to be hangouts now became off limits. This change felt far more radical and political than many other things in my life. Each meal became an opportunity for reaffirmation and recommitment.

I found myself in the extraordinarily strange position of having to defend my menu choices with friends -and enjoying it. Here was an opportunity to truly make the political personal. Shopping suddenly became somewhat amusing. The woman who would ask haughtily if the fur on this garment was “real” before she would consider buying it now would only purchase it if it were fake.

It all seemed to fit, to be logical and consistent, or so it seemed to me. That is until I ran up against it. “You don’t eat meat or wear fur? What is that belt you’re wearing? How about your shoes -aren’t they leather? And, why do you eat vegetables, don’t they have feelings too? Oh, you mean you make a differentiation between lower and higher forms of animal life -how egalitarian is that? You’re not being consistent.”

Very often these remarks are made by ardent and active feminists. Sometimes to break the tension of the underlying hostility of these encounters, I find myself quoting a line from the Lily Tomlin play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life…” -how it is “difficult to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time.” The difficulty that these women experience in dealing with any extension of their own politics to other species is obvious. So much easier to negate thin to be challenged. By demanding a style of perfection and superficial consistency, prior to even considering a change of view, insures that their minds remain within their own conditioning.

By superficially requiring political perfection (as if perfection were attainable), consistency then becomes the false standard to measure against. But in all human endeavors and struggles for social change, difficult, incomplete journeys are the norm. Rarely, if ever, is the evolution towards higher levels of consciousness linear and pure. To negate any stops along the way because they are incomplete (inconsistent) is merely an attempt to minimize a threat to one’s sense of reality.

Every Saturday morning outside many abortion clinics across the country there are fervent anti-choice activists who pray and blockade clinics to make the point that they consider abortion murder and the fetus a person with rights. They demonstrate, picket, chant, sing; escalate to abuse and harassment, then heighten to bomb threats, bombings and direct violence.

They argue that they must stop the killing. What is a building or a clinic burned or bombed in relation to all the lives that are being lost inside? they ask.

And recently, women wearing fur coats find themselves being verbally abused for their choices, even having paint sprayed on them, while creative bumper stickers tell the reader “Get a feel for fur, slam your fingers in a car door.” Then there is the Animal Liberation Front. They burst into labs and destroy thousands of dollars worth of equipment used for animal research. Pictures of hooded rescuers holding chickens, dogs and cats with electrodes in their brains are throughout the animal movement literature. In my mind’s eye I feel and know the horrors these poor creatures are subjected today after day i for the most whimsical and stupid reasons -my stomach churns and my heart aches for them. I find myself secretly cheering their rescuers on and thinking of writing checks.

The argument has been made that there is a similarity between those who – bomb abortion clinics and those who bomb animal research labs. That both groups are fanatics and rather than partake of the American system of dialogue and debate, they prefer the startegy of direct action civil disobedience and violence. Hentoff, in his attempt to get the pro-choicers to empathize with the anti-choice movement, asks them to imagine the fetus as a baby seal, assuming that all the protective feelings one should naturally get viewing an adorable white pup being clubbed to death could be transferred to a fetus floating in its mother’s womb.

If protection of the fetus were the basis of the anti-choice movement, there might be some validity in this analogy. But protectionism of the fetus is a minimal part of the anti-choice agenda. Indeed, the desire of the movement to exploit, control and direct the reproductive and functional lives of women is far more consistent with the agenda of Capitalist Speciesism of which Singer, in his Animal Liberation, writes. “There can be no reason except the selfish desire to preserve the privileges of the exploiting group for refusing to extend the basic principle of equality of consideration to other species.” The fact that neither the left nor the right have given a theoretical or philosophical home to theories of animal rights or liberation is telling. Traditional religion, which informs much of the thinking of the right, places man at the center and core of the universe second only to God He is “shepherd” to all plant and animal life and was given them by God to serve his interest. The left, which views history and events in a more humanistic vein, also places man at the center of the universe with everything becoming a product for his eventual use, knowledge and purpose.

In both these schemata, any extension of rights or privileges is only due to either a sense of compassion or out of service to the state. To this day, much of the left sees animals, not to mention everything else, through the same humancentric, economic, class honed lens. Thus, “as long as humans are being aided by medical or scientific research, the left generally won’t object to vivisection. And as long as butchers are given a fair wage, why should anyone object to butchering?” (John Sanbonmatsu, Z Magazine.)

It remains to feminists to make and live the connections between women’s liberation and animal liberation. For feminists who rail against the oppression of a system that places women in a non being chattel relationship to the ruling power structure, the plight of and present danger to all sentient life on this planet must strike particular resonance. The ultimate radicalism of a concept of both animal rights and animal liberation is a challenge to women who are involved in changing the world from a product motivated profit model into a far more egalitarian and just structure.

The consistency of supporting abortion rights, which is the fulcrum of the women’s liberation struggle, as well a supporting the animal liberation agenda is obvious. This would define a real “seamless ethic” of life. One that would include all sentient creatures it its net, one that would not oppress and abuse one half of its human population and all of its non-human population.

That’s being consistent!

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.