Sunday, January 31, 2010

Commercial Life

on animals

PETA responds to the Super Bowl commercial advocacy controversy by pointing out that CBS rejected a PETA advocacy ad for the Super Bowl in 2004 (in fact, the same CBS spokesperson is quoted). In 2009, NBC rejected a PETA Super Bowl advertisement, and also rejected a PETA advertisement for the Thanksgiving Parade. Don't cry for PETA: they rarely have a difficult time finding ways to get attention. But this trend does show how far out of the mainstream vegetarian advocacy really is: major networks find reasons to avoid the subject for major broadcasts, even when an advocacy group wants to pay the network to run an advertisement.

This gets at why I believe vegetarians and vegans are on the same side. You respond to the society you live in. In a different world, those advocating that we merely not eat animals and those advocating that we never use any animal products might be on opposite sides. But in the world we live in animal exploitation is everyday, the overwhelming majority of people eat meat, and mainstream society views both vegetarians and vegans as fringe outsiders with radical ideas. As it is, vegans and vegetarians respond to the same culture, with similar purposes and from a similar place.

Literature and War

At The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins discusses the resonance of The Iliad in how we understand war.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Temptation and Violence

on peace

"Into the merits of these idealizations it is not here necessary to inquire: suffice it to say, without prejudice, that they have convinced both Americans and English that the most high minded course for them to pursue is to kill as many of one another as possible, and that military operations to that effect are in full swing, morally supported by confident requests from the clergy of both sides for the blessing of God on their arms."

--Bernard Shaw, The Devil's Disciple

Philip Berrigan was imprisoned for his act of protest against the Vietnam War, and he explores some of his ideas in Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary. For Berrigan, the crime of war is directly connected to inequality, racism, wealth, and economics. He writes that

"A sober student will find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans have institutionalized war to maintain capitalist prosperity, and that institutionalized warmaking may now have a life of its own."

Berrigan opposes the Vietnam War as he opposes much American foreign policy because it is exploitative. What becomes clear, however, is that Berrigan is not opposed to violence because it is violence. When addressing problems in Latin America, Berrigan explicitly defends violent revolution: he does not take the stance that violence is against the will of God or the command of Christ:

"the Christian is neither for nor against violent revolution; he transcends such a choice by his dedication to a more basic change, the spiritual revolution commanded by Christ. On a given occasion, he may tolerate and approve--but not actively join--a violent revolution, having judged that political and social injustice had reached insufferable limits, without reasonable hope of redress."

Berrigan goes on to make other arguments defending the necessity of violent revolution (among other things, he claims that "the respect accorded life by revolutionaries is vastly superior to the contempt given it by tyrants," a rather dubious claim, further muddied by the reality that violent revolutionaries typically become the tyrants when they take power). Berrigan, then, is not opposed to violence itself. He opposes violence when he opposes the desired ends of the violence, but when he sees the cause as just, he supports violence. Because he thinks the cause of social justice is right and necessary, he is willing to support violence to achieve those ends.

But this is merely what Christian ministers have done for centuries. He chooses a side in a conflict that he thinks is right, and then defends that side's use of violence to achieve its ends. This is not "chaplaincy," where the Christian church works to defend and support the existing social order,* but it is still a Christian supporting violence because he sees its ends as just, righteous, and necessary.

In defending violent revolution, Berrigan diminishes the humanity of those whom the violence would be targeted against. How does violent revolution fit into the command to love and bless one's enemy? No matter how noble one perceives the cause to be, no matter how just the grievance, no matter how righteous the end, Christians are commanded to love our enemies.

In "A Declaration on Peace: In God's People the World's Renewal Has Begun," Gwyn, Hunsinger, Roop, and Yoder seem to speak directly to Berrigan's impulse:

"The royal servant people will resist temptations to the righteous crusase or holy war, whether defending democracy from the right or just revolution from the left. The church's sharing in God's favoring of the oppressed and exploited cannot partake of violence against the oppressor. That tactic finds no precendent in Jesus. It can at best achieve a trading of places between oppressor and oppressed, aggressor and victim."

Violent revolution, just like violent defense of the nation-state, is unchristian. It goes against the commands of Jesus, the unity of the church, and, I think, does not present a good witness of Christ to the world. Elsewhere in the book, Berrigan recognizes his need to love all people, and he most certainly acted on antiwar, nonviolent principles. I think Berrigan's defense of violent revolutions in Latin American demonstrates just how strong that "temptation to the righteous crusade or holy war" can be, of how "sharing in God's favoring of the oppressed and exploited" can tempt one to support any means to assuage the suffering of those oppressed and exploited.

Berrigan writes that the Christian's "sympathies lead him to identify with those afflicted enough and desperate enough to rebel." Indeed that is so, but the Christian must also resist the temptation of violence to aid those afflicted. In fact, in The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder understands Jesus himself to have resisted "the temptation to exercise social responsibility, in the interest of justified revolution, through the use of available violent methods," that he rejected the "genuinely attractive option of the crusade." Jesus was revolutionary, but nonviolence was central to his revolution.


*John Howard Yoder is in many of his writings quite critical of the role the church plays in nationalism. In The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, Yoder calls it "Constantinianism," where the church acts as "chaplain to society." Yoder suggests that since Constantine, the church has operated to sanctify and support the existing social order and power structure, whatever it may be in particular. Yoder suggests that the church needs to abstain from tying itself to the given social order, and that it is this close alliance with the given social order which leads the church too often to support wars (and wars that exist primarily to support the existing power structure of the particular society's self-interest) (the previous three sentences are reposted and revised from 8-14-07). In He Came Preaching Peace, he talks about

"the development of official Christianity (religion identified with the nation, with the state, with the world). [...] If Christianity is an official religion, it means that we can follow Jesus only by rejecting that kind of Christianity. We can call people to the Jesus Christ of the gospel only by calling them away from the "Christ" they already know--away from the official, conformist, power-related religion of the West."


"For Christians to seek any government's interest--even the security and power of peaceable and freedom-loving democracy--at the cost of the lives and security of our brothers and sisters around the world, would be selfishness and idolatry, however much glorified by patriotic preachers and poets."

I mention this here because Philip Berrigan seems to hold a similar view. Berrigan writes

"we embarrased the Church in terms of its own profession and rhetoric. Try as it might, the Church cannot entirely kill the Gospel or its Christ. It will always possess an inner dynamic rebelling against wedding with the powers of this world."

And his brother Daniel Berrigan writes in the introduction to the book,

"And what of the impact of the war upon the Church? Officially speaking, in the Catholic instance, the sacred power has quite simply followed the secular, its sedulous ape. Bishops have blessed the war, in word and in silence. They have supplied chaplains to the military as usual and have kept their eyes studiously averted from related questions--ROTC on Catholic campuses, military installations, diocesan investments."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Parallel Travelers

on animals and on peace

At Vegan Soapbox, Eccentric Vegan writes:

"College students are particularly receptive to a vegan message because they are generally young and thus their habits aren’t quite as rigid as older people. Young college students are in a stage in their life when they’re learning and exploring; they are willing to experiment and try new things."

I think this is true, but I am also interested not only in what demographic features might make a person open to a message of nonviolence for animals, but also what ideological features. Some people already have ideological commitments and ethical stances about which they are quite passionate. Some people are already engaged in and open to exploring the realm of ideas. And some people may have ideological commitments which may be in line with an ideology of nonviolence for animals. In particular, I think there are two groups of people with particular values that animal advocates should try to reach.

Antiwar advocates
Opponents of warfare seem more likely to have compassion and moral consideration for death and suffering that is not directly related to them. Pacifists and other antiwar advocates have reached a conclusion that it is ethically wrong to use violence to achieve particular ends. I would not ask fellow pacifists to equate animals with humans, or to equate the suffering and death of animals with the suffering and death of humans. However, if an individual reaches the conclusion that violence against human beings, even for supposedly noble or justifiable ends, is wrong, how far would that individual need to go to reach the conclusion that violence against animals for mere pleasure is wrong?

Not all ideological opponents of warfare will reach the same ideological conclusion about animals. Some antiwar advocates oppose war more for practical reasons than moral reasons (economic waste, ineffective or counterproductive means to achieve desired ends, long-term consequences, etc.). Religious pacifists who see in their religion a moral demand to renounce violence against humans may not find in their traditions the same demand to renounce violence against animals (though they may find in their religious traditions demands that lead to care for animals). But I think pacifists and opponents of war have ethical consideration and compassion to be open to the topic.

Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals that

"someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning" (59).

I think there are at least two reasons environmentalists should be vegans/vegetarians. First, there are plenty of studies, reports, books, and articles detailing the negative environmental impact of animal agriculture. Animal agriculture's impact on climate change and on local environments is widely discussed. If you call yourself an environmentalist, can you repeatedly (most likely daily) engage in activity that is a major contributor to global warming and other environmental damage?

Second, if you wish to protect and preserve the environment, but you still believe that animals may be killed for your pleasure, then whom are you protecting and preserving the environment for? For you, for other people, for your children and descendants and future generations, surely. But not for animals. Such environmentalism does not see inherent value in nature itself, as such environmentalism allows for brutalization and death of nature's creatures, and for mere pleasure.

Environmentalists may be convinced to reach the conclusion that animals are a part of the natural world, and as such are a part of what deserves preservation and protection, not destruction.

The Opportunities
People with strong ideological commitments are often willing to talk about them, and may even make arguments for their commitments. Pacifists and environmentalists may be the ones to initiate such ethical or political discussions. In many social contexts, vegans and vegetarians may feel leery about initiating discussion about animal issues, for fear of seeming preachy, badgering, hectoring, or judgmental. But if somebody else initiates a discussion about peace, or initiates a discussion about environmentalism, then the discussion has begun, and a proper and fitting opportunity arises to bring up issues of animals, too. When a discussion about ideas arises, it is a perfect opportunity to discuss ideas about animals, and an opportunity to discuss these ideas with people who may be receptive.

I think another point is worth making here. Christians who proselytize should not see themselves as the ones performing conversions: they should see themselves as bringing the gospel or Word to people, and it is God who through grace changes hearts. I think a parallel is relevant. If you advocate for animals, it is not you that convinces, or manipulates, or leads to a conclusion. I actually think in the realm of ideas, it is not hard for animal advocates to win an argument, but winning an argument does not change the worldview or behavior of your opponent.

If I advocate for nonviolence for animals, I see myself as sharing information, ideas, values. Animal advocates can and should even see ourselves as living examples. But we present those ideas, and we can even argue with passion and with logic, but we must know it is still the individual that will change his or her mind and heart. I like Eccentric Vegan's word choice of "power to influence." We can influence, but we should be conscious of how we can influence, and that in our interactions with individuals in our lives, we are sharing in such a way that allows other individuals to consider these ideas with the the hope that they will reach compassionate conclusions.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lit and War: Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man"

on peace

The theme of Realism against Romanticism is common in Western literature, typically with Realism trumping Romanticism. Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man continues the tradition, but hardly predictably. If Shaw were a mediocre playwright, this would be a play where realists like Bluntschli and Louka confront, mock, and expose romantics like Raina and Sergius. But Shaw is a world-class playwright, so things aren't so simple.

Raina is a romantic, but from the beginning she has her doubts:

"It proves that all our ideas were real after all. [...] Our ideas of what Sergius would do. Our patriotism. Our heroic ideals. I sometimes used to doubt whether they were anything but dreams. [...] it came into my head just as he was holding me in his arms and looking into my eyes, that perhaps we only had our heroic ideas because we are so fond of reading Byron and Pushkin [...] Real life is seldom like that! [...] I doubted him: I wondered whether all his heroic qualities and his soldiership might not prove mere imagination when he went into a real battle."

Raina is encouraged by the story of Sergius' heroism because she needs to reinforce her faith against her strong doubts. She's a romantic (she wants to believe), but she's already questioning. And yes, Bluntschli does seem to set her straight, to shatter her illusions and tell her the truth about war. And yet it is precisely Raina's romanticism which largely inspires her to save Bluntschli in the first place. Bluntschli and Raina's confrontation is much more than just a Realist setting a Romantic straight.

Sergius, too, has his romantic, heroic ideals. Bluntchli the realist laughs at Sergius' cavalry charge ("We did laugh [...] Of all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle, that man must be the very maddest") and mocks his challenge to a duel ("Oh, thank you: thats a cavalry man's proposal. I'm in the artillery; and I have the choice of weapons. If I go, I shall take a machine gun."). But when we first meet him on stage, Sergius has already been disillusioned by the military establishment's reaction to his charge. Furthermore, Sergius' romantic life suggests a man that has always been in conflict with himself and his ideals. Sergius is a cad: he's engaged to Raina and uses the highest Romantic language with her, but he's also trying to seduce Louka (Raina and Sergius each put on an act for each other: I rather think if they were authentic with each other, they might actually hit it off). Sergius's seduction of Louka is hilarious: he steps back and forth from rakishly seducing of the maid and aristocratically defending the honor of the mistress. He's not a cynical hypocrite: I think he partly believes the romantic ideal even as it chafes at him and he abandons it.

Arms and the Man is not an anti-war play. Bluntschli is the hero, and he's a veteran mercenary soldier (in the artillery) that is good at and enjoys war. What the play does, however, is attempt to shatter patriotic, idealistic illusions about war. Sergius' aristocratic view of war is treated as a farce (particularly in the form of his cavalry charge of an artillery, thinking he was heroic but succeeding through luck). Bluntschli, the "chocolate cream soldier," doesn't really care who wins or loses the war. he's a "professional soldier," and while brave, he also will avoid a fight if he can, and talks about the soldier's primary desire and efforts to keep himself alive. He treats war realistically, without ideals of honor or courage or patriotism. Bluntschli tells the story of a soldier shot and burned alive rather in a matter-of-fact fashion (it is Sergius who responds "And how ridiculous! Oh, war! war! The dream of patriots and heroes! A fraud, Bluntschli. A hollow sham, like love").

In this play, Shaw does not reject a particular war or war in general. I'm not even sure he really challenges militarism or military values. But Shaw does mock ideals about heroism and warfare. Shaw won't let you leave the theater without challenging any ideas about heroism, honor, courage, or patriotism as unassailable virtues undergirding the institution of war.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Violence and Entertainment

on peace

Paul Waldman at TAPPED:

"On film, guns are plentiful, evil is pure, and violence is nearly always the answer to any problem."

Indeed: popular entertainment provides us many images of moral violence and effective violence. There is of course a great deal of art that challenges the ethics and efficacy of violence, but popular entertainment generally shows us good guys prevailing over bad guys in a fight. We in the audience, no matter how peace-loving we may be, are asked to see particular violent acts as righteous, to see particular violent acts as effective, and to root for the heroes when they perform violent acts.

I've never been convinced that violent entertainment causes individuals to commit violent acts (see Richard Rhodes' "Hollow Claims About Fantasy Violence"). But I've become more and more convinced that our popular entertainment reinforces a militaristic culture that accepts and promotes warfare as a moral, effective solution to problems.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


on animals

"Everything is permitted"

"he solemnly announced in the discussion that there is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people's belief in their immortality. Ivan Fyodorovich added parenthetically that that is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind's belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy. And even that is not all: he ended with the assertion that for every separate person, like ourselves for instance, who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of this situation."

--Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

If I used reason alone, I would reach much the same conclusion that Ivan Karamazov reaches. If the earth is livable due to a random combination of the right matter and space, if human existence occurs because of random mutations over the course of evolution's work, then reason tells me that there is no such thing as morality. If human existence has no inherent meaning, but only the meaning we apply to it, than any morality we try to affix to human existence is arbitrary, malleable, and fleeting. Random processes that allow human existence could also destroy human existence, and there is no meaning in any of it. With no reasonable grounding for any morality, we can do whatever we want without any concern for the consequences. We can act morally, but we don't have to, and if our actions undo all earthy existence even, well, it was all random and meaningless anyway.

Using reason alone, can you explain to me why anybody--humans or animals--has any inherent "right" to anything? Intellectual and cultural traditions have given us the concept of "rights," but human traditions are often irrational (in Western tradition, it was supposedly reason that brought about belief in "unalienable" rights, but I cannot see this belief as entirely rational). Institutions grant individuals rights, but you also cannot cite these: these are legal rights, granted by an authority, and subject to change.

You also cannot cite any metaphysical concept, such as "inherent value," "intrinsic value," "dignity," or "soul." These are qualities we believe individuals may hold, but they are not based on reason. Empirical study and rational argument will, I think, fail to show convincing evidence of the "inherent value" of any living human or animal.

I do not believe that the ideas of "human rights" or "animal rights" are based strictly on reason.

Rational Consequences
I don't believe that "everything is permitted." I also believe humans and animals are imbued with inherent value. But I recognize that these beliefs are not based on reason alone (in fact my beliefs have been informed by religion). Using my rational faculties, however, I could reach the conclusion that everything is permitted, and I would struggle to find a convincing rational argument for inherent rights. I do not, then, believe that any morality, including non-violence for humans and animals, is based strictly on reason. I don't think animal advocates can be confident they've reached a position based on reason alone.

I do not write this to deny the validity of animal rights (exploitation of animals is hardly based on solid reason, either). But I do deny that reason alone will guide anybody to an animal rights position. I don't think anybody can rely on the hope that eventually most people will rationally accept that eating animals is wrong. However, reason combined with other human values may lead one to accept the animal rights position.

I think animal rights may be based on "rational consequences." The rational consequence of animal sentience is that some of our existing human values (the concept of "rights," the prohibition against physically harming the innocent or vulnerable, etc.) would be applied to animals, also. When we learn more about animals' experience (their intellect, emotions, social lives, capacity to suffer, etc.), we might reach the conclusion that those same ethical considerations we offer to other humans would justly be offered to animals.

Reason alone did not lead me to an ethic of non-violence. However, the rational consequence of my knowledge of animals means that I must apply this ethic of non-violence to animals as well.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Revenge and Violence

on peace

In the New York Times, Stanley Fish discusses revenge fantasy film:

"The formula’s popularity stems from the permission it gives viewers to experience the rush violence provides without feeling guilty about it. [...] Once the atrocity has occurred, the hero acquires an unquestioned justification for whatever he or she then does; and as the hero’s proxy, the audience enjoys the same justification for vicariously participating in murder, mayhem and mutilation."

Revenge fantasies do not just provide images of moral violence for audiences. They also provide images of effective violence. Again and again in film, we see violence working to solve problems; in film, violence often works to save the day, to eliminate evil. But that's our fiction. In reality, violence begets violence, and rarely offers a clean story of good overcoming evil. We don't have an end of the film--the consequences of violent acts, however justified they appear in the short-term to the party carrying them out, usually linger on for a long, long time.

Two notes on the subject (unrelated to each other). First, the belief that Christianity forbids any sort of violence is a minority position within Christianity, but that Christ forbids revenge is, I think, orthodox and uncontroversial Christian belief. When Jesus preaches forgiveness of enemies, revenge is not an option. Second, William Shakespeare's Hamlet may be the most revered work of literature in the English speaking world, and this play can easily be read as a deconstruction of the revenge fantasy. To the very end, the play makes ambiguous the justice and efficacy of revenge.