The absent referent — violence and malice of another kind

May 26, 2015 06:34 pm | Updated April 02, 2016 10:39 pm IST

Between the murder of an animal and the murder of a man, there's no more than ONE step! - Count Leo Tolstoy

For the longest time, I have been looking for a peg to hang this article on, because the subject I wish to deal is generally considered worthy of little or no print space. Shiv Visvanathan’s piece, >The Commodification of Violence in The Hindu on Monday May 18, 2015 is that peg. I am sure Shiv is a kind and compassionate man, but I wish that as a public intellectual, his canvas of violence had covered all life forms, not just human, as being at the receiving end of brutish capitalism. His view is anthropocentric and his gaze is only on humans and violence. He does a fine analysis of us humans as being producers, consumers and spectators of violence, but to my mind, it is still a little limited, the focus being only on humans.

Similarly, in an article called > A Lesson in Indifference (May 18, 2015) by Harsh Mander, where he talks about the utter destitution of homelessness, particularly of children, he writes, “I concluded that most of us probably teach our children the lesson of indifference very early, how to see suffering and want among others and to simply turn away.”

Yes, violence towards humans is real and deplorable. But I would have wished that both Shiv and Harsh, thought leaders, sensitive human beings and intellectuals par excellence would have taken that audacious and precious step beyond to not arrogate suffering as the exclusive domain of humans (or if they believe otherwise, they have not mentioned it) and also included the plight of, the commodification of, and indifference towards an entire domain of living beings, the non-human and sentient life on this planet, our animals. We do teach our children to also look away from animal suffering and cruelty. Some even teach them to actively perpetuate violence.

Richard Ryder, one of the world’s leading animal philosophers writes about ‘speciesism.’ “Speciecism, is like racism or sexism — a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences. Speciesism is a form of bigotry. It is unintelligent and out of date…..Non-human animals scream and writhe like us, their nervous systems are like ours and contain the same bio-chemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves. So our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any ‘painient’ being…painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights. Pain is the basis of ethics and causing pain to others is the essence of evil.’

In the law, a ‘person’ is essentially the subject of rights and obligations, while a ‘thing’ may be owned as ‘property.’ Christine Korsgaard, ethical philosopher writes, ‘This bifurcation is unfortunate because it leaves us with no alternative but to categorise everything as a person or thing. This leaves animals in a particularly awkward position. And because animals are classified as property, efforts to secure them a legal position have had mixed consequences.” However, if pain and suffering is the basis of ethics, then a major shift has to take place in acknowledging and recognising sentience and according them the rights to live a life without suffering and cruelty. If cognitive abilities forms the rationale for ‘personhood’ then it goes without saying that a grown pig or dog or cat has more of it than a human infant. Carol Adams, well known vegan-feminist-writer says, “Perhaps an academic finds ambivalences more acceptable than the activist, who desires something more tangible — non-ambivalent action. And perhaps it is an ‘easy way out’ — sweeping away difficult questions because it appears the answer, namely the ‘rights language’, is wrong.”

Nowhere is the commodification of violence more prevalent than in the way we treat animals. Life, as we know it, and the fundamental right to live it with happiness and freedom simply does not apply to animals we consume, wear, use and abuse in laboratories. The pain and suffering inflicted on billions of them globally is a grim undercover operation behind locked gates, where we don’t hear the screams of pain and fear, not quite different from the genocide of the holocaust. Sociologist, David Nibert, in his book, Animal Oppression and Human Violence says, the slaughterhouse “is the most nightmarish manifestation of the capitalist system.” He discusses the connections between the oppression of devalued human groups and non-human animals. As an aside, I wonder, how many of us would take our children for a stroll near or into a slaughterhouse as we would take them to the vegetable or fruit market. If we did, we would make psychopaths out of all of them and escalate social violence. The same violence that Shiv is talking about. This is not plain apathy or indifference, it is a carefully cultivated and wicked indifference.

“The act of the butcher begins with the desire of the consumer,” says Dr J Robert Hatherill, research scientist and faculty member of the Environmental Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara We are consumers of violence on a daily basis. The reason is what Carol Adams calls the ‘absent referent,’ that which separates the animal from what is on your plate. Behind every meal of meat is an absence, the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. ‘The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone. Once we recognise how the absent referent functions, we can immediately see two things — women are made absent referents in our culture, too. And, our culture links oppressions and intensifies them too.’ An instance of the absent referent is to see how India is well on track to become the world’s largest bovine meat exporter in the current fiscal, thanks to sustained increase in production, capacity, growth and competitive export prices, even as the marketing of cow meat is banned in India. Legally, buffalo meat is classified as ‘beef.’ We can grow and export it, but not eat it.

Let us take a look at some of the vocabulary of animal abuse. We are gleeful spectators of violence as we cheer and hurrah over hellish betting animal games like Jallikattu or elephant polo or cock and dog fights, we continue to allow for rituals of violence in the form of bloody animal sacrifices to please some arcane deity’s bloodlust, we gaze in awe at ceremonial displays of wounded and hungry animals in temples and festivals and parade a poor mare in weddings with crackers being burst under her feet which are aching from standing for hours on end, we condone vain narcissistic pleasure by buying into silks, leather and animal tested cosmetics, we entertain ourselves by watching incarcerated and helpless animals in circuses, we ignore the poor hungry and thirsty cattle wandering about city streets eating plastic bags even as we posture as a cow-worshipping nation, and finally erase it all by simple indifference and convenient amnesia. Talk about being inured to violence!

There is plenty of scientific evidence to show how children who abuse animals develop a serious trajectory of developmental disorders including violent crime. There is no doubt that there are links between animal abuse and interpersonal violence. Studies have proven that violent criminals have elevated levels of steroids, pesticides, antibiotics, all served up as normal animal feed in the industry. Along with the chemically complex meat ingested, one absorbs the slaughtered creature's fear, pain and terror. These qualities perpetuate the cycle of social and individual violence.

Yes, capitalism has commodified violence and we have indeed become producers, consumers and spectators of it. But not always and only in the human world. We can look away or teach new generations that the time to treat animals as ‘property’ is over.

We humans have the power to dominate and subjugate, but power is not sufficient evidence of truth. And the truth, hopefully, will be the recognition of animal protection as one of the most powerful social justice movements to come.

Rukmini Sekhar is a writer and activist committed to the protection of animals.

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