When is ‘unnecessary’ suffering necessary?

Friday, 13 March, 2015

Kevin Watkinson and Ali Ryland blog on our cultural tendency to draw arbitrary lines between what, and how much, suffering is ‘necessary’ in our dealings with non-human animals.

One does not have to look far for articles in the mainstream press that approach the issue of ‘unnecessary suffering’ and non-human animals. One such case towards the end of last month saw Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath pulled back into the spotlight following a social media uproar concerning his hunting practices. Reports described McGrath apologising for photos taken in 2008 at a shooting safari in South Africa, where the famous fast bowler posed with a dead water buffalo, elephant and hyenas. In the end, it was not quite clear whether he was apologising for his actions, or whether he was apologising for the wide circulation of the photos. Nevertheless, the negative reaction to this incident contributed to the narrative that rejects ‘unnecessary’ suffering towards animals.

In such articles, McGrath mentions the legality of the hunt he attended, inferring a comparison to other forms of animal exploitation that exist within a legal framework. However, this only stands to emphasise that morality and the law are not necessarily the same thing, which remains more pertinent than ever given the questionable status of the UK’s fox hunting ban. And, though the legality of this incident was not in question, the media interest remained; partly because of the spectacle of ‘outrage’ around the treatment of these animals, as well as the presence of a celebrity to carry the story.

As vegans we would naturally argue against unnecessary suffering, but would not consider shooting animals on a safari any more necessary than chasing down a fox with a pack of hounds, visiting incarcerated animals in a zoo, or consuming various parts of an animal exploited for food. From a vegan perspective, animal exploitation is something which is morally unjustifiable; to be avoided as far as is possible and practicable. Therefore we do not see a need to separate one form of use from another.

So why does the mainstream press compartmentalise certain forms of suffering as unnecessary?  One simple answer to a complicated question is that news media reflects the bias of a society founded upon the exploitation of animals, and vice versa. Across the spectrum of the media, animal stories are covered. These include those that involve exceptional suffering to animals in slaughterhouses, such as the recent undercover footage by Animal Aid. However, these stories do not examine the inherent suffering that takes place every day in the same establishments; instead, they invoke a myopic lens that demonises specific slaughterhouses, and not the practice in general. The practice itself is deemed ‘necessary’, but many consumers still like to draw individual, arbitrary lines between which methods of slaughter they see as needless.

This widespread misrepresentation of cruelty and suffering is paralleled by the media’s treatment of veganism. A quick search online for the term ‘vegan’ reveals articles overwhelmingly linking the practice simply to diet. This places veganism into a category that is no longer challenged by the broader vegan philosophy and its tenets. Instead, veganism may be regarded as a diet or fad with an opt-in and an opt-out feature. This purposefully avoids the inherent challenge to our fundamental beliefs and subsequent behaviour toward animals – something the media and the bulk of their readership do not wish to engage with.    

And it is not just the media that perpetuates this attitude. At a corresponding time to the McGrath incident,joined the ‘March Against The Badger Cull’ event in Birmingham, UK. The event, comprised of speakers and spectators as well as protestors, highlighted a noticeable gulf between the vegan community and non-vegan wildlife enthusiasts. One speaker of the latter persuasion called for the protection of badgers, foxes and even elephants and dolphins – but purposefully ignored the calls of the crowd, who cried: “But what about the cows?” The causational link between the dairy industry and the badger cull is often pushed under the rug by consumers – even consumers who profess to love animals – because they refuse to question the ‘necessity’ of the dairy industry.  Once again, one form of non-human animal suffering is deemed necessary, the other unnecessary.

The dominant narrative circulating around the McGrath incident and the badger cull suggests that it is natural to feel upset by instances of ‘unnecessary’ suffering. This is further embodied by our cultural abhorrence toward dog fighting and ivory poaching, as well as the practice of eating cats and dogs (termed ‘carnism’ by Melanie Joy). However, by blindly pointing the finger at other nations and practices, we deliberately overlook the inconvenient truth of our own complicity in the system of unnecessary suffering. It rests upon vegans and those representing a broader social justice movement to point out this inconsistency; bridging the gap between the outrage that people feel when viewing unnecessary suffering toward animals, and the traditions perpetuating a system that falsely compartmentalise forms of suffering under the guise of legitimacy or necessity.

By Kevin Watkinson and Ali Ryland

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