‘Nonviolence’, systemic violence, and nonhuman animals

(April fools) concept art by Art Lebedev, "The Dog Leash for Dog Haters"

I brought my political thought class to a talk by Ghanaian nonviolent peace activist and 2011 UML peace scholar Leyma Gbowee. She gave an excellent talk on the nature of systemic violence in Liberia, where she served as a truth and reconciliation commission member, and I look forward to hearing what my students thought. Having just returned from the Critical Animal Studies conference in Ontario, though, I couldn’t help but ask whether her definition of systemic violence extended to our treatment of nonhuman animals. I thought this was especially relevant given that she closed her talk with a line from Dr. King’s Nobel acceptance speech: “all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It was frustrating, albeit completely understandable, to find that her answer was mostly dismissive, with some conciliatory gestures towards environmentalism (she based her views on the prioritization argument–that hungry humans come first, in this case). The exchange reminded me of the critical feminist presenting at Brock who couldn’t understand why her colleagues didn’t see the link between human and nonhuman oppression (and of a similar argument, in this case in philosophy, laid out in James Rachels’ “The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism). I wasn’t expecting Gbowee to respond positively to my question–and I tried to phrase it tactfully and politely, so as not to derail the conversation, which until then had been purely anthropocentric–but it does strike me as problematic to try to address the roots of systemic violence without acknowledging the link between violence to nonhumans and violence to humans. The example she gave was actually telling: a congregation was unable to get aid funding because their pastor had, by coincidence, been videotaped shooing/kicking a stray dog. Gbowee dismissed such behavior as common–and, indeed, I don’t know the level of severity of the kick, so it may not have risen to the level of cruelty–but isn’t this categorically ‘violent’ behavior?

I fully appreciate that Gbowee was talking about a very different kind of systemic violence–and she did so passionately and persuasively. Specifically, she referenced the ex-slaves who ‘founded’ Liberia in 1822 and how they brought with them some heavy cultural baggage, to put it mildly. And I don’t necessarily expect people living in food insecurity to begin to moralize their food choices in anything resembling what is happening throughout the rich world. By the same token, I can see how some would call foul by comparing shooing a dog to the kind of atrocious sexual and other violence Gbowee documents. Even from a results-oriented perspective, though, nonviolence seems to me to require a systems perspective.

Gbowee, like Dr. King, is also clearly in the Christian religion tradition, and would likely be unreceptive to anti-speciesist arguments (as against Dominion/stewardship-based arguments). But I can’t help but be depressed that such ardent, intelligent, and vocal advocates aren’t (yet) inclined to broaden the scope of what counts as psychologically destructive violence.

Edit: link to the talk, with Q & A at the end, here.

2nd Edit (4/26): After an email back-and-forth with Dr. Andrew Linzey, I should qualify my statement about religion and stewardship – I need to read up on a theology based in service rather than one based in dominion, apparently, and hopefully will do so asap.

One response to “‘Nonviolence’, systemic violence, and nonhuman animals

  1. This is an amazing article and clearly illustrates the sentiment of many when it comes to differentiating between violence against humans and violence against non-humans. Martin Luther King Jr. was facing an enemy of humans bent on the oppression of the black race. The violence at times was at the hands of white racists and at times from the teeth marks of dogs taught by white racists to attack anyone commanded to attack. The dogs did not respond differently to peaceful protests in comparison to murderers on the loose. It is difficult for one to disassociate dominion when clearly examples of animal use often fall on how they are raised (in terms of animals readily domesticated). The author is indeed correct in highlighting the disconnect that Leyma Gbowee detailed in her response, however the what is not imperative the why is. Could it be possible that due to cultural upbringing Mrs. Gbowee has only seen animals be used for potential food sources and their ability to aid in the harvest of crops? Moreover, we do not know how Mrs. Gbowee was nurtured as a child, this would also shape her philosophy. If she was brought up in civil turmoil in Africa ( and likely so do to instability due to post-colonialism)and her food source was provided by the United Nation, then her interactions with non-human animals would be rare at best. This would limit her understanding in terms of the plight of non-human animals. In the article, the author mentions Mrs. Gbowee’s stance on war torn Liberia and the peace tactics through reconciliation in Ghana. Clearly, Mrs. Gbowee has a personal connection with the murders of many humans via war and unrest. On a trip to Africa, I learned that the violence isn’t broadcasted on television (and edited for content) as in the US. The killings are seen on your property and on your street just as it was when the US declared independence from England. Mrs. Gbowee’s fight is to peacefully change governments in an effort to say the lives of innocent children and prevent the rapes of innocent girls and women and this is what she knows from first hand accounts. She is right in her stance to stay committed to her struggle just as the author is right in his stance to fight for his belief. The goal should not be to have her align non-human rights with human rights or align non-human violence with human violence, that would be like asking Dr. Martin Luther King to share the Poor People’s Campaign with the Poor Dog’s Campaign, which would be hard with dog’s biting everyone while congregating “peacefully.”

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