The view from history

25 02 2014

I wonder what the next generation will think when they look back over this particular period in history. Will people think that we were trying to do our best for the world and those who share it? Will they think that we made mistakes, but that was understandable because in 2014 we simply didn’t know any better?

The German philosopher Georg Hegel believed that we could only understand history retrospectively. By taking the long view of the way we came through the years we are able to see the routes we took, the decisions we made, the plans, projects and people that were important to us at the time. For Hegel the unfolding of history is a way of showing us who we are and what we are made of.  By his understanding, history is not just a series of events, history is human progress. History is the way we move towards greater awareness, evolution and personal freedom.

Hegel believed that there would come a time when the world was free from conflict. In this new dawn there would be no more slavery, no human trafficking, no child labour, no corrupt governments, no use of starvation as a weapon of war, no prejudice, no human rights abuses. By rigorously and systematically challenging our old ways we would come to realise what we could keep and what we could chuck into the dustbin of history. We’d carry on like this, refining and polishing our ways until we had no more improvements to make. Only then would we be actually free to follow our destinies.

Does this sound like an impossible ideal? For many critics of Hegel, it certainly does and there are plenty of examples of terrible situations in the world that illustrate how humanity seems to be moving backwards. Sometimes, on days like today when I cannot get the image of the Syrian camps out of my mind, I cannot bear to listen to the news, but equally I cannot make myself tune to something less distressing because it feels like a betrayal of all those who are desperate that the world should not turn a deaf ear to their suffering.

I don’t blame people for tuning out. There is only so much that people can take and even the Radio 4 reporter sounded choked this morning by what she had witnessed among those families starving to death in the camps that have been under siege for months.  The word she used was ‘overwhelming,’ and that was the word that kept me listening and got me thinking of how people in starvation situations become so weakened that they cannot help themselves. Take food from people and you take their will to live. Cruel and corrupt regimes use starvation as a weapon of war. It is less direct than shooting protestors on the streets, and far less costly. Those who starve their people do not dignify them with opposition; they simply disregard them. They give them nothing so that they will become nothing.

The question we must ask is why do some regimes fear people so much that they must starve them into silence? What history are such regimes trying to prevent? We know from the gulag, from the death camps, from the mass exterminations that these acts are remembered and documented. The names of the silenced and the starved will be forgotten, but their suffering will not because there are people who witnessed it, and can never forget it. Those who suffer as the warriors of atrocity are those who become the new history. 

An end to suffering

29 08 2013



Much of the comment surrounding the arguments for the badger cull which began in Somerset this week has focused on the reasons for delaying the cull no longer. Farming Minister David Heath adopted the ‘regrettable but necessary’ tone that so often accompanies any announcement of acts that the public will find shocking. The prevailing view of the British government is that we wouldn’t kill badgers unless we absolutely had run out of options. We understand that you the public are upset about this, but really we just want a safe, efficient and humane solution that meets our targets. I’m sure that I’m not alone in finding these words of Heath’s chilling.

My question is this: how can mass slaughter ever be humane?  When we as a species decide to send marksmen out into the woods at night specifically to target another species, we lose our humanity.

Those who understand compassion understand the harm in the action. It is always unacceptable to kill one species for the sake of another. Arguments which suggest otherwise presume that species exist on a sliding scale of importance. Those who hold this assumption believe mistakenly that badgers have less value; they are subordinate to cattle raised by farmers and therefore they can be regrettably sacrificed.

The issue for the farming minister is not one of value for the species that live in the British countryside. The place for badgers has already been decided. They are dispensable. It is livelihoods that we are protecting, the farming minster’s emotive tone implied. We are talking only a few thousand badgers in comparison to the economic disaster running into millions for farmers whose herds are being wiped out by tuberculosis. Of course, given a sum like this, the badgers will lose.

The protest against the cull is not about the economy. The demonstrators can understand the farmers’ point of view and have sympathy for their plight. We are all affected by economic recession and can relate to hardship within our own species. We have all been there. In essence, the protest is about what one species can stomach doing to another. The protestors are demonstrating on behalf of the silent badgers, however, they are also demonstrating on behalf of all reasonable humans who will not tolerate tyranny against another species.

As human animals we have responsibilities towards the other animals in the biosphere -we are the leaders of this planet – and how we conduct ourselves towards the other animals marks us out as beings of higher consciousness. Our actions make us worthy leaders or managers. The cull of badgers diminishes our humanity precisely because we have taken the option of violence when we might have chosen further enquiry or investigation; when we might have chosen to ask deeper questions about why the cull is so distasteful to so many ‘ordinary’ people. When we might have paused to really understand what is going on with our farms that are so stricken by disease.

As a child I once came across a badger that had leapt across a rifle range and somehow had become impaled on a metal spike. Its bloated, fly-blown corpse haunted my imagination and in recalling the image I can still smell the rotting stink of death. I found it at a time that badgers were being gassed from their underground setts, and I now wonder whether this badger had been spiked as some sort of macabre trophy. This is not as fanciful as it sounds. I have listened to people talk of their ‘hate’ for badgers and it is part of Devon lore that farmers will aim straight for them when they meet them at  night in the headlights of their four-wheel drives.

It is easier to kill something when you ‘hate’ it, or consider it to be ‘vermin,’ as the Nazis constructing the gas chambers of Poland well understood as they began their systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish population. All destruction begins in hate and misunderstanding. All justification begins with considering the ‘target’ a lesser being.

Extremist animal rights activists who plant bombs to draw attention to the cause do not understand the arguments against suffering either. Animals share the world with us and always have. They have a voiceless place in our world, and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation by those who wish to subdue them altogether. We are rightly outraged when our ‘fellow’ animals suffer because our animals belong to our way of living. We cannot live without them; they are not separate to us. It is the politicians and factory farmers and laboratory directors that have to separate animals in order to justify experimenting on them or poisoning them when they become inconvenient. Separation is always essential in oppression as we have seen through a world history that has made slaves of people of different skin colours and races and religions.

The protestors recognise something deeply unsettling that has not been at the forefront of the debate about badgers. They recognise that being hunted down and killed at night is horrifying to any species. All animals have a deeply primitive fear of being murdered in their homes at night.

It is for this recognition that people are prepared to leave their comfortable living rooms; their children; their cello lessons and carry candles into the night for creatures who have no idea that they are about to be slaughtered in their thousands.

The farming minster claimed that a single badger sett can be home to a hundred or more badgers, as if the sheer numbers of the animals living in such close proximity to one another justified the army of marksmen that surely will be needed to carry out the deed. I wonder if the South West has enough gunmen prepared to do the job, and I wonder also how these gunmen will be able to sleep afterwards.

Those who speak of badgers as disease carriers that need to be exterminated for the greater good don’t fully understand that what’s at stake here is not simply eradication of tuberculosis infection in cattle, but eradication of a much deeper and more compassionate way of being.

The badger protest is a sign that people are prepared to take an ethical stand on cruelty, and that can only be healthy for all of us.

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