Can Violence Against Animals Lead to Violence Against People?

I’ve been reading lately about that horrific school shooting in Ohio. I follow these all too common reports with some obsession not only because I’m the father of two children in grade school, but because I’m curious about what leads any individual, especially such a young individual, to declare war on his classmates.

Many reports noted that the shooter, T. J. Lane, was a hunter. I realize that the connection between violence committed against animals and violence committed against humans is tenuous. I also know that it’s a matter of sustained debate in the psychological and sociological literature. That said, the concept of one form of violence systematically fostering another hardly seems far-fetched.

Throughout much of modern history observers—most of them women–have unabashedly made the connection. Writing in 1943, Agnes Martin, author of “For the Church Door,” opined that “wars will never cease while men still kill other animals for food, since to turn any living creature into a roast, a steak, a chop, or any other form of ‘meat’ takes the same kind of violence, the same kind of bloodshed and the same kind of mental processes required to change a living man into a dead soldier.” Twenty years later Grace Knole, author of The James Joyce Murders, wrote, “I expect after you have many times seen a deer or woodchuck blown to bits, the thought of a human blown to bits is that much less impossible to conceive.” These assessments strike me as sensible as they are disturbing.

In many parts of the United States hunting remains a revered right-of-passage for young boys.  The tradition of killing one’s first deer often comes sheathed in warrior-like, and frequently sexually suggestive, rituals such as a “virgin” hunter covering his face with the blood of “his” first conquest. Troll YouTube and you’ll find a disturbing number of videos of boys as young as eight killing deer.

It’s astounding how many people think this is a wonderful thing. Advocates of this behavior invariably highlight the benefits that come from being in nature, bonding with fathers, and pursuing an ethic of conservation. It’s important to expose the lunacy of this rhetoric. These supposed benefits are, if the above quotes are onto anything, little more than rationalizations for severe violence, violence that could all too easily carry over into the way we view–and perhaps can treat–our fellow humans.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

5 Responses to Can Violence Against Animals Lead to Violence Against People?

  1. Saph says:

    I wouldn’t say the evidence for a connection between being willing to inflict violence on non-human animals and human animals is tentative at all. It’s widely accepted now. We all feel and suffer, and a person willing to harm any vulnerable being will more easily be able to carry that over to other vulnerable beings, as Jeremy Bentham pointed out. To say that it’s okay to do it with one sentient group but not another is not only logically inconsistent, but irrational, and won’t be reflected in actual behaviour. God gave non-human animals life and it’s not for huMANs to take it away.

  2. Provoked says:

    For me it’s clear that it normalizes violence… And that makes every living being fair game. I see it as a gate-way drug that would desensitize someone by degrees.

    I suppose it would be like asking if a kid could steal (or kill) for a jacket… Does that lead men eventually being able to commit securities fraud involving billions? The progression seems logical and almost inevitable.

    Unless theft and violence is put in it’s place as unacceptable it will only deteriorate into an ever weaker and non-existent moral fiber.

    Love those quotes by Agnes Martin and Grace Knole! And if I might add this by Margaret Mead “No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that
    violence in the end is rewarded.”

    The child holding a weapon aimed to snuff an innocent creature is the prototype of the man with the gun against us all.

  3. CQ says:

    My heart goes out to children who have been brainwashed to believe that taking the life of beings who cannot defend themselves is macho, entertaining, harmless, acceptable behavior. (I’m not referring to extremely rare cases in developed countries where killing animals is a matter of survival, thus ethically neutral.)

    Given what science and close observation have taught us about the sentience and sapience of animals, I see targeting them as a form of bullying, which is, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the worst problems plaguing schools these days.

    To me, a hunter/bully is acting contrary to his moral and spiritual nature. His actions betray a lack of self-worth, an inability to recognize his own innate goodness. What he’s really pleading for is to be respected and valued for his goodness. His attempts to control others are masking his yearning to feel love in his heart — for himself and for others. When he is convinced that giving unselfishly to others instead of taking from them is the key to happiness, he will lay aside his mental and physical bullets and arrows (directed at himself and others).

    Darn, I wish I’d known about those superb quotes from Agnes Martin and Grace Knole when I was compiling Creature Quotes. Same with Margaret Mead’s observation, cited by Provoked.

    Here are a few similar thoughts that CQ *did* unearth:

    The more we come in contact with animals and observe their behavior, the more we love them.
    * * *
    If [man] is not to stifle human feelings, he must practice kindness toward animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of man by his treatment of animals.
    * * *
    Tender feelings towards dumb animals develop humane feelings towards mankind.
    (“Duties toward Animals and Spirits” Lectures on Ethics © 1775-1780)
    Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) German philosopher

    [on cruelty to animals leading to cruelty to fellow humans]
    [I]f all the barbarous customs and practices still subsisting amongst us were decreed to be as illegal as they are sinful, we should not hear of so many shocking murders and acts as we now do.
    * * *
    Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on man or on beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being sensible of the misery of it whilst it lasts, suffers evil; and the sufferance of evil, unmeritedly, unprovokedly, where no offense has been given, and no good end can possibly be answered by it, but merely, to exhibit power or gratify malice, is cruelty and injustice in him that occasions it.
    (Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals © 1776)

    [It does not matter] whether we walk upon two legs or four; whether we are naked or covered with hair; whether we have tails or no tails, horns or no horns, long ears or round ears; or, whether we bray like an ass, speak like a man, whistle like a bird, or are mute as a fish; Nature never intended these distinctions as foundations for right of tyranny and oppression.
    Reverend Humphry Primatt, D.D. (c. 1735-1832) English Anglican priest and author

    [on being “familiarized to spectacles of distress”]
    He that can look with rapture upon the agonies of an unoffending and unresisting animal will soon learn to view the sufferings of a fellow-creature with indifference.
    Dr. Samuel Parr (1747-1825) English schoolmaster

    Hunting is indeed always a form of war.
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German man of letters

  4. ingrid says:

    Thanks very much for this post. I’ve engaged many hunters on hunting topics, and, as everyone here knows, many of them do not see their acts toward animals as violent. I understand the rationale, of course: These same hunters obviously make sharp delineations between the human and non-human experience. As such, they can claim that the majority of hunters are law-abiding, “non-violent” persons and thus exonerate themselves and their sport in this way. I agree with and believe that any violent behavior creates a disturbing dissociative psychological pattern — which presents in myriad negative ways. For me, it’s been tougher to make a definitive case for hunter-turned-human-killer than it is to make a case for (as some of CQs quotes attest) how violence toward any species creates an overarching paradigm of desensitization and acceptance of violence overall, whether or not one partakes in an act of individual violence toward other humans. One need only imagine what a genuinely “peaceful” society would look like, to understand how pervasive violence is in our societal discourse.

  5. Pingback: NYC Veg Fest, Vida Vegan Con Blogger Meet-Up, and Vegan News You Can Use (3/4/12)

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