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by Irwin Feldman

We often hear hunting described as a "manly" sport. Its macho image accounts for most of its appeal. Why do hunters see the killing or wounding of a defenseless animal as a mark of manhood? Animals are unarmed and can't compete effectively against human weapons. How could participation in such an unequal contest be seen as an affirmation of masculinity?

The answer is surprisingly simple: it has to be viewed that way. Otherwise it could not continue.

The roots of this misunderstood phenomenon go back to prehistory. As Jim Mason documents in his pioneering book, An Unnatural Order, the rise of hunting and herding in prehistoric societies triggered a quantum leap in tribal aggressiveness. These societies tended to be far more territorial, combative, and violent than their predecessors. What accounts for this change? All evidence suggests that earlier foraging cultures had a profound respect for animals. To foragers, animals were spirits and close relatives who evoked powerful bonds and complex emotional responses in their human kin. Their routine victimization would have been almost as repellent as cannibalism is today. To develop an economy based on a brutal act of violence, a radical cultural change was necessary. What occurred might be described as the invention of "manhood." In order to legitimize the taking of animal life, hunters and herdsmen idealized aggression, enveloping it in mysticism.

Psychologically, much of this may be understood simply in terms of compensation. The Dictionary of Behavioral Science defines compensation as "the mechanism of covering up aspects of oneself that are unacceptable and substituting more desired traits in an exaggerated form." Hunters and herdsmen compensated for the shame, horror, and cowardice of animal abuse by idealizing aggression. The cult of aggression, which replaced animals and nature as the focus of spirituality, elevated cruelty to a rite of male power. These new masculine ideals supported an unprecedented assault against animals and nature. Highly effective in justifying animal cruelty, such beliefs took root in many animal-exploiting cultures.

The figure of the cowboy epitomizes these ideals in contemporary society. Unadorned, the "cowherdly" exploitation of harmless herbivores would be too unpalatable to generate social consent. It has to be reinterpreted. By enshrining the cowboy as an exemplar of masculinity, celebrating his deeds as epic achievements, and promoting his mythology of wholesome brutality, industry and media succeed in repackaging animal cruelty for public consumption.

The "sportsman" renders a similar service. His occult faith that he can prove his manhood by bullying a duck, a deer, or a rabbit establishes aggression as a virtue.

Most people know intuitively that manhood consists in protecting, loving, and defending, not in victimizing. But the need to idealize aggression in order to promote animal agriculture produces a different concept of masculinity entirely. This version values aggression per se. It confers acceptance and prestige on those who dominate, and on the act of domination itself. Through the magic of social ritual, aggression against the weak achieves not only respectability but honor.

In ancient times the practice of animal sacrifice gave cruelty the implicit blessing of the gods. (This barbaric ritual still persists in some areas, where its essential purpose remains unchanged.) Today, sport hunting, bullfights, rodeos, dissections, dog shows, zoos, 4-H clubs and other traditions serve to sanction and sanctify animal abuse.

The honor accorded to aggression by animal-based economies has disfigured human relations for millennia. Militarism, racism, genocide, crime, child and spousal abuse, economic exploitation, even sports and entertainment exhibit the malignant effects of our "aggression obsession."

The primary model for human aggression is animal abuse. "They treat us like animals" we say to signify total disregard for the rights of others. As children we learn that animals can be exploited for human benefit. We quickly grasp the reason: they can't defend themselves. Might makes right is the foundation of our interspecies relations. Whether we see animals as prey, prisoners, sacrificial offerings, slaves, commodities, experimental subjects, toys, ornaments, or educational tools, our relentless drive to profit from animal suffering inspires the most debased human behaviors. Psychologically, our persecution of animals--the original scapegoats--sets the pattern for discrimination against any population deemed inferior or threatening. We always depict such groups as animal-like, therefore expendable.

Margaret Mead remarked that the worst thing that can happen to a child is for him to harm an animal and get away with it. Animal cruelty kills respect for life. When an entire society exploits animals on a massive scale, violence becomes an institution.

What has been called "the banality of evil" springs from the same phenomena: worship of aggression, scapegoating, the myth of biological superiority, and habituation to violence. The Nazis proved how easily mass murder crosses the species barrier. Some of the bids submitted by the German manufacturers who built Hitler's herding and killing facilities have been preserved. These bland documents are indistinguishable from contracts for livestock equipment.

Industrialized violence kills millions of animals every day. "Collateral damage" to our own species takes an additional toll. With a rapacity bordering on apocalyptic, we now spill more blood of man and beast than all other terrestrial species combined. The cult of aggression responsible for this war against life originated in the distant past as a cover-up for animal cruelty. It may be the most archaic superstition to survive antiquity. We are not carnivores by nature and there is nothing manly about abusing the defenseless. Those who prey on the vulnerable are cowards and cutthroats. Their pursuit of cruelty through the ages transformed violence into a human institution. For it is the systematic slaughter of sentient beings that has made history "a nightmare from which we are trying to awake."

This is a revised version of the original story "WAR AGAINST LIFE: HUMANITY'S DESCENT INTO VIOLENCE" as published in The Country Connection, Issue 41, Winter 2003. Copyright Irwin Feldman.




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