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