It is often said that there is a crucial analytical difference between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed. The violence of the oppressed is not violence standing alone – it is violence that springs from the violence of others and tries, in different ways, to end that violence.
But some cases require a third, more extreme category: the violence of those whose whole natures have been created by oppression. I say this in relation to a news story that reports a postal worker almost having an arm ripped off by household dogs, all of which were then killed, and which moreover reports that about 5000 postal workers per year are attacked by dogs.
I use the word ‘oppression’ because I think that all animals living in human society are to some extent oppressed, in the sense that they have no voice in their lives. They live in environments which have been designed with almost no thought for them. For example, dogs have a certain psychology of territory and of familiarity and strangeness, but our postal service, our system of housing, indeed our whole society, is designed and developed with no thought for how dogs will interpret it and how they will respond to it. Totally unnecessary conflicts, like that between dogs guarding their homes and postal workers doing their job, are the result.
Domestic animals are supremely oppressed in that they have no really good options. Most of them can’t survive on their own, because of the way humans have bred and raised them. But the environment they must live in is one that, in a sense, does psychological violence to their personalities. It torments them with doors they can’t open, a neighbourhood they can only navigate for brief periods, intruding people they have no way of knowing are harmless.
And this disregard of them continues in the way that they are created and distributed. Domestic animals are bred for profit, and sold for profit, and anyone who likes can buy one. Once bought, their lives are in the hands of someone qualified merely by having had a spare fiver. We may have ‘animal cruelty’ laws, but what real substance can belong to laws against ‘cruelty’ that consider it perfectly alright to simply decide to kill the being in question?
This is why I think we need to recognise pet-ownership as a part of the same system of injustice as flesh-eating and skin-harvesting. Pets are, often, the best-treated of the animals that humans oppress, and there is a systematic attempt to blot out their thing-like, property-like status. But it is still there: pet-ownership is a system in which animals are treated like things, and in which they are fitted to an environment designed by others.
That’s not to say that right now, nobody should have pets. Even recognising the oppressive nature of the institution, it may still be in many cases the most effective form of ‘damage control’. Where animals have been created who are dependent on humans, then human care for them is the only appropriate response, and where the volume of animals in need of care is so large, even caring for them in sub-optimal conditions may be for the best. Indeed, if the industries and culture of animal oppression are ever decisively defeated, then there will be an immediate pressing need to find some way to care for the huge numbers of food-animals who will still exist. Dealing with that will be difficult.
Nor does this mean that we should never live with animals. Indeed, it would be, in a sense, impossible for humans to live apart from animals, since animals will inevitably find their way to humans, as pigeons and rats do so successfully in London. And it would be just another form of human supremacism to think that we can simply claim huge tracts of the earth and then try to force all other species out (well, that’s rather what we have tried to do).
Rather, it means that when we design settlements and buildings, when we organise our common life, we should do so starting from reality – the reality that these will be inhabited by non-humans. We should try to establish what sorts of non-humans, and then try to incorporate their nature into our designs, in such a way that they don’t live in perpetual infancy, depending on us for everything – in the way that cats currently get the greatest chance of doing. If we want to live with dogs, we will have to live in a dog-friendly environment – we cannot make ourselves a purely human-friendly environment and expect to still live with dogs. But I think thatonce that is accepted, the possibilty of interaction and friendship between individual humans and individual animals not only remains but is strengthened.