I listened to a fascinating podcast yesterday about blame. This is a topic that we all know something about and likely deal with daily. We blame ourselves for our weaknesses and we seek to blame others when they act in a way that we deem blameworthy. Some are quick to blame; others slow. There are probably few emotions quite as powerful as feeling that you have been unfairly blamed. It is, of course, very hard to admit to blame when we feel we should do exactly that.
So what does blame have to do with animals? A lot, actually. A philosopher interviewed for the podcast explored the implications of historical blame. Do we blame slaveowners for slavery if they lived at a time when very few were questioning the morality of owning slaves? This dilemma applies nicely to animal exploitation, manifestations of which are codified by custom and law to be perfectly normative, that is, beyond blame. So do those of us on the periphery of this custom blame those who eat animals today?
Perhaps not at this point in time. But the purpose of activism, whether it seems to be momentarily effective or not, is to push the idea of animal liberation like a lazy elephant into the room so we can, alas, start pointing to it. So we can begin to resort to blame as a kind of shaming technique. Obviously (well, come to think of it, it’s not so obvious to many of the smartest people I know), morality is to a large extent historically contingent. We are yet at a point where blame will “work” as a shaming or enforcing strategy. But that doesn’t mean we won’t arrive at that point soon—after all, think of how many people you know who say “don’t tell me about how animals are treated!; I don’t want to know!” Denial can only last so long before it runs aground. Then the game really changes. The elephant shows up.
A question that did not come up in the podcast but seems really interesting to me is that of reparation. When we do turn the corner and make blame a legitimate social and legal response to the cruelty of animal eating, and when we reach a point in time in which we look back and decare “can you believe we did that?,” what will we owe animals? Of course, they won’t ask for reparations. But do we owe them them nonetheless? And in what form? After all, all of us will have ancestors who benefitted in one way or another from producing and consuming animals. Or will we simply say, “they know not what they did?”
Could it be, I wonder, that in the deep collective unconscious of humanity, there is this monstrous apprehension of being blamed that keeps us from progressing to a point at which blame for harming animals has real power to evoke real fear in what we really have done wrong?