Words and Nothing More

» October 16th, 2013

I sat down this morning down with the intention of writing a short piece highlighting how quickly the authorization of open-season killing of elephant poachers might slide into bloodlust, self-loathing, and absurdity. But then I re-read the comments from yesterday’s post and decided to let them speak for themselves.

So, mix a stiff one:

I honestly believe that my life has no more value than that of an elephant. Based on the familial connections that elephants have, maybe my life is worth less, that an elephant would be mourned more than I.

Shooting [poachers] on sight? Not only do I think it’s right, I think it might be my dream job. Now about those people who buy ivory. . 

 . . . this is a war.

. . .armed poachers are illegal combatants with no rights.

  . . . .the trade in endangered species includes mostly fish and trees. Should the humans in this supply chain be shot as well? Of course. As many as it takes.

I honestly don’t know if all these comments are serious. Some may be in jest. As I suggest in the last sentence, they are not taken fully seriously by those who express them. In any case, I recently met someone who, while not a vegan, expressed genuine interest in exploring the ideas pursued at The Pitchfork. I urged him to visit, follow the discussions, and bring his perspective into the mix. Poor guy. I must agree with his assessment of yesterday’s discussion:

It suddenly feels very weird in here.

It does indeed, humans. I’m quickly brought back to the question: “would you rather be right or be effective”? So many animal right advocates I know experience existential angst because they feel nobody will listen to them. Their message seems utterly lost on society. Hmm. . .  I wonder why?

All I can say for now is that I’m glad the sentiments expressed above were fired away (conveniently) as mere words emitted from the safety of a computer into a forum where, at least yesterday, morality is more aspirational than actual. After all, should any commenter act in accordance with his or her swaggering tough talk, we’d be reading about you in the headlines. And if you do act in accordance with your expressed ideas, and the media missed you, let us know how things are working out.

Seriously, stay in touch, okay?

43 Responses to Words and Nothing More

  1. Melissa Tedrowe says:

    This post brings to mind another post that you wrote recently, James (at least I *think* you did — can’t find it), something about how living as a vegan / AR person means experiencing a kind of constant PTSD, a trauma that comes from being constantly aware of animal cruelty. Connecting the dots between that post and the current one, I’m thinking again that people need support for being vegan. It’s true that there’s elements of joy in it, but the vegan mindset also can be enormously traumatizing and lonely and can drive people to strange places. Even if only in their thinking . . . but isn’t that where most everything begins?

  2. James, your ideas expressed yesterday on solving the matter are valid, the problem with them is they are about as likely to be implemented as quickly as that vegan world shift we strive for, which at the rate the problem is going, will be too late for the elephants. Arm chair academia and reality are disconnected by the luxury of distant safety and computer disconnect.

    Frankly, if a gang of armed drug addicts (or even one) breaks into my house, diplomacy and the fundamental social culture that created their reason for being there are not likely going to be the topic of a civilized sit down discussion. In kill or be killed scenarios it is no holds barred and rational academia takes a back seat to primal survival.

    What is happening there is indeed, a war. Have you considered taking a trip to the region? I’m sure Damien Mander would be happy to give you a tour.

  3. James says:

    Ardent Vegan Advocate,
    What makes you think I can just go to Africa and save the elephants? Plus, according to the collective logic expressed in yesterday’s responses, I should be placing everyone from ranchers to weekend fishermen in the cross hairs of the gun I don’t even own. Why are you not doing that right now?

  4. John T. Maher says:

    Some words effect agential intent. I am at work on a model money laundering statute for roping in the supply chain of poacher to consumer.

  5. Okay,
    I’ll go out on a limb here and says something I am surprised nobody did: I don’t think we ought to kill anyone, especially for killing someone else, otherwise we are lost. Discussing the motives and understanding the urge is what is needed. However successful your shooting spree is, eliminating the immediate threat does not kill the problem. Didn’t we all learn this at some point?

    • Mountain says:

      Your thoughts on self-defense? Not that a shoot-to-kill policy against poachers is self-defense, but I think it’s related.

      • Mountain,
        Self-defense seems instinctive. Against the immediate threat of danger, I’ll respond as strongly as I can; I will readily attack before pondering about human rights.
        Consequently, against the immediate threat of starvation, I will eat eggs or animals before pondering about animal rights, and also before eating a poacher.
        Inversely, when sufficiently unthreatened, I will allow myself to think long and hard about everything. Truth isn’t out there. It’s in here…

        • Mountain says:

          Right. And the question is: how far does that right to self-defense extend? I assume you have the right to kill an attacker who is trying to kill your spouse or your children. I assume an elephant has the right to kill a poacher. To what extent can elephant delegate its right of self-defense to a game warden or a park ranger? It seems settled that rangers may arrest poachers in order to defend elephants, and that they may kill poachers who attack rangers who try to arrest them. How frequently do arrest confrontations have to turn violent, how frequently must they result in murdered park rangers (and presumably, elephants) before we permit rangers to shoot-to-kill?

          • Delegating self-defense complicates things quite a bit, doesn’t it? Hired guns come to mind… I think I’ll drop the ball here. Thanks for the exchange. Onwards!

          • Mountain says:

            Delegating authority complicates things, even when it’s one human delegating to another (like, say, citizens delegating their security to the police). No doubt delegating across species complicates things further.

            Ps– nice last name you’ve got there.

    • Nadia says:

      Yes agreed. Killing doesn’t do anything to solve the problem and I would argue it adds to the current problem. What are the strucural problems behind poaching? Often it’s people desparate for money who live in poverty or there’s the case of foreigners who pay ridiculous sums of money to kill animals to affirm their masculinity and power. Either way there are greater issues to discuss and very obviously, killing people doesn’t solve the problem just as corporal punishment doesn’t end violent crime. Where is everyone’s compassion? And we wonder why outsiders consider vegans militant extremists…

  6. emily says:

    who pays the poachers? that’s who needs to be stopped. or whoever is creating the demand.

    even if you stopped the poachers (who are making the biggest impact i guess), there’d still be [people] who go big game hunting and have coffee tables made with elephant legs. because why wouldn’t you want to have a coffee table with elephant legs next to the taxidermic lion standing near the zebra skin, next to [insert one of each animal who lives in africa and every other continent...] in your house.

  7. edie says:

    this was on the jon steward show the other day:

    The Nobel Peace Prize nominee said that when she learned she was a target while living in Pakistan, she often thought about how she would react if she found herself face-to-face with a terrorist. At first, she thought she would fight back. But then she realized, she could not stoop to his level.

    “If you hit a Talib, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib,” she said. “You must not treat others with cruelty…You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

    and this girl is 16 years old!!!

    we must always find a peaceful solution otherwise we are just like them!

  8. Why am I not doing what, exactly?
    (Thanks for acknowledging my question)

    Tracking poachers in in Africa?

    Nowhere am I suggesting vegans shoot ranchers and weekend fishermen.

    I do support immediate front line defense of species in emminent danger of poacher driven extinction.

    If you really want to investigate the issue in Africa, I’m certain you are connected and resourceful enough to make it happen. It is just not presently a priority for you, nor am I demanding it should be. Only you decide that. I was merely suggesting an alternative opportunity for perspective.

  9. Karen Harris says:

    Although I understand your reluctance to condone violence, your suggestion that poachers are no worse than weekend fisherman or ranchers makes is ill founded. For one, fisherman and ranchers are not violating the law, poachers are. As you know, the situation for elephants throughout much of Asia and Africa is tragic and ongoing.
    Poachers go into reserves with assault weapons – wardens and those trying to stop the illegal traffic in ivory are threatened and murdered. There is no easy solution, and I don’t have one. I just don’t think it is right to belittle the opinions of those who are expressing their moral outrage and speaking from the heart.
    By the way, I was also struck by your use of the word lazy with regards to elephants, but chose not to comment because I feared it would be viewed as petty – another instance of animal rights folks lacking measure and being out of touch. However, you better than most, know language matters.

    • James says:

      So if the law changes to declare elephants are no longer extinct, and allows an open season, then the problem is resolved and the poachers are off the hook? Do you think the law as it’s applied to animals in the US justifies our moral treatment of them? Yes, language does matter, and this is why I’m on a bit of a tear today: my sense is that the language used yesterday in most comments does not reflect intent. I’m just trying to make sure I’m right about that. I find it hard to believe you would scold me for suggesting elephants are lazy while other commenters here are suggesting weekend fishermen be killed.

      • Karen Harris says:

        I just reread the comments, and didn’t see where anyone was suggesting killing weekend fisherman. However, I do agree with you that hyperbolic language gets us nowhere. In many countries in Africa, killing elephants through culling, as in South Africa, or through limited trophy hunting, is legal and sanctioned by the governments involved. And, I agree with you, the fact that this killing is “legal” does not justify it on moral grounds. In my view, this kind of killing is heartbreaking and an outrage. It does seem to me, however, that the situation with poaching is qualitatively different. This is about a sophisticated mafia- like underground trade in ivory, and killing for hire. Surely, some distinctions are valid.

      • Mountain says:

        James, that’s actually an interesting hypothetical about if elephants were no longer endangered. If we were able to reduce the threat from predators (poachers), and improve the quality and quantity of elephant habitat, the elephant population could grow to a size that we could harvest ivory in ways that cause less harm than poaching. It’d be a regulatory approach (like alcohol) rather than a Prohibitionist approach (like heroin).

        It wouldn’t be an approach vegans could embrace because it would still involve harming animals to get animal products, but it would lessen the harm involved. Meanwhile, vegans/ARs/elephant lovers could continue working to lower the worldwide demand for ivory, which would further lessen the harm.

      • Who said weekend fishermen should be killed? No one that I saw. I realize I am a bit late to this discussion, so forgive me if I am missing the nuances of communication.

        But just to be clear, there is a huge difference between shooting an unarmed person with a fishing pole and a person with semi or fully automatic weapons intent on not only killing large animals, but potentially anyone who gets in their way.

        Several have supported the latter – I saw no one support the former. ~Linda

    • Karen Dawn says:

      Karen, I appreciate your points but you wrote: ” I just don’t think it is right to belittle the opinions of those who are expressing their moral outrage and speaking from the heart.” I too thought the belittling was a shame but not because people were “speaking from the heart” but because many of the responses were argued soundly yet were belittled (“let them speak for themselves.. mix a stiff one”) rather than refuted effectively. Case in point is John Maher’s response — he explicitly denounced the passion yet came to the same conclusions as those of us who “spoke from the heart”:
      “It is insane to value the lives of individual humans, as Americans do above any other species. So many responses here are predicated upon affect when they should be dispassionate. There is in fact a moral duty to preserve species…”

  10. James says:

    What I’m specifically wondering is what’s the key moral difference between poachers nabbing elephants and ranchers sending cows to the slaughterhouse? If the significant moral difference is that one species is on the verge of extinction and the other is not, then will you concede that, if elephant populations recover, poachers should not be shot at? I’m just trying to sort out the logic that I’m clearly missing in the call to kill poachers (but not ranchers).

    • Mountain says:

      The difference is that the human population at large has been persuaded that elephants shouldn’t be poached, and supports laws that punishes anyone who would do so. It’s a historical victory for animal rights (and for the power of persuasion) that the vast majority of people support this without even having to think about it. There are enough people who are unpersuaded (poachers) that the law needs enforcement mechanisms, but the fact remains that vast majorities support the rights of elephants not to be killed.

      That’s the difference. The vast majority of the human population has not been persuaded that farm animals have the right not to be killed. That is the great task of the vegan/AR movement: persuade vast majorities of the human population. Succeed at that, and ranchers and fishermen become illegal, and there is a basis for using force to stop them from causing harm. Until you succeed at persuading vast majorities, anyone using force against a rancher or a fisherman is just a vigilante nutjob.

      • Marc Bedner says:

        Well said, Mountain. Even though we personally find ranchers and “legal” hunters as reprehensible as poachers, we are not at the point where we can stop ranchers and hunters with armed militias. There are laws and enforcement mechanisms against illegally hunting elephants and gorillas. The practical question is do we support enforcement in these real situations, even where it involves deadly force? Are vegans absolute pacifists?
        To put the war issue in historical context, consider Isaac Bashevis Singer’s description of the slaughterhouse as an “Eternal Treblinka,” which Charles Patterson used as the title of his excellent book on the subject. Was it wrong to use military force to shut down Treblinka and other death camps in World War 2?

      • James says:

        Smart. But the problem I have with your distinction is that it reduces the human right to punish another human to the whims of popular opinion (which are cleary irrational) rather than a transcendent moral principle. Are you sure you’re willing to hinge the justification for lethal force on the mass opinion of a human population that has no interest whatsoever in drawing a proper moral parallel between exploiting elephants and cows? To do so, I think, is to reduce justice to self- interest.

        • Mountain says:


          I’m not a pacifist, but I start with the default position that using force isn’t justified. From there, I’m willing to consider exceptions, but it’s important to keep in mind the starting position of not using force.

          I’m not saying popular support is sufficient to make a use of force legitimate, but at the very least it’s necessary. Using force to stop poachers has (and has had for a long time) widespread support. There may be other reason that it’s illegitimate (corruption, abuse, and error by game wardens), but clearly most people are convinced of the rightness of the principle.

          Using force to stop ranchers & fishermen does not have widespread support. Unless you think that you are more important than other people, and that your beliefs matter more than theirs do, you have to continue to work on persuading them of the rightness of the principle. Self-interest may make persuasion more difficult, but self-interest factors into the belief systems of everyone, not just the people on the opposing side.

          Long story short: popular opinion is not, by itself, a basis for the use of force, but it is a useful limit on the use of force.

      • Taylor says:

        Good comments here by Mountain and Marc Bedner. Unless one is a pacifist on principle, one recognizes that the use of violence can be morally legitimate, even if it should generally be a last resort. The question then is: how much violence, and in what circumstances? Not only would violence against Texas ranchers be counterproductive for the AR movement, but nearly all of them honestly believe that they are doing nothing wrong. For several reasons, then, non-violent education is the correct course. By contrast, killing elephants for their tusks has been clearly declared unacceptable by Tanzanian society, which is engaged in a war of self-defence against poachers (to protect the elephants, the wardens, and Tanzania’s economy). Ultimately, the solution is to persuade the world (China in particular) that killing elephants for their body parts is unacceptable, and to provide potential poachers with alternative means of livelihood. But for now, some use of violence against poachers should not be ruled out.

    • Karen Harris says:

      Perhaps there is no moral difference. The ranchers obviously do not believe they are doing anything wrong, a view backed by mainstream culture and tradition. Poachers, for the most part, are impoverished Africans who hire themselves out as killers, in order to get money to feed their families. Yet, from a moral standpoint, in my view, both are guilty of wrongdoing.
      Perhaps the significant difference is not a moral one at all, but simply a legal one. Laws theoretically are created for the common good. Agree or disagree, they keep us from running amok, or killing the weekend fisherman!

    • The moral difference is none in my opinion. The poachers do contribute to potential species extinction so that is worse on an ecological scale, but the immorality of the individual animal killing is the same. But we don’t make decisions on how to handle things just based on morals, or a wholelotta stuff in our world would be different. Legalities matter, too. And unfortunately, while poaching is illegal, fishing and slaughtering land animals for consumption is legal. Also, while slaughterhouses typically do not put human lives at risk other than the substantial risk to the slaughterers who are working their of their own free will, poachers risk the lives of conservation officers and potentially tourists as well. ~Linda

  11. I understand your response, James. When you boil it down to that level, it gets complicated with purity. Here is hoping in the duration of staving off poaching extinction we continue to make rapid progress with global attitudes, laws and economic trends towards a vegan shift. Our lives and that of future generations depend on it, as you well know.

  12. Mountain says:

    And to think, this whole chain of events started because I was faux-offended by your elephant metaphor, and created a mad-lib version of an academic grievance to express that faux-offense.

  13. Mountain says:

    “bloodlust, self-loathing, and absurdity”

    It’s always enlightening when the mask slips, and the bloodlust vegans project onto omnivores is exposed in its raw form.

  14. Janie says:

    James, thank you for this column and for the work you do. My take on this is that the words do have power, even if they’re not meant “seriously.” I recently posted something on Facebook regarding elephants (about a piece on NBC Sports that showed men gloating and toasting each other with champagne after murdering an elephant). The story disturbed me greatly, but I was also disturbed when a friend of a friend commented on my post with words of violence directed at the two men in the story (they should be shot, made to suffer, then finished off with a final lethal blast, etc.). I asked her to consider the violence of her words, even if they were used rhetorically (as I assumed they were), meant simply to blow off steam. She took offence and derided me for taking her literally. I responded that all words have power.

    The exchange with this woman stayed with me, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t gotten across to her what I was trying to convey. I’ll give it another try here. Many of the comments from your post yesterday go beyond the “blowing off steam” reaction that this woman was indulging in, so they rise to an even higher level of alarm, but all violent language escalates the aggression and hostility that is rampant in our global culture. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t really going to hunt these men down with a shotgun. The words suggested that that’s what should happen in her idea of a fair and just world. That would satisfy her sense of outrage. That is not the fairness and justice I am looking for. I can hardly stand the crude brutality of the world we have and I often feel overwhelmed by my own ineffectiveness, but a lawless “eye for an eye” world is not one I want to live in.

    I’m not immune to fleeting thoughts of revenge when I hear of an animal or a child suffering at the hands of an aggressor, but I know where the thoughts are coming from (a primal reaction, a Neanderthal remnant, a feeling of despair and helplessness) and because of that I would never voice them in public, much less act on them. Even in a world bloated with the flotsam and jettsam of billions of minds, I know how powerful words can be, like a gun in the wrong hands. Angry, belligerent thoughts are natural but need to be nipped in the bud quickly by rational thought. To give them voice publicly is irresponsible and dangerous. To act on them is insane.

    No further comments were exchanged between me and this friend of a friend on Facebook, but I felt so dispirited by the exchange and wanted to lift it up to a place that I understand, so I posted the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Goin’ On,” which includes the line “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.” To some—maybe even to the violent commenters—that’s a great and memorable song, with deeply meaningful lyrics, and it is to me as well. The difference is I actually believe in and try to live by those ideals.

  15. J Marceau says:

    So as a capital defense lawyer and vegan I am very interested in this thread. I agree with James, of course, that executions are bad, and executions without heightened due process are particularly bad.

    But it is overly simplistic to say that all human killing is bad. We allow, of course, for self-defense and defense of others. We would allow a father to defend with deadly force a son who was brain dead, non-communicative, and living on life support. This father is not considered a cold-blooded killer for defending his son, and the reason is we think he is acting in a moral manner. Indeed, the criminal law codifies and enshrines our prevailing moral views or its credibility plummets.

    So, if you accept that some force is lawful and that the law has to reflect our moral values, then should you be able to use force in defense an animal in any circumstances? How about to prevent the brutal torture of your own dog? What if someone jumps out of the bushes and threatens to harm only your dog? This is not all that uncommon of a scenario. I can list a dozen recent cases where a robber or abuser takes frustration out on the victim’s beloved pet. James, isn’t this a much harder question than your killing the fisherman or killing the hunter example? And if some of us think that a substantial amount of force ought to be permitted in defense of our pet, we probably think this because of some sense of moral judgment (think of the social science re viewing pets as part of the family, etc). James, I think we draw distinctions between species all the time (think rattling the cage), and some of these distinctions are irrational, but there may be a morally significant difference between defending your pet and defending the average cow. And if there is, then you might be responding a bit too reflexively to some of the comments.

    If you think defending a pet with some substantial amount of force is justified on moral grounds, then shouldn’t we consider the moral claims of those who want to defend the elephants? What if there are uniquely human values lost when elephants are killed (tourism, history, culture)? Even setting aside the value of the animal life, might there be a moral case to be made that some animals in the wild (maybe elephants?) are more like pets than they are fish or deer? The link to fish and cattle seems too simplistic to me. I am not saying that deadly force is justified in the elephant (or pet) case necessarily, but I think this is more complicated than the initial post suggests. The law draws all sorts of distinctions and maybe the use of force in defense of animals requires a more fine grained analysis.

    I don’t think human executions are ever justified. But I also recognize a distinction between defending something (a pet, a child, a friend) with serious force — such that death might, unfortunately, occur — and trying to kill. If you think that defending a pet or an elephant is justified, then I challenge you to come up with the proper amount of force — no force, substantial force, deadly force? — and to meaningfully distinguish the force categories. Do you think that only noogies or shin-kicks should be permitted in defense of an elephant? If you think something more is permitted, why? And where would you draw the line? Is a headlock too much, what about a broken finger?

    • James says:

      Thanks for this response. It’s great and gives us all so much to consider. But I think, in brilliant law professor fashion, you have elaborated on my initial post in ways that (had I the time) I might have done on my own, but then, somewhat disingenuously, you gently chided me for not addressing the nuances of questions I didn’t raise in the first place! That said in my defense, I give a great deal of thought to the questions you raise about drawing distinctions among species. Onwards.

  16. Mountain says:

    I think this question is interesting in the context of the War on Drugs, which hasn’t diminished the number of drug users or the availability of illegal drugs, but has made the entire system much more violent. If the prohibition against ivory is anything like the prohibition against narcotics, then it hasn’t actually reduced the trade in ivory, it’s just made it more dangerous & profitable.

    It’d be a much better world if governments focused on minimizing harm caused drugs rather than trying to prohibit them outright. I wonder if, long-term, the world wouldn’t be better trying the same approach with ivory. The less profitable poaching is, the less incentive poachers would have to violently oppose law and popular opinion.

  17. Karen Dawn says:

    James, while a stiff drink is often needed after a day at the computer reading about the horrors visited upon non humans, the responses to yesterday’s blog, far from leaving me in need of one, had the effect of one. I found the responses gratifying.
    I didn’t see anybody advocating for lawbreaking, so I don’t understand your point about “reading about us in the headlines” if we were to act upon our swaggering talk.
    Also, it is not passionate vegans who are about to pass that law in Tanzania (one already in effect in Kenya) so I don’t see how our support for it is connected with “our message” being lost on society. Are you sure that if we took that question, about Tanzania’s right to shoot elephant poachers on sight, out to the general public, everybody (or all intelligent folks) would see it as you do? I don’t think that would be the case.

  18. Karen Dawn says:

    One of my comments from yesterday was singled out above, “Shooting poachers on sight? Not only do I think it’s right, I think it might be my dream job….” So I think I should paste here an addendum I have added. After thanking Linda for having written that I made her smile, for having appreciated the joke, I added:
    But they say every joke has a little truth so I am going to expand here on my truth: Far from being a dream, being responsible for the fate of a human about to kill an elephant would be a nightmare. I think I would find the trauma of killing a man overwhelming. But if I were in a country that was so desperate to save it’s elephants that they had passed a law making it legal to shoot poachers, and I came across somebody about to take down an innocent being, a being many wonderful humans had died defending (rangers are killed constantly) and if the only way to stop him right then would be to kill him, I hope, and I think, I would have the strength to do it. And I commend, and am grateful for, those people who fight poachers to the death, in the way that many people are grateful for those who fight for their country.

    • Karen,
      Thanks for reposting your reply to me in case anyone missed it on the previous thread – I actually replied to you over there but things are moving fast and furious on this topic!

      Yes, your quip was much needed in my opinion! I will also repeat part of my reply – we AR activists/vegans, perhaps more so than many, have an acute appreciation for death and the violence that often precedes it, as it applies to both human and NH animals. And I don’t think anyone here, even advocates of shoot-on-site policies, are taking any of it with a cavalier attitude We have all see too much violence already, hey? ~Linda

  19. Elaine Brown says:

    Haven’t the time to read all these comments so may be repeating someone else’s observations, but I must remind us that more and more frequently persons are pouring fuel over their bodies and lighting themselves on fire in support of their feelings on issues and sometimes for no reason given.

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