Not that I made big distinctions among kinds of violence. I abhorred the idea of industrial meat operations, and thought little about the alternatives. Why split hairs? A murdered animal was a murdered animal.
Hunting, however, did seem especially gratuitous. We no longer needed to do it. Thanks to agriculture we now had ample plant matter to survive on.
At the same time, though, I mourned the extermination of indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures around the world.
If someone had pointed out that contradiction—the fact that I wished for the survival of cultural traditions that involved killing animals—I probably would have argued that such cultures, like ours, could make moral progress away from hunting and meat-eating.
Yikes. Might I have made a good missionary?
I also would have argued that indigenous cultures respected animals in ways that Euro-American culture did not. My problem wasn’t really with human predation in all times and places. My problem was with hunting here and now: mainly white folks with guns.
Now, most of two decades later, a new book has me reflecting on the views I held back then.
In A Matter of Life and Death: Hunting in Contemporary Vermont, anthropologist Marc Boglioli argues that mainstream American culture is increasingly dominated by a particular way of seeing (and talking about) nature and animals. “Killing beautiful wild animals,” he writes in the Introduction, “simply does not fit into the mainstream urban worldview.”
Consider the quote he pulls from Matt Cartmill’s book A View to a Death in the Morning, where hunting is characterized as “the rural equivalent of running through Central Park at night, raping and murdering random New Yorkers.” Or the quote from a commentary by animal rights philosopher Tom Regan: “The gestalt of rural people, their whole way of viewing the world, is radically different from somebody living in Washington, D.C., and the more we understand the other layers of it, the more we can practice ‘hate the sin, love the sinner.’”
In short, Boglioli argues, hunting is characterized as “a morally deficient aspect of rural American culture”:
I believe my research clearly shows that antihunting sentiment is not a product of a more highly developed sense of ethics or a greater ‘respect for nature’ among nonhunters, but rather is just one aspect of a rural/urban cultural debate that masquerades as a discussion of moral absolutes.
I wonder: Was that me eighteen years ago?
My ethical concerns about the treatment of animals were—and continue to be—sincere. But was my attitude toward hunting rooted in the cultural debate Boglioli suggests? Though I grew up in the country, my parents did not. I had one uncle who hunted, but I did not come from a “rural” family.
As further evidence of the urban elite’s condemnation of rural American practices, Boglioli points to his own discipline: anthropology.
Hunter-gatherer cultures such as the Inupiaq, Mbuti, and Bushmen have been studied for decades. Their hunting practices, beliefs, and rituals have been well documented. But people such as those Boglioli studies—hunters in rural Vermont—have been essentially ignored. Prior to A Matter of Life and Death, he notes, only one book-length ethnographic study of Euro-American hunting had ever been published: Stuart Marks’s 1991 Southern Hunting in Black and White.
What value could there possibly be in studying rural American hunters, in understanding and writing about their beliefs, practices, and ways of relating to animals and nature?
A lot, I think.
For one thing, it might help us reconsider the sharp divide in our ideas about “noble savages” and “ignoble Westerners”—a split which, Boglioli notes, is “slipping into the realm of caricature.”
Note: In Boglioli’s book and in this blog post, “urban” and “rural” refer not to individual people, but to cultures—systems of meaning that tend to predominate in certain types of places. Some hunters, of course, grow up or live in cities, just as some anti-hunters grow up or live in the country.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli