Eighteen years ago, I had no doubt: hunting was wrong.
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
Did you get a chance to read Joe Bageant’s ‘Deer Hunting with Jesus’? I like it a lot
Not yet, but it looks intriguing.
Good post. To me, this points out some of the paternalism inherent in anthropology as a discipline. The reason Vermonters haven’t been studied is because they were already of the civilized white folks, while the brown folks get to be “studied”, as if it is a discipline akin to botany or zoology.
Whites were expected to behave in a “civil” manner, because they were equals, while brown folks weren’t given the same goals to meet, because, historically, it was believed that they couldn’t achieve them. They were in this world between animal and human.
Shoehorning disciplines with old, racist traditions and paternalism into today’s world always makes things interesting.
I believe it was twenty or so years ago that some anthropologists started to turn the discipline’s view back onto “civilized” European and American societies.
Even following that shift, though, it seems there has been disdain for the idea of studying rural American hunters. I wonder: is that because they are presumed to be “uncivilized,” in an unpleasant and non-exotic way?
I think the fact that anti-hunting sentiment grows as rural life wanes is absolutely zero surprise: It’s just so easy to vilify that which we do not know.
It is the same reason that someone like you, Tovar (and to a certain extent me too), has so much credibility with people who, if not vegan, at least dislike hunting: Wow, he’s like us. He can’t be one of those stupid rednecks. But he hunts. Let’s listen closer and see what’s up.
I, too, marvel at the discrepancy that doesn’t seem to trouble too many anti-hunters – the fact that they can respect dark-skinned hunter-gatherers’ hunting, but if a modern white American does it, something’s wrong. This is but one of many shreds of self-loathing I see in their message.
What I also find fascinating — and will undoubtedly take up in a future post! — is that this urban/rural divide has been historically present between different classes of hunters, too. Much of the rhetoric (and legislation) of late-19th and early-20th century hunter-conservationists was aimed at rural folks. Backwoods “pot hunting” was denigrated, while elite “sport hunting” was celebrated.
I just don’t find it surprising that anti-hunting views increase among those who haven’t lived in a “rural” area. As Holly said, it’s easy to not agree with something you’ve never been around, and don’t understand.
And, like Holly and yourself, Tovar, that is why I love that I hunt. I work in a very professional atmosphere, where the majority of people do not hunt. So when they hear that I do they can’t help but listen to what I have to say; they are surprised that this educated, intelligent guy hunts, and they have to hear more.
Great post as always, Tovar.
Thanks, Arthur. I enjoy imagining you talking about hunting in that “professional atmosphere,” with or without your “camo for conversation.” 🙂
This doesn’t jive with the research in Maine that showed that most of the posted property was due to Mainers and not transplants.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the “anithunting” sentiment is mislabelled. It’s not that folks don’t disagree about killing things, it’s that they don’t like all the baggage that comes with it now.
I think that really depends on the place. Antihunting sentiment where I live – in California – comes largely from people who’ve had zero personal experience with hunting.
Let’s remember, though: A numeric measure of who posts their property in Maine isn’t a measure of anti-hunting sentiment. People post their property for lots of reasons: to preserve privacy, to prevent littering, to ensure safety, to know who hunts on their land, even to protect their own favorite hunting spots.
I agree that it’s not exactly “anti-hunting” sentiment. As researchers have suggested before, it’s more “anti-hunter” sentiment.
That’s part of what I’m getting at in this post. People can be comfortable with “human predation” in other cultural contexts, and still object vehemently to hunting where they live. I think “the baggage” is at least partly cultural. Slobbish behavior by hunters, of course, adds to that baggage.
My little hypothesis on this subject; people dislike hunters and hunting because it is seen as inherently unfair to go after a wild animal while armed with modern weaponry, and equipped with the tools of an industrial society. The more elaborate the hunters outfit, the more laughable becomes his claim that he is somehow returning to a primal connection with nature. Add to this a certain measure of class snobbery,and you have the makings of a perfect storm of anti-hunting indignation.
My own dirty little secret is that I tend to dis-like most of the hunters I run into. The more elaborate the camo, the bigger the 4×4, the more my instinct is to assume the worst of these people. Hunters become the personification of consumer society going to war with nature.
What a bummer! I must be lucky here in California – I like most of the hunters I meet, particularly when I take the time to talk to them and get past whatever trappings they’re wearing or driving. I’ve met a lot of good people since I started hunting, and feel as at-home in hunting as I did in the newspaper business (and far more than I feel in academia). Go figure.
Hi NorCal, perhaps I should have been more clear in my post…I’m sure that most hunters are just as nice as any other random slice of society. I was simply shining a light on my own dark little prejudice, and in so doing trying to see why the non-hunting community might have even stronger feelings of disrespect for the hunting crowd.
The notion (and image) of “consumer society going to war with nature” is a powerful one, Doug. It’s a point that I think David Petersen got right in HEARTSBLOOD. When a slogan like “if you’re a deer, you’re dead” or “whack ’em and stack ’em” gets associated with hunting, what are people supposed to hear other than “War on Wildlife”?
Great post, Tovar! An in-depth and dividing topic for sure.
There’s something contradictory about condemning or disliking hunting when it’s done by members of our culture, but assuming a laudatory attitude toward other cultures in which it plays a major role. Whaling may provide the most extreme example — Inupiaq whaling in Alaska elicits respect, while Faroe Islanders who hunt pilot whales are vilified. I don’t see why the Faroese shouldn’t get the same response.
I don’t know much about the Faroes, and have never been there. I do live in Alaska, so I suppose I know more about Alaska whaling. A couple of internet searches, though, reveal a striking contrast — Faroese whaling is called ‘barbaric’ or ‘cruel’, but you will look long and hard to find words like that describing Inupiaq whaling.
I agree that cultural baggage is what makes the difference. Hunting whales just doesn’t jibe with the image of what northern europeans do, even if they live in the middle of a northern ocean.
Needless to say, I don’t want to go whaling, but I certainly want to continue hunting birds, blacktail deer, and so forth. It bothers me to think that this activity should seem so foreign to some (urban) Americans that they can accept it only in the context of exotic cultures. It seems like a real loss to our culture.
Wow, excellent point on the whaling, John! I really think it is a bizarre form of combined bigotry/snobbery. The bigotry is that Europeans/Euro-Americans/white folks couldn’t possibly hunt with respect. The snobbery is that we white folks have risen above this barbaric state and we should KNOW BETTER, but these poor dark-skinned people are just doing the best they can.
Yes, exactly, and leaving out the option of “maybe those poor dark-skinned people are on to something”.
Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, John.
In the beginning of his book, Boglioli relates how social conversations often go when he and his wife are both present. When she says she did her fieldwork among the Inupiaq, who hunt various land and marine animals, folks are always interested. When he says he did his fieldwork among rural American hunters, people fall silent.
He mentions, too, that he has become so accustomed to people’s attitudes that he didn’t even recognize another pattern until his wife pointed it out. Whenever he mentions his topic of study, folks inevitably ask if he hunts. (He refers to it as a moral litmus test. In the company he’s talking about, I guess the “right” answer is “no.” Elsewhere, of course, it would be “yes.”) The point his wife made is this: folks never ask her if she hunts.
By the way, John, are you familiar with the project, “Alaskans Listening to Alaskans About Subsistence”?
Organized by Quaker groups, it brought together Euro-American and Native Alaskan hunters to talk about some divisive issues. I’d really like to get hold of a copy of the related video program, “Sharing Ground,” but haven’t tracked it down yet.
No, I’ve never heard of it. I’d have thought if there was a video produced in connection with it, there would be a copy in the library, but I did a quick search of the library catalogue, and came up with nothing.
Thanks for checking on the video up your way, John. I wonder if it was produced in-house by the folks involved in the project and simply screened but never publicly released.
Since you’re tuned into whaling issues in Alaska and elsewhere, I imagine you followed some of the news about the efforts by the Makah in Washington State to revive their whale-hunting tradition. That sure stirred things up a few years back!
Sorry to take so long getting back — I was distracted by work.
I can’t really say I’m all that tuned in to whaling, (and certainly wouldn’t want to pose as very knowledgeable about it). More like aware of it since I live here.
I do recall the Makah’s attempts to revive their whaling, and it certainly did stir things up. It demonstrated the difficulty of reviving such traditions once they’re lost (and the difficulty of ascending a learning curve in the midst of a media circus, if I recall correctly).
I’m no more knowledgeable about whaling. Probably far less so: here in New England, “whaling” evokes notions of long-ago Boston and Nantucket fleets, not to mention Melville!
Yep, on the Makah front, I think “media circus” is about how it was.
Wow, Tovar, your comments sections are as interesting as your blogs – and really participated in, I might add! Glad this site was recommended to me.
This cultural bias against hunting is interesting, and blogs like this are one way of dealing with it.
People ALWAYS tell me they are surprised when they learn that I hunt. It’s happened several times recently. I’m a writer, editor, photographer and look more like a rock musician (which I am) than a redneck. I live with a sexy artist and athlete – she was one of those surprised that I was a hunter. I’m fairly intelligent and well-read, and I can hold my own in a conversation. I just don’t fit the stereotype.
I have the feeling that most of the folks on this blog are similar.
Thanks, Robert, and welcome!
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