Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Violence [1986 original column]

When is violence, or other illegal activity, justified in support of a worthwhile cause? The question seems too easy. "Never," we might be tempted to respond. Violence is inherently bad and shouldn't be condoned under any circumstances. There are better ways to accomplish things.

Giving the question more thought, though, you might find that such a simplistic answer can't fit all circumstances. Suppose, for example, you found yourself in Germany during the Nazi regime. If by killing one Nazi guard you could liberate hundreds of people destined for the gas chambers, wouldn't that violence be justified? Many of us would say yes. In that situation the lesser of two evils would be done. Thus, in some cases a particular act of violence may be acceptable as a means of preventing a greater violence.

That brings us to the issue of vegetarianism. I personally have never heard anyone seriously advocate violence in support of the vegetarian cause. On the other hand, I question just how different our situation is from the Nazi Germany hypothetical I just gave. Haven't most of us felt some measure of glee and support when we've read the occasional news articles about animal rights groups breaking into laboratories and freeing caged animals? Wouldn't we secretly love to see vegetarian messages spray painted on the side of our local McDonald's, warning signs put up at the Safeway meat counter, or distributor caps stolen off of cattle transport trucks? (Would we or wouldn't we like to see slaughterhouses and laboratories blown up?)

Despite the satisfaction that it might give us, I don't think violence in support of vegetarianism is right. I feel strongly that it isn't the right thing to do now, but I'm not prepared to say that this will always be the case. Right now the vegetarian movement is too small and too fragmented. We simply haven't done an effective job of making the public aware of what we are saying. Thus, while violence certainly would call attention to the vegetarian cause, the message might be lost on most people.

Take, for example, the recent bombings of abortion clinics. In the minds of those who take a "pro-life" position, this violence is justified because it may prevent future violence (they might say it would prevent the "murder of babies"). But opponents of the pro-life movement, and most of the public at large, see only the violent and illegal act of the bombing. To them there is no greater evil that is prevented.

The analogy is much the same for violence in support of vegetarianism. If a slaughterhouse were bombed, for example, I'm afraid most people would see the violence done and overlook the violence prevented. As with abortions, most of the public-at-large doesn't view slaughterhouses as good, but does view them as necessary to prevent the perceived greater evil of doing without meat.

To me, then, acts of violence by vegetarians will only bring our movement negative publicity and create a negative image of vegetarians, at least until we are successful in educating the public that vegetarianism reduces the unnecessary and senseless violence that is already prevalent in our society as an inherent part of the meat industry. The Catch 22 is that once that job of education is done, I would hope our goals would be more readily accomplished without violence.

One more factor dictates against the use of violence. Vegetarianism is inherently non-violent. Even if we could achieve a vegetarian world through the use of controlled violence, we might not achieve the goal we originally sought. Many in the vegetarian movement, for example, believe that aggression against animals necessarily leads to other forms of violence in our society. If this is true—if violence is pervasive once let in the door—we risk the possibility that the ends of the vegetarian movement may reflect the means, and it behooves us to be true to those means.

I hate violence. And intellectually I know it would be bad for vegetarianism. But I have to admit there's an aggressive and revengeful side to my personality too. I just can't help thinking that someday, before I die, it sure might be fun to see a spray painted McDonald's!

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