Why Do We Defend Hunting The Way We Do?
October 7, 2013
My friend, Tovar Cerulli of the Mindful Carnivore blog recently posted a good column in the Missoula Independent. The piece talked about the familiar “grip and grin” photo (also known as the “hero shot”), where successful hunters pose with their dead quarry. In his column, Tovar applies his fairly unique perspective to the interpretation of these photos… particularly the interpretation of people who don’t like hunting. He writes:
Such images, like words, are symbols to which we each ascribe significance. You and I can look at the same photograph, or read the same story, without perceiving the same meanings. If you are the hunter, the image will probably seem positive. But not necessarily.
And the point, of course, is that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes the only person who can supply those words is the person looking at it. As someone who often takes and shares photos of my “prizes”, I’m well aware that there are plenty of critics out there who don’t recognize the pride and happiness of a successful hunt, but instead see the cruel, brutishness of a killer gloating over his victim.
Of course, what I usually like about Tovar is that, instead of wrapping up his point with some one-size-fits-all answer, he puts the burden of understanding back on the reader. It’s not about the right way to see a grip-and-grin picture, but about considering different ways to see it. It’s about understanding that we don’t all share the same values, and that what I may see as perfectly normal, others may find abhorrent. And vice versa.
That’s not the end of it, though. It’s not even what I set out to write about, so consider most of the previous as a bonus… as a prequel to the main event.
In the comments to Tovar’s piece, I engaged in a sort of brief dialogue with Mary, a commenter with a clear animal rights bent. The essence of her comments and responses was an effort to validate her preconceived notions of hunters’ motivations… namely, that we hunt because we get a thrill out of killing. She consistently rejected suggestions that there’s more to the hunt than the kill, insisting that she only wanted to understand why or how we could justify that with ourselves. She even offered assistance in the way of trotting out time-honored, enhanced psychobabble explanations such as the search for paternal acceptance, or sexual insecurity/gratification. Of course, sticking so tightly to your prejudices is a general barrier to understanding, but that didn’t seem to deter her.
After our initial exchange, I recognized the old pattern and knew that the best I could hope for was to offer counterpoints for other readers. There was never any hope of making inroads to her bias, and in fact, she finally put the truth right on the table… all she wanted was for someone to tell her what she wanted to hear… that hunters are emotionally handicapped, bloodthirsty brutes. With that, I declared impasse, and exited the conversation.
Someone else picked it up though, and tried again to “explain” with a reasonable, personal perspective that seemed to challenge her premise. In this person’s case, he (or she) is an adult-onset hunter (a Tovar term) who came to hunting late in life, ostensibly to take personal responsibility for the death of the animals that fed his family. For him, the kill is an emotionally trying experience. While I think that’s an essentially honest (albeit somewhat naive) rationale, it’s certainly widely shared, especially among the newer crop of hunting apologists. Mary soundly rejects this position, though, with the inference that this is a dishonest justification used to displace the reality that he doesn’t have to do it (kill or eat meat), so on some subliminal level he actually enjoys killing.
But then she closes her comment with a statement that hit me with a flash of reason.
If it is a burden to do this killing, which for the morally conscious among you, it appears to be, why choose to do it when it is strictly a choice you have power over? I think the distaste for my comments here is the sense of discomfort that question raises.
That is a good point, and I think it’s more right than even Mary realizes.
I think that, for most hunters, the “rightness” or “wrongness” of hunting is never really a question. It’s not true for all, of course, as folks like Tovar clearly illustrate, but; people like Tovar are really the outliers. I believe that the majority of hunters just hunt, it’s what we do, and we don’t spend much time justifying it to ourselves or to anyone else. And it is this thinking that challenges us when someone like Mary steps up and asks, “why?” It makes anyone uncomfortable to have their basic values questioned.
There’s a fundamental problem with the challenge, though. It’s predicated on commonality… on the notion that one hunter can answer for all.
The truth is, we hunt for all sorts of reasons. I could spend all day laying out my personal rationalizations, but that doesn’t erase or change the reasons that other hunters are out there and my reality may or may not apply. The tighter I weave my own story, the more I exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative.
See where this goes?
I’ve lost count over the years of people I’ve talked to who oppose hunting on various moral bases, but at the end of the conversation will say something like, “well, if more hunters were like you, I’d feel better about hunting.”
What did I resolve? What about hunters who are not like me? Did I just draw a line and push them over the cliff?
The truth is, these debates (especially online) are seldom productive. Folks like Mary bring their entire premise on the basis of emotion and a core system of beliefs. It’s not something that can be measured or quantified, much less successfully debated. The analogy I’ve always relied on here is religion. Laying out your own reasons for being a Catholic isn’t likely to make a Rabbi hang up his yarmulke.
And that is the true source of discomfort when hunters are confronted with arguments about the “rightness” of killing animals. It’s an antithetical affront to our core beliefs. It’s an argument in which, if you’re wrong, you’re absolutely wrong. And few of us are honestly comfortable with absolutes.