Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cruel to Be Kind

Nobody wants to be called "cruel". It is just about the harshest adjective you can use to describe someone. There are bullies, mean-spirited people, jerks, and yet all of these ne'er-do-wells manage to avoid being called "cruel". In fact, it is such a harsh term, that in the right contexts, it's actually a crime: cruelty to animals, cruel and unusual punishment etc.

In recent years the term "badass" has become a compliment. We've always loved badasses, even before it was the term. Brando in "The Wild One", James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause", etc. But there is an unseen line, where we stop the badassery just short of cruelty. And to be certain, it's a slippery slope. For example, if you own a pit bull, you're a badass. If you enter your pit-bull in a dog fight, you're cruel. If you wear leather, you're a badass. If you wear fur, you're cruel. Steak is badass, veal is cruel. Beat up a guy, you're a badass. Beat up a woman, and you're going to jail, and so on.

I have friends who aspire to be "cruelty-free" recently. Going shopping with them is a predictable nightmare, though a well-intentioned one. No meat, no dairy, no products tested on animals, only cage-free eggs (if they eat eggs), no leather or suede, and so on ad nauseum. That's noble and all, but how far do we take this? For that matter, how do we define cruelty? Is anyone truly "cruelty free", regardless of their shopping lists?

In the quest to gain the "cruelty-free status", it's easy to get started. We can avoid beating people up, especially small children, the elderly and the handicapped. That's a good start. Allow people the right of way in traffic. Quit taking perverse pleasure in Simon Cowell's belittling remarks on "American Idol". After that it gets a little less obvious.

What about hunting? Is hunting cruel, if the animal suffers very little, and you eat what you kill? Is it less cruel to pay a corporate farm to raise, then kill, then cut up animals so that we can buy cellophane-packaged steaks? Deer hunters make the argument that *not* killing the deer is actually the crueler option, as they will overpopulate and starve to death. That said, I still think mounting the deer's head and hanging it on the wall to impress the guys is cruel.

Is wearing leather or fur cruel? If a cow is slaughtered for the meat, and the skin could be used but isn't, that seems if not cruel, then at least wasteful. Of course this whole argument hinges on the idea that slaughtering cows for any reason could be justified.

Is eating meat cruel? If so, why? Because it's a living thing, and life is sacred etc? Well then what about plants? People who decline eating meat for reasons of cruelty, but aren't the plants alive too? Do they not grow and reproduce, just like any other life form? And if we snuff out that plants life to eat parts of it, isn't that cruel? Maybe if plants had the ability to make sounds, like if a stalk of corn screamed whenever an ear of corn got ripped away, we might have to re-think the whole "vegetarians are cruelty free" thing.

Under what circumstances is cruelty forgivable, even arguably necessary? Some people think water boarding terror suspects to get them to confess to their evil plans is cruel, but it's an acceptable cruelty, insofar as it could yield information that ultimately allow law enforcement to prevent a larger cruelty (a terrorist attack). Personally, I don't buy this argument; the odds that a water boarding victim will tell the truth are unlikely. More likely they'll tell their captors whatever they want to hear so as to stop the water boarding. I know I would.

The ability to sustain life, whether human, cow, or Venus Fly Trap is predicated on the taking of life. There is a certain level of cruelty which is inherent in all civilizations, indeed in any one thing's survival. We kill things to survive. It may be an animal for the meat, an enemy in self-defense, a colony of ants that invades our kitchen. Someone once said "a developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist is someone who already has a house in the woods." It makes you wonder if perhaps cruelty is a matter of perspective.

My point is that it's easy for us to talk about being cruelty-free, when much of the dirty work is done. If you're reading this in America, your home was built on land stolen from massacred people. If you eat, whether you eat plants or animals, your sustenance is a death sentence to other living things. Every bit of uneaten food you throw away is an act of cruelty too, when you consider how many people go without a decent meal. Your freedom is an act of cruelty, when you consider the blood that was spilled in gaining it. I could go on, but you get the idea.

We must each of us understand our own potential for cruelty, and the futility of trying to avoid it altogether. Beyond that, we can make little choices to stake our claim somewhere on the spectrum between karmic altruism and Michael Vick.