Living By Voices We Shall Never Hear: Seeing Animals Differently

2011, NISC (Pty) Ltd   ISBN: 978-1-920033-12-5

In their introduction to this collection of reflections, poems and essays, editors Pauline and Les Mitchell put the matter bluntly: for thousands of years, non-human animals ” have been our unpaid, unacknowledged and, for the most part, appallingly treated slaves, on whose backs, it is no exaggeration to say, our present world has been built. Perhaps,” they conclude, “it is time to consider our relationship with them.”

Quakers have, in fact, been considering these relationships for some time. For the Society of Friends, the question is really this: how might the concern with non-human animals be brought from the periphery of Quakerism to, or at least towards, its centre?

A question, no doubt, of hearts and minds. I’m happy to say that I met with many and varied answers to that question within these pages; answers, along with more questions, that appeal to all of a reader’s faculties.

Living By Voices divides into three sections, the first of which, on ‘Animal companionship’, appeals to the reader’s heart and soul. John Woolman was famously resolved to let love be the first motion in him, and the opening tales of lives lived with cows, cats, dogs and chickens show just what that can mean- the practical expressions love finds for itself when allowed to range beyond conventions. The second section, ‘Animal-inspired poetry’, gives further rein to that impulse of love and reverence, leading out onto imaginative refigurations of human/non-human relations such as art alone may activate.

‘Quaker perspectives on animals’, comprising the last nine of the book’s fourteen chapters, makes its appeals via the examples of Quaker tradition and convictions, and through much reasoned argument.

Marian Hussenbux provides an excellent primer on Quaker engagement with animal welfare from the time of Fox onwards. This concern finds its first voice of lasting eloquence in John Woolman; while many advances were made in the century following, it’s not until the 1980s that we find evidence of Friends returning to what was evident to Woolman: that love of God demands a non-violent and non-exploitative comportment toward our fellow creatures. It’s from within the context of this turn that several of Marian’s co-contributors are writing in Part Three. Susannah Brindle, for instance, demonstrates how the general understanding of TOGIE has had to be broadened over the course of time to be truly inclusive of women and of non-whites in the general understanding. She points to Harvey Gillman’s essay of 1995 as a kind of return to Woolman that re-vitalised and extended that notion of the ‘everyone’ to encompass all the world’s entities. And what of the testimonies themselves? Can our idea of equality refuse to acknowledge, especially in light of recent research into animal intelligence and capacity for suffering, the equality of species? Can an
authentic peace testimony turn a blind eye to the slaughter of 150,000,000 daily for food alone? We are witnessing the emergence of a sustainability testimony, yet there is arguably no greater factor in environmental degradation than the consumption of animals and animal products. These are the facts before us, and they point toward a certain inconsistency. Wilma Davidson tells of how she came to realise that such inconsistencies were not such as she was prepared to live with, incommensurate as they were with her core values: “when I became a vegetarian, the reason was simple: I could not kill so I could not condone someone killing just for me to eat.” It is not, however, that surprising that we should find ourselves in the compromised situation that we do, vis à vis non-human animals and our professed principles. Benjamin Schmeiser discusses how it is that so many of us have been able to simply overlook these disconnects , showing how deeply ingrained our prejudices are in our language itself. Of course, these everyday prejudices are shored up by scientific officialdom, and I was intrigued by Sandra Kyle’s account of how on hearing from eminently qualified “zoology experts” that animals lacked emotions, she was led to form a Quakerly reliance on her own judgement and experience.

Nor does Living By Voices lack an appeal to pity, or shy away from the horror that’s just outside our customary field of vision. Most of the pieces strike a Quakerly note, commending the matter to the conscience of individual Friends, which is no doubt as it should be, but a collection on this topic that did not rise at least once to a register of outrage would fall short of the demands of justice and would lack the prophetic element. I’m very grateful, therefore, to Les Mitchell for including his front-line report on this war against the defenceless and for showing us in no uncertain terms “the sheer overwhelming scope of our violence.” It’s tough going and may prove too much for some; but while I agree with A.H. Mann that people don’t react well to being prosyletised, I can only add that there came a decisive moment in my life when the right person appeared, jabbed a finger in my chest and said “Thou art the man!” I’m indebted to them for it.

Finally, this is a weave of viewpoints that brings forward no unanimous recommendation, but more than one contributor suggests that the time is now right for an Advice or Query on our relations with animals. It’s hard to imagine any Friend who, on completing Living By Voices, would dismiss out of hand that proposal.

~ Thanks to our member Thom Bonneville of Muswell Hill Meeting for this review. A shorter version appeared in The Friend this week.