Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Anna L. Peterson

Anna L. Peterson teaches at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on environmental and social ethics and the relations between animal ethics and animal advocacy. Her books include Being Human: Ethics, Environment, and Our Place in the World and Everyday Ethics and Social Change: The Education of Desire. Her new book is Being Animal: Beasts and Boundaries in Nature Ethics.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Peterson's reply:
Like most academics, I guess, I’m usually reading several books at the same time, for work and pleasure. I try to be reading at least one that is related to my current research in addition to whichever book I’m teaching (during the semester). I usually have a mystery novel as bedtime reading, and I’m often also reading a book with my youngest son (age 9), who is a good reader but still loves to have me read to him. We just started The Phantom Tollbooth, which is a thrill to read again.

The research-related book I’m reading presently is The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, by Coral Lansbury. My main research interest right now is companion animal rescue. It’s very different from the other social movements I’ve studied, for several reasons. One of the things that I find most interesting is how difficult this movement is to categorize politically. Animal rescuers are all over the political map, from very conservative to very progressive and often quite “apolitical.” They are often portrayed as individuals acting on behalf of other (nonhuman) individuals, without an overarching philosophy that connects their concern for some creatures to larger moral or political concerns. Many histories of the animal welfare movement reinforce this image by describing animal advocates as elitist, concerned to eliminate working-class entertainment such as cock-fighting and bull-baiting without attacking upper-class pursuits such as fox-hunting. I kept seeing references to The Old Brown Dog as one of the few studies that examined the connections between animal advocates and other progressive movements, especially unions and women’s suffrage.

The book begins with the “Brown Dog Riot” in London in 1907, a conflict over a statue that anti-vivisection activists had presented to the Battersea Council. The statue’s inscription began: “In memory of the brown terrier dog done to death in the laboratories of University College...” Medical students tried to remove the statue, and when thwarted, they attacked anti-vivisectionists physically as well as verbally. Most of the anti-vivisection activists were women, many of whom were also suffragettes. In the riot, trade union activists joined women to fight against the medical students, despite the popular image of working class men as indifferent to animal suffering (and even though unionists generally opposed women’s suffrage).

Lansbury uses the riots as a starting-point for discussing attitudes toward science, women, and class, as well as animals. I like the way she muddies the waters on all these issues, and especially the way she challenges stereotypes about both animal advocates and working class men. She shows how complicated the animal welfare movement has been ever since its origins. I think one of the reasons for this complexity, and for the heterogeneity of the movement then and now, is that people connect with animals for a wide range of reasons. This makes it fascinating and also hard to pin down, and it makes careful documentation of its roots especially interesting.

What I like most about this account is the way it challenges the usual dichotomy of moral consistency (based on abstract principles) and emotion (which is particularistic and inconsistent). The workers’ ability to identify with others’ suffering is both emotional and consistent. The Old Brown Dog is helping me think about similar possibilities in contemporary animal advocacy. My favorite line so far (I’m not done yet) is Lansbury’s description of workers “identifying with the wounded animal, not with the hunters and sportsmen.”
Learn more about Being Animal at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue