Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Canadian Governor General reveals Taste for Seal Hearts

I'm sure most people outside Canada (and probably very many inside the country) have missed the country's Governor General's latest shenanigans. During her latest venture into an indigenous Canadian Inuits territory she duly helped herself to bits and pieces of a seal's heart that she gobbled down raw. In the words of The Toronto Star newspaper:[she] "revelled in helping herself to the heart of the dripping carcass". More than that, "Jean helped to gut the seal before swallowing a slice of the mammal's heart, ignoring the European Union vote earlier this month to impose a ban on seal products on grounds the seal hunt is cruel." All of that is probably only slightly more barbaric than our daily mass slaughter of other animals that we breed in mass breeding factories. The Governor General's defense of this "ancient" Inuit practice goes like this: "These are ancient practices that are part of a way of life," Jean said, framing her gutsy gesture as an act of solidarity with the Inuit. "If you can't understand that, you're completely missing the reality of life here." That is so funny, really.

I mean, for starters, what does an exceedingly well-paid governor general really know about the daily lives of Inuit people? Surely nothing first-hand. Further, what if the Inuit had another "ancient practice", say, eating 5 year old kids alive (I know they're not doing that, stay with me!). If the governor general's view is that the slaughter of seals is acceptable because it has been done for such a long time, it would follow that - all other things being equal - any number of other things that are traditionally done are justifiable on the grounds that they have always been done. This is a pretty conservative take on the world. It seems to suggest essentially that she does not believe the Inuit are able to evolve beyond their ancient practices, and that for that reason we should respect whatever it is that anciently they happen to do. - Mind you, another argument that I have seen is, is that there's no other way for these folks to feed themselves. Well, perhaps the Canadian government should consider offering sensible job alternatives to the people in question instead of celebrating their barbaric "ancient times" activities.

My problem with the Governor General's take is essentially that it is disrespectful of the Inuit, because it does not take them seriously as citizens in the same way that other citizens are being taken seriously. Being taken seriously means not only to be respected in important ways, but also to be held accountable for what one does. If Canada has laws in place that prohibit cruelty to sentient animals it will hold those of its citizens accountable that commit such acts of cruelty... that is, unless they're Inuit, in which case the country's Governor General joins in the fun. The bizarre reason for this is that the cruelty in question is one enjoyed since "ancient times", hence it's kinda cool. Ethical rationales therefore clearly do not apply to Canada's indigenous people, at least that seems to be the Governor General's logic. What does this tell us about respect for indigenous peoples?

What I also find odd about the ongoing public discussion about this (well, discussion in the news media) is that the issue is presented as one of liberal city talking heads (me) vs the romanticised ancient Inuits. Well, even if that divide was as clear-cut, the question remains whether treating animals in such a manner is acceptable, ancient or no... adding labels to folks (aka liberal city based talking head) begs this question.

Enough said.


  1. AnonymousMay 27, 2009

    The EU bill calls the seal hunt, "inherently inhumane". But can anyone explain to me in any clear and non-rhetorical way how the seal hunt is even remotely more gruesome or morally offensive than the forms of animal farming pervasive in Europe (and elsewhere)? I don't think anyone can, because it's not. The only reason why people care more about the seal hunt is that seals are more photogenic than chickens, and an animal we don't typically regard as food.

    Of course, this does not absolve the Inuit practice if you are of the mind that all animal slaughtering is wrong, but the particular attention paid to the seal hunt is simply misinformed. I agree that we cannot justify our practices in virtue of tradition, so perhaps the hunt ought to be outlawed, but I fail to understand why anyone finds the seal hunt particularly interesting (beyond the fact that seals are particularly cute).

    The European Union happily condones the slaughter of millions of animals annually. If the EU actually took animal welfare seriously, it would re-evaluate domestic farming practices rather than subject the Inuit to this profoundly, nay, obscenely hypocritical moralizing. This ban is the equivalent of Hitler, Stalin and Mao jointly condemning some distant serial killer. Sure, the EU MIGHT be right in its condemnation, but there are (astronomically) bigger fish to fry.

  2. I couldn't agree more, Brendan, the EU response is about as hypocritical as it gets...

  3. AnonymousMay 28, 2009

    Here, here!
    Even if you accept the argument that some sort of seal hunt is justified on traditional grounds (which I don't, for the aforementioned reasons), an important, and always overlooked, question remains: What kind of seal hunt is justified?

    Surely there is nothing traditional about the mass killing and export of seals for their Omega-3 fatty acid derivatives.

    There is nothing traditional about that. If that's the kind of seal hunt that Jean wants to promote, then it should be evaluated alongside chickens, beef, pork, etc. In other words, seals killed for traditional modes of survival are not the same as seals killed for mass export into foreign markets.

  4. pebird@pacbell.netMay 29, 2009

    Well, if only those of us above the law could criticize, it would be a quiet place.

    Holding organizations to standards designed for individuals is fraught with problems. I have a hard time calling any organization "hypocritical". I have a hard time just calling my family hypocritical - and I don't think it's as large as the EU.

    I wouldn't want to stifle one part of an organization condemning a practice that the leadership of the organization actively or passively supports. I don't believe that encourages dissent within organizations.

    The only kind of seal hunt that is justified is the one that doesn't take place.

  5. AnonymousMay 30, 2009

    I take your objections to be largely pointed at me, so here is my response.

    What exactly are these problems? If a small family were to come together and collectively disapprove of a practice they frequently perform, what would be the problem in calling their collective disapproval hypocritical? Can you explain why you believe organizations cannot be called hypocritical? Because it seems obvious to me that organizations can express themselves inconsistently and hold others to standards they themselves do not observe. And if this doesn't satisfy you, then read my point as calling every constituent citizen of the EU who supports the bill and consumes animal products a hypocrite.

    As for your second point, I don't really know who you're responding to. And regarding your third point, I agree with you to the extent that killing seals is no more justified than killing cows or pigs. But your bold phrasing suggests, at least to my mind, that the seal hunt is particularly wrong. If I read you correctly, can you explain why?

  6. pebird@pacbell.netMay 30, 2009

    I'll take the questions in reverse order.

    The seal hunt is wrong because the Inuits have made an ethical choice to leave their ancestral life and join the rest of us. So, they need to live by different rules. They either don't realize it yet or they want to pick and choose which benefits of western life they want and which responsibilities they to ignore.

    Their only reasonable argument is the one stated earlier - the western world engages in repugnant practices with regard to their food industry - theirs is smaller, more honest, and besides, part of their *culture*.

    What they choose to avoid is that their *culture* is being used by the west not only to accelerate the seal exploitation but to justify it (see heart-eating Canadian minister). This particular justification of exploitation is also generalized by the west for intensifying exploitation of all resources. The ONLY ethical response for an individual Inuit is to stop seal hunting. That is the only way to keep their culture from being completely subsumed by the west.

    If in fact their culture has been completely incorporated into the west, they can't use the culture argument and they are subject to the same judgments as the rest of us. Alternatively, we could incorporate their practices in the west. The White House could have a baby kitten or bunny rabbit kill every year to honor non-western cultures.

    With regard to the first point. I appreciate the shorthand of using terms best applied to individuals to organizations. But some loss of understanding occurs - and I don't think its the most effective criticism.

    I believe that organizations (as well as individuals) are in a continual state of change. Change is generated by internal conflicts. Seeing these conflicts erupt in public means that change is accelerating. Sometimes this is a good thing.

    But for me, the term *hypocritical* implies a fundamental inconsistency that is not allowable - internal consistency is more important than change. The typical response to this charge by the recipient is to suppress the recent *eruption*, so as to remain historically consistent. This delays change. The question is whether you value surface consistency more than change.

  7. AnonymousMay 30, 2009

    If the seal hunt is wrong, it is because seals are being slaughtered, not because the nefarious Inuit are cherry-picking which western norms they ought to abide by.

    To say the Inuit CHOSE to abandon their ancestral culture is simply absurd, as is saying that the seal hunt threatens to annihilate their culture. You're right to say that their culture cannot be used to defend the modern, massive seal hunt. Though it strikes me as strange to think that because the Inuit have chosen to make some money (i.e. to elevate themselves from abject poverty), (a) their culture no longer exists, (b) they are part of the West and, as such, (c)they must now refrain from practices performed throughout the West.

    Your 'typical response comment' is so vague and bereft of real-world resonance that it lacks any meaning or power. What 'recipients' are you talking about? And my point is, and always was, that if the EU took animal welfare seriously, it would re-evaluate domestic farming practices, which slaughter animals on a vastly more heinous scale. This would be an example of real change. And if anything stifles change, it is this kind of vacuous moralizing that posits the practices of other as somehow more gruesome and morally offensive than their own. By calling the EU hypocritical I am not trying to 'suppress the eruption' or silence the EU's condemnation of the hunt, but to highlight how that same condemnation ought to be applied at home. This, if anything, is a call for change.

  8. pebird@pacbell.netMay 30, 2009

    Well, seals gets slaughtered by their *natural* predators also, so I don't find slaughter in itself as sufficient to identify a wrong.

    BTW, I never said the Inuit were nefarious - at least no more than the rest of us. They are just people.

    You cannot have an ancestral culture live alongside a modern culture. Its fine that the Inuit chose to make some money - but there is a cost associated with that choice - their old ways lose their power. The seal hunt didn't annihilate their culture - being forced (which is a choice) to join the west did.

    And lets be clear here, their culture IS BEING USED to defend the modern seal hunt. They are complicit in this whether they like it or not.

    I didn't say they should refrain from practices performed throughout the West. Their practices are in essence IDENTICAL to the west - because they now they are part of the west. They slaughter their food in an inhumane fashion far away from public view and try to justify it with bogus economic and cultural arguments. Sounds like the same method the west uses in slightly different form. Hopefully some of us aren't fooled by this form.

    My argument was that if the individual Inuit wants to assert their culture as separate from the west, they need to abandon the seal hunt - as it has been appropriated by the west. You can't hold on to the past.

    Let me give you another example. The nature of a democracy is such that ALL members are bound by actions made by the nation. So, that means that the Iraq war is the responsibility of all Americans, including me, even though I personally objected and continue to object to the war. I have some blood on my hands, regardless of my personal views because I CHOOSE to remain an American. Does that make any sense? How is it different with the Inuit?

    I think that ethical arguments don't work very well with organizations - politics is more appropriate. If you are saying that calling the EU hypocritical was a political statement - OK, I can accept that as an action - but it should be evaluated on its efficacy, not as an ethical position.

    And I don't think calling the EU hypocritical is a effective politically. This is far from the only area in which the EU is inconsistent - take your choice and stand in line. Your statement falls on deaf ears. But by agreeing with the EU and finding the Inuit guilty - you will focus more attention and others that are ignoring the problem may be more willing to pay it some mind. Besides, that the least the Inuit could do.


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