by D. R. Hildebrand
Six years ago star quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to two years in jail for promoting, funding, and facilitating a dogfighting operation, then lying about the details of his involvement. He served his sentence, paid his fine, participated in community service, and eventually returned to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Now Vick has written an autobiography, Finally Free, with the hope of articulating his gratitude for second chances. He was recently set to sign copies of the book at book stores but cancelled when “reported protests escalated into threats of violence” not only against Vick but his family, his publisher, and the retailers that were scheduled to host him.
Debating Vick’s crime, his sentence, the degree to which he is remorseful and so on will likely continue for some time. My own opinions about these issues have vacillated, even unexpectedly, the more I learn and the more I consider. It is the bigger picture, though—the response to it all and the context of it all—that I find consistently, relentlessly baffling.
Vick’s crime was heinous. No one I know disputes that. The reaction that has surfaced from it, however, is the wrong one. Our discussions are focused almost exclusively on the victims and not on the pathology of violence. We are angered because they are dogs, not because we permit and perpetuate a vast culture of abuse. These events would not, six years later, still sit at the fore of our thoughts had anyone been mistreating any other animal—including, even, humans.
We might argue that the case persists in prominence not because of the specific species involved but because of the nature of the acts or the celebrity of the assailant. But if that is indeed the case then why, decades later, do we still revere icons such as John Lennon? Lennon beat his partners, Cynthia Powell and Yoko Ono, and possibly his son Julian as well. Is that, too, not appalling—abusing human beings? We allowed Lennon to sign his albums but we won’t allow Vick to sign his books? What exactly is the difference that galls us now, but did not then?
I wonder what percentage of the people threatening Vick are vegan. Over the last half century studies have shown lower rates of violence among non-meat-eaters than meat-eaters, due partly to correlation (those who choose not to harm animals are less likely to harm humans) and partly to causation (the use of toxic pesticides, which enhance aggression, has grown thirty-three-fold since World War II, and is far more prevalent in meat and milk than in grains and vegetables). Assuming these threats against Vick are not from “radical” vegans but from radical omnivores, the hypocrisy of such self-righteous posturing here is outrageous. Vick’s actions were sickening, of course. But they were nothing compared to the norm. And the norm is ignored.
Naturally, Vick was an active participant, entwined in the process. And the animals in jeopardy were not for food but for “fun.” Still, Sarah Palin shoots animals from her helicopter for fun and other Americans call similar actions “sport” and the animals whose heads they mount “game.” Participation? Yes. Outrage? No. Why not? Because a deer is not a dog.
Either we have become inexplicably obsessed with a single species that we favor it above all else or we are using that one species to create some paranoid façade of innocence and human decency so we can protect our individual and collective conscience from how we treat the other 99%.
Regarding the former, the obsession is so extreme that it’s no longer even real. I hear comments such as, “I’m a dog-person,” or “I just love all dogs.” But no one says, “I love every human!” By universalizing one species—pigs are for food; cows are for leather; dogs are for friendship—we strip its many constituents of their individuality. We stereotype them. Yet, I have met dogs who are wicked as can be and I have met pigs who show nothing but affection. This veneration of canines in western culture is so excessive that we can no longer advocate for “animal rights” without specifying that we are advocating for more than just pit bulls. The Philadelphia Eagles, for whom Vick now plays, recently launched the initiative “Treating Animals With Kindness.” Lo and behold, it is exclusive to dogs.
On the paranoid façade side of things, Mr. Vick still eats animals, as do, I assume, his attackers. But they are okay with this. After all, they love dogs. And they stand up to evil, awful actions, like dogfighting. They sleep soundly at night for they keep themselves ignorant to the killings that are so ghastly and so widespread that they are all but unimaginable. For them, it’s just easier that way. It’s just easier to defend a species that already has more protections than we do.
Some say that it is our ability to act rationally that sets us apart from other, non-human animals. If this is so, let us prove it. For until we reflect on our decisions and ask ourselves how, exactly, it could be rational to perpetuate unspeakable violence against certain species yet rise up in rage to protect others, how it could be rational to threaten a once violent man with the same violence we claim to condemn, how it could be rational to silence someone who has served the sentence we have selected, then we are failing as humans. We are acting as animals. We are discarding the most unique capacity we know.