It started, I guess, with red paint. For thousands of years, fur kept us alive, but just like that — when forests were being felled across the globe and habitat lost at a rate unknown in history — fur suddenly became the end of the world. The law didn’t really know what to do with red paint, and those throwing it often walked free.
Then hunt protesters in the UK moved from demonstrations to entering land, assaulting people, endangering lives. A few months ago, a game restaurant in Toronto was the subject of a protest. This is a small business run on private property. Activist Len Goldberg said he believed things were improving, saying he saw new vegan items added to the menu after the second or third protest. “Progress was being achieved,” he said, presumably unaware of his unhappy knack for an Orwellian turn of phrase.
A few months before that, 35 vegan protesters raided a Melbourne restaurant shouting at customers and chanting anti-meat propaganda through loudspeakers. Staff were visibly shaken when protesters pushed video cameras in their faces, even though they asked not to be filmed. “To create change in our society, we must challenge belief systems and force people to take a side”, the group wrote on Facebook.
“It was hard to communicate with them”, the restaurant manager is quoted as saying. “I asked who was in charge and one lady said ‘we all are’. We were trying to talk to them but they were quite in-your-face with talking and speaking over the top of you — they were very loud, yelling,” she said.
“A couple of tables were very upset, to be honest, one table in particular was very emotional. We just did the best we could to calm the people, give them comfort that the police were coming.”
And of course, recently there has been the ‘cash for cruelty’ claim levelled at Animals Australia. It is alleged by several newspapers that this large, well-funded organisation paid low-income workers to treat live export animals badly so the acts could be ‘exposed’.
Today things like this are so common they hardly rate a mention. In this we err, and greatly err. Why? There is a word for all this. It’s deeply unfashionable, it’s old-school, it raises ghosts that perhaps we need to raise if we are to grasp what is going on. It’s the word used for those with a set of beliefs and the will to force others to live by them. It’s the word for those who think that advocacy, public debate, parliamentary reform, rule of law and democratic responsibilities don’t apply to them. The word is a simple one: fascist.
It’s a hazy term but the gist is clear enough. In 1944 Orwell himself (who had more than a passing familiarity with fascism of all kinds) said that “almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym”. To many the word carries overtones of right-wing dictatorship, but in its broad political sense it applies to anyone willing to compel others to be like them using force. Here we have all the bullying features of fascism, but with a modern twist — fanciful nationalism has been replaced by fanciful animal ideology. And with fascism marches an old partner. Today we are seeing the death of empathy. Unlike violent protests (which are often just a handful of people), it runs deep and wide.
Not long ago a hunter in Canada found his wife and baby daughter killed and eaten by a grizzly bear. To any balanced person, it’s a tragedy. Bears are immensely powerful but not very fast killers. Having secured their prey they maul and chew, according to survivors. At some point that poor woman saw the bear and knew what a terrible mistake she had made. Her last moments would have been ugly and filled with frantic fear for her baby. It is hard to imagine a worse end.
Then the mask slipped to reveal something sinister. All over the world, comments on news sites were divided between those who sympathised and those who openly took pleasure in the fatalities, all because the father was a hunter. The second group have no problem with their callousness — their cause is ‘right’, so anything goes.
The rules of science don’t apply either. Invented research, gossip and anecdotes are trotted out to an undemanding press as facts. Certain opponents of duck hunting in Victoria are experts at it. Unlike real science, so often complex and uncertain, these media releases make simple, emotive and colourful reading because they have been expressly designed as clickbait. The lie told often enough becomes the truth.
The law recognises intent. Here the intent is unwholesome. It’s not really about saving creatures that many of these bullies can’t even name, but to make their human enemies less, to hurt them. Here’s a hint — if everybody is entitled to just your opinion, if you have to wear paramilitary gear and a balaclava to make that stick, maybe you’re the bad guy.
Most hunters known to the public through writing or television receive death threats, but it’s worth stepping back for a moment. Never in history has it been so easy to tell a complete stranger you’d like to kill them or their family. Before police existed, the response would have been rough justice. After police, it became a crime. But today it is so common that social media platforms are simply unable or unwilling to control it. It is expressed in countless ways, often misspelled, but most boil down to one simple premise: be like me or I’ll hurt you. We are becoming desensitised to this and are all cheaper for it.
We’ve seen this before. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Red flags should go up when you hear the end justifies the means. It’s not drawing too long a bow to say that the civilised world spent most of the 20th century fighting this. We can make war on it when it’s another country but today it walks among us and we seem to have no answer. We have defeated many dictators but the religion is still out there.
Whenever there is a war crime we wonder how they found people willing to do the dirty work. The truth is on any social media platform. There are plenty of people willing to sign up for atrocity without even being coerced into it. Those who talk loudest about rights and diversity are the first to take them away, I find.
It’s tempting to think all this is about hunting but it isn’t. It’s about the society we live in. It’s about the right to enjoy life and legal activities without oppression. And it should worry the man in the street because if duck hunting were gone, then it would be fishing and meat, and then the next thing and the thing after that. It’s a slippery slope with no end.
There is something ugly and broken about all this. I don’t have the answers, except to look back on the past and those who defeated undemocratic bullying before. And the first step was always the same — to step back from the fog, see the situation clearly for what it is, to name it aloud.
And to remember that in the long game no fascist idea has ever lasted. They burn bright at first but always falter in the end. Why? Because they do not come from an honest heart. Because they are about revenge and the pursuit of power for its own sake.
And because there are always — and I do mean always — those who will stand against them, who will never surrender.