This morning I was entertaining myself by reading through the comments on a blog piece in which I was quoted. The blog was about a Philadelphia companion animal shelter which was facing the threatened picketing of one of its big annual fundraisers by another group which promotes veganism because the fundraiser did not feature a vegan menu. My quote had nothing to do with the menu; it was from a blog I wrote that was self-congratulatory on behalf of animal welfare groups for working together to draw the brakes on the recent House Resolution 89, which had the potential to roll back the 2008 Puppy Mill Law.
I won’t say a word about what I think about the vegan conflict. Since that is a topic which is guaranteed to piss everyone off, no matter what position one takes, I’ll save that for a time when my hate mail is at particularly low ebb. But one commenter on the blog, among other niceties, referred to me as “among the most pugilistic” in animal welfare. That cracked my up, in no small part to it being the most polite insult I have received in ages. On a second reflection it occurred to me that “Anne Jones” had used precisely the right word for me.
I have always been self-reflective about my discourse on animal welfare since I have been very vocal about the importance of civil debate, yet I have with regularity excoriated those in opposition to my positions. More than once I have debated those who find fault with the, admittedly fine, lines with which I define my own fairness doctrine. Occasionally, I’ve even been reasonably called on stepping over my own lines. When I have, I’ve very publicly done something few of those who I disagree with ever seem to do- I’ve apologized and corrected myself.
However, “pugilism” is the perfect descriptor for the lines I have drawn for the speech I engage in on behalf of my positions. Pugilism, or boxing, is separated from a bar fight in one important way. It has rules. It’s still brutal and damaging and it’s not unheard of to place a well landed punch that is literally fatal to your opponent. But it’s not a bar fight.
Boxing is stepping into a ring with an opponent, agreeing to the rules of the match, tapping gloves, waiting in your corner until the bell rings, and trying to beat the other guy unconscious- as long as the shots are above the belt and you don’t tangle him up in the ropes. In a bar fight, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask, “Can I buy you a drink?” and hit the other guy with a beer bottle before he has time to think. The loser may be just as unconscious but one way is fair, the other isn’t, and fairness is important to me. I’ll gladly get into the ring and try to beat your brains in. But I won’t bite your ear off and I’ll shake your hand when the final bell rings, win or lose.
That’s why tone and language is so important. It is the difference between a sucker punch and stepping into the ring. With a little humor, it makes the difference between the British Parliament and a cable news commentary panel. “Anne” could have called me a jackass who loves to pick fights. That could very well be true at times and may be a fair comment. She chose pugilist. That’s just as fair but it prevented me from writing it off as a mere insult since it showed some thought. Someone else made a comment about whining, half-dead looking vegans. Now, that seems a bit harsh. There must have been a better way to put that and thesauri are so handy these days.
What I do find unfair is when I hear that because I preach a pointed civility, I am not allowed to engage in my narrowly defined pugilism. Apparently, in some bar fighters’ eyes, only a pacifist can call out the bar fighter for dirty fighting. I beg to differ. Even Mahatma Gandhi (you know him, the guy every animal person quotes) saw that there were gradients of behavior and some were worse than others. “Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes.”
I think I would prefer never have to step into the ring with those in opposition to what I believe about animal welfare, especially those who are far closer to my side than I ever am to the true opposition. But I also think that those who engage in name calling, sucker punch, beer bottle smashing efforts to get what they want often go after the targets who don’t see it coming. They deflect engaged discourse by standing fast on the faith of their argument. It doesn’t matter if it’s politics, dog tethering, veganism, or beating your kids. For so many true believers the entire argument comes down to you being wrong because I believe you are. Gandhi also said, “Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind, it dies.”
I’ll climb into the ring with anyone. Just don’t offer to buy me any drinks.