Podium: Fox-hunting and enlightenment

From a paper presented by a Bristol University researcher to the Royal Geographical Society conference
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The Independent Culture
THE PLACE of hunting in country life has become a key point of contention in political debate in recent years.

Hunting has been held by the pro-hunting lobby to be a traditional way of managing animals in the countryside that represents country life and defines the social identity of country people, delimiting the compass of the authentic rural community.

Anti-hunting campaigners are universally portrayed as "metropolitans" or "townies", with little understanding of the countryside, while hunting is positioned so fundamentally as a rural activity that any attack on hunting is represented as an attack on the countryside as a whole.

The hunting issue has also involved the contesting of interpretations of cultural history and ideas about what constitutes human nature and social progress. Animals have provided a rich source of symbolism that has been deployed by the anti-hunting lobby to denounce the individuals who hunt as "barbaric", animal-like or brutish.

The idea that hunting with hounds expresses the nature of the human participants, reflecting barbaric human impulses and constituting "a feudal relic from the Dark Ages", has been used forcefully by the anti-hunting lobby in recent years, most recently through the "Deadline 2000" campaign of the League Against Cruel Sports.

Mike Foster, the MP who introduced the most recent private member's bill aimed at having hunting banned, argued that: "Hunting wild animals with dogs for sport is cruel and unnecessary. I think it is a barbaric practice that should have ended centuries ago with cock-fighting, bear- baiting and dog-fighting."

Rona McDonald, a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, noted the timeliness of a ban on hunting: "The RSPCA has been campaigning to protect animals for 120 years. We have seen the end of badger-baiting, dog-fighting and cock-fighting.

"Society moves on; I think that it is just a matter of time before we manage to get rid of fox-hunting and stag-hunting and things like that. The hunters know that their time is running out."

The idea that practices involving animals are reflective of the social or ethical progress of the human societies in which they are situated is not new. In 1509, Erasmus alluded to the irony of hunting - a practice that confers social status on participants and a practice that is degenerative of humanity by reflecting animal urges.

The pro-hunting lobby has aimed to debunk the theory of social progress articulated by the anti-hunting lobby by noting that hunting with hounds expresses an essential human nature that has been repressed by the urbanisation of society. According to this interpretation of cultural history, the urbanisation of society has increased people's distance from nature, resulting in the spread of overly sentimental and anthropomorphic environmental ethics.

Anne Mallalieu, the leader of the Labour Party's Leave Country Sports Alone group and the president of the Countryside Alliance, has argued that the closer contact with animals that participation in hunting allows enables participants to consider anti-hunting ethics and to "move on" in their thinking.

"What those who oppose hunting must understand is that they are not ahead of us in thinking or morality towards animals," she said. "We hunters have already addressed these questions and moved on. It is they who are behind."

This argument misses the point of anti-hunting ethical progress theory; progress depends on the extension of the circle of compassion, not merely "addressing the question". Slave-traders could have argued much the same point as Mallalieu if "slavery", "slaves" and "slave-traders" are substituted for "hunting", "animals" and "hunters".

Finally, it is interesting to note that, in associating support for hunting with country society, the pro-hunting lobby has reinforced the idea that rural society is less civilised.

The argument that opposition to hunting reflects society becoming divorced from nature fits with the account of cultural history articulated by the anti-hunting lobby because the idea that rural society is inchoate or backward is powerful.

Given this coincidence, the anti-hunting lobby could accept the pro-hunting lobby's questionable association of hunting with country life and argue that hunting should be banned as a barbaric rural pastime.

From such a perspective, urban sentimentalism could then be reconfigured as cultural enlightenment.

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