Maneesha Deckha is doing what no one else in B.C. has done before.(Oh that dastardly Harper, gettin' in the way of progress... the guy probably eats hot dogs.)
The University of Victoria law professor is teaching a seminar about Canadian justice and animal rights to upper-year law students.
The seminar, which she created, began this month and will continue until April. It looks at the relationship between culture and law, and how our cultural attitudes toward animals have shaped legal protection -- or the lack thereof -- for them.
"I ask students to think about the cultural dimension, to think about what the law says, and to think about the property status of animals and how that might be a problem," Deckha said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"But if they're not property, what would be an alternative to that? Should they have rights? Or if not rights, should there be some legal provision for stewardship or guardianship?"
Previous federal Liberal governments had proposed amending cruelty-to-animal provisions within the federal Criminal Code so animals would no longer be regarded as property.
Such amendments would have allowed prosecutors greater scope in pursuing cruelty cases involving animals.
But those proposals were subsequently rejected both by senators and the Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Students in the course study different cultural approaches to animals and how those approaches have affected legal protection for them.Well, not only am I willingly to take Petter's word that Prof. Deckha is as dynamic as, well, a cheetah in some totemic cult, I'm willing to bet she loves animals just as much as we do here at Covenant Zone, at least some of us. We should most definitely have laws against unnecessary cruelty to animals. But we should also have laws against lawyers who would deny the realities of the world to grow their own power in society (by playing the victim card) at the expense of our national covenant, a covenant that only persons with language can join, given the very nature of our reality and rights.
They also look at parallels between the historical denial of legal rights for women and indigenous peoples with the current denial of legal rights for animals, and how the same kind of thinking that informed restrictions on women's and minority rights now informs restrictions on animal rights.
Asked if the course was expressly an "animal rights course," Deckha said no, but the course "discusses animal rights and the reasons for them, and the critiques of them."
Toronto animal-rights lawyer Leslie Bisgould also praised Deckha, saying her students "have been dynamite on animal rights issues."
Faculty of law dean and former NDP attorney-general Andrew Petter said despite the small enrolment, the establishment of the course was driven mainly by students.
He also said it is "wonderful" to have a course that focuses on law and animals.
"One of the great things about having a law faculty is that one gets to explore issues like this that one doesn't get to explore elsewhere," Petter said.
"These are current issues, and this is an opportunity for students to study them with a teacher who is extraordinarily dynamic."
Let me try to put it simply: there can be no such thing as an animal right, because rights are not something accorded from on high by the powerful or progressive to those suffering masses or minorities on whom they wish to bestow some grace. History, pace pretty much every university professor today, has never been a conspiracy of the powerful against the weak, transformed in our enlightened times into a progressive struggle against the powerful on behalf of the weak. Rather, history is a process by which a human community as a whole, taking the form of its historically specific compacts, periodically transcends its internal tensions by creating new representations of rights and wrongs, new compacts in order to expand (hopefully) the degrees of freedom possible within that community or compact, so as to increase the overall survivability of that compact in relation to its own internal tensions (that always threaten to rip it apart) and in relation to its external others (who might go to war over our resources).
The first compact took shape around the first sign of language. Human symbolic language is quite unlike animal communications systems, and it is what fundamentally distinguishes us from our animal cousins. The first and any sign of language must be shared equally by all members of a community for it to have the effect that language has in bonding people. In order for a word - i.e. an arbitrarily-chosen collection of sounds having a symbolic meaning and historically determined reference that can be grasped by all who come together to witness its emergence and role - to be meaningful, its meaning must be shared equally among the members of the language community. We are all potential speakers and listeners, not just one or the other.
The community of language gives us the basis for our intuition of human equality whatever the many social differences that have evolved via the unequal distribution of material, professional, and status resources. It is this intuition of human equality, in tandem with the necessity of freedom that comes with the use of language and our need continually to renew the purpose or effects of languagein the community, that is the basis for our conception of human rights.
A right is nothing to me if it is not something I can claim and encourage or force, through political and linguistic means, others to recognize.
Now as I say, I am all for laws against unnecessary cruelty to animals. So why should I get pissed off by a professor who, while not seemingly understanding the anthropology that gives us the conception of a right, and so not knowing that there can be no such thing as an "animal right", will nonetheless work to convince people that there can be such a thing, so that one day we may pass laws in which lawyers and organizations like the SPCA will become the advocates for animals, defending their "rights"?
Well, let us take as an analogy to "animal rights", the concept of "gay marriage". "Gay marriage" transforms the previous institution of marriage, in which marriage was by its very nature discriminatory, necessarily a special privilege or license accorded to some people by kin and society, and not accorded to many other kinds of partnerships. "Gay marriage" takes for itself the word "marriage" when what it is really being instituted by "gay marriage" is not marriage, a form of discrimination as traditionally practiced or understood, but a new kind of contractual partnership between consenting adults, freed from social or kinship norms, a contract that has little in common with the anthropology of marriage and its discriminatory regulation of sexuality and reproduction, as practiced historically the world over.
Similarly, "animal rights" creates something that cannot logically or realistically exist as long as we hold to any traditional or true anthropological understanding of "rights". Thus to create "animals rights" transforms our very understanding of "rights" and compromises that traditional understanding and the vision of reality that goes with it. Instead of making a right something essential to the covenant by which all human beings (taken, in the final analysis, as fundamental equals) negotiate their differences and bond themselves together to re-present and hence transcend the shared and competing (i.e. linguistically-mediated) desires that threaten to rip their community apart, a "right" becomes something accorded by legal experts to those (animals) who don't (because they can't) negotiate the terms of their right.
Whereas many animals are presently considered private property and as such are one of the means by which we engage in the human exchange that is fundamental to maintaining the order of society, "animal rights" advocates would question this. As with all bureaucratic attempts to reduce the power that accords to property ownership, this is an attempt to increase the power of the bureaucratic state at the expense of ordinary citizens. Not only does it work to undermine an anthropological understanding of our covenant and our rights within it, the covenant by which we can hope to rule ourselves and have the bureaucrats working for the people and not in their own self-interest, it also undermines the property rights which are fundamental to maintaining many of our human rights.
I doubt whether Prof. Deckha and her type understand much of this. University professors are so often convinced by the gnostic religions, with their fantastic visions of expert-led liberation from the woes of this world, that underwrite their "progressive" ideologies. She is no doubt well meaning and genuinely cares for animals. But she, like so many professors, has apparently taken some of the magic kool-aid and believes it is the role of experts and their lucky few students to liberate and to expand the order of rights. But what is a "right" that someone on high gives me and that I do not demand and negotiate with my equals? It is a way of imposing a relationship on me.
True freedom is something only humans can know or enjoy because freedom is something that can only be experienced and expanded within a system of language and the material exchange it allows. And the more we have bureaucratic elites dominating the terms of this exchange, the less the rest of us have a role in (expanding) this exchange. Ultimately human freedom and self-rule are at odds with any conception of "animal rights", though the consequences may or may not be great in any attempt at redefining reality to make possible an "animal right". After all, gnostics can only impose on reality so much before it bites back.
Still, human freedom only exists as a mutual exchange - in which a cultural tradition for understanding right and wrong is widely shared and understood by ordinary people (a decentralized understanding and exchange which is necessarily at odds with the claims and self-interest of expert knowledge) - in which we freely impose on each other's freedom and negotiate the differences. Laws against animal cruelty passed by democratically-elected legislatures are in accord with this understanding of human rights and decency. And so is ordinary social bonding and shunning. If I see you torturing an animal, be sure that my first instinct won't be to go to a lawyer for endless expert mediation. Rather, I will take it as a given that I already, by dint of tradition, have some right and responsibility to exercise some righteous freedom, right in your face and with everyone with whom you (would) do business.
Those of us who care about defending the human and national covenant against the imperialism of bureaucracy and expert knowledge meet every Thursday in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library, 7-9 pm, in front of Blenz Coffee. We wear blue scarves as identification and in solidarity with the wider blue scarf movement. Please join us if you can, but please leave your pets at home.