Hunting is such an interesting topic for discussion, because talking about it among diverse company makes us uncomfortable. With that in mind, I think we have lost track of the central issue that attracts and repels those who hunt and those who hate hunting.
Killing is the focus of the hunt, not simply causing the death of a creature, which all of us do unintentionally in many aspects of our lives, but killing another being with premeditation and purpose, in particular a being that we in some sense love. Anyone who has participated in hunting has felt that strange affection for the animal and then exhilaration when its body crumples to the ground—yet all of us have been trained not to talk about it, to act as if it is incidental to the hunt, or worse yet, an unfortunate necessity. Killing is rather that which organizes and gives meaning to all of the practices associated with the hunt. Killing the one we love has the psychological power to focus whole sets of practices precisely because it is deeply shameful. The heightened awareness of the hunter is heightened in anticipation of the kill. The camaraderie of fellow hunters is intensified by their mutual confrontation with the shame of killing, of transgressing a moral boundary together. We are not “killers” after all, but responsible members of society. To violate this boundary in an intentional manner and in full view raises the horrible to the sacred, and in doing so we announce our shameful relationship to the other.
In response to these troubling existential issues, we commonly subvert the experience of hunting by referring to it as “an outdoor experience”, “an opportunity to be with nature”, “a chance to be with our friends and family”, or “an opportunity to be involved directly in the task of feeding ourselves”. The first three are inadequate explanations, because they are acts of enjoying nature available to anyone outside of the practice of hunting. The last is also available outside of hunting, but misses the point most seriously by avoiding all but an oblique reference to killing. The act of communion in a Christian church is not an oblique reference to killing; rather in communion we the congregants literally or figuratively drink the blood and eat the flesh of the one who died for our sins and at our hands. One doesn’t need to be of a religious mindset in order to grasp the psychological power of that image. The paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux and animal sacrifices in early agricultural societies all were ways of confronting the act of killing and raising it to the sacred.
No doubt that people who hunt do enjoy a day outdoors; they do enjoy sharing the hunt with friends and family; and they do gain satisfaction from being involved in procuring their own food. Yet, today there are many ways to do all of these things that do not involve stalking and violently killing an animal: hiking, backpacking, nature study, home gardening, community supported agriculture, farmer’s markets to name a few. All of us have been well trained to provide socially acceptable, seemingly rational answers to avoid rather than address troubling questions about shame and to accept if not agree with other people’ answers. Yet, in accepting these superficial, rational answers we turn away from a cause rooted much deeper in our humanity . . . because we are frightened by it. We have all become wonderful rationalizers but poor thinkers. This has serious consequences for our relationship with nature, because it leads us to replace the unavoidable and unalterable shame of human existence with self-indulgent sentimentality and easily assuaged guilt—that is, we feel sorry only for selected bits of nature and guilty only for acts we can conveniently avoid or offer recompense. Killing, which is unavoidable, final, and irretrievable, becomes unintelligible and completely meaningless—meaningless in the sense that it does not tell us who we are.
To the extent we ignore the shame of killing, fail to acknowledge and elevate it to public view, we turn hunting into an organized and increasingly mechanized slaughter of animals, directly analogous to industrial meat production—no worse and no better. Collectively we ignore the issues surrounding killing and existential shame, because both hunters and critics of hunting are members of a shameless society. Hunting, we come to believe, is arguably acceptable to the extent that it controls overpopulation of game animals and generates economic exchange. We commend hunters for contributing license fees and excise taxes to the general conservation fund, when those same contributions to conserving non-game animals and plants could be made without hunting, and should be made above and beyond anyone’s involvement in hunting. Shame on us for thinking that a mandatory contribution ennobles us. Is every citizen a conservationist because a portion of our federal tax dollar goes to support the National Parks? How did the term “conservationist” become such weak praise? More importantly, in accepting these sensible justifications for hunting, we de-moralize killing and diminish the animals we kill.
Hunting is a meaningful part of human existence to the extent it acknowledges the act of killing, that is, recognizes and celebrates killing as an inextricable and shameful part of our existence. In doing so we confront our limitations as human beings and honor the animal we kill. At its best hunting is an act of communion with nature that we experience by killing nature, and we share this communion with the first human beings. It is up to hunters to decide whether or not they want to be part of a socially acceptable mechanized slaughter or an act of communion.
Hunting does not make us human. Rather, confronting the shame of killing is part of being human, a part we now habitually avoid.