William Hogarth, Richard Martin, class, and animal rights

William Hogarth, The Second Stage of Cruelty

William Hogarth, "The Second Stage of Cruelty"

In her recent book For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement (see below), Kathryn Shevelow uses the anti-cruelty engravings of 18th-century artist William Hogarth as one example of the ways in which ideas about class shaped early English efforts at protecting animals from cruelty. In the world of Hogarth’s engravings, it’s working-class people who are most often shown tormenting animals: he depicts a cart driver savagely beating a horse, a rough-and-tumble crowd chasing after a bull with sticks, and urchins torturing dogs on the street. Hogarth certainly also believed that the members of the upper class could be guilty of cruelty—but it’s telling that he chose to focus on depicting acts of violence against animals perpetrated by poor people, rather than by (say) noblemen on a fox hunt. Later in her book, Shevelow points out that early efforts at legislating against animal cruelty were likewise aimed squarely at pursuits favored by the lower classes. Sport fox hunting wasn’t banned in England until 2002; but bear-baiting came under consistent attack early in the 19th century. Conservative legislators who opposed animal cruelty legislation frequently (if disingenuously, as very few of them could honestly claim to have the best interests of the poor at heart) argued that such bills should not be passed because they unfairly targeted the working class. Why forbid bear-baiting, cocktossing, and the abuse of draft animals, but not fox hunting or other bloodsports favored by the elite? Animal protection advocates were thus painted as inconsistent, hypocritical classists and elitists whose real objectives had less to do with protecting animals than with looking down their noses at the behavior of ordinary people.

Reading these centuries-old arguments, I was struck by how similar they are to one line of argument commonly applied today in opposition to the adoption of many environmentally-friendly practices. The argument typically goes something like this: organic food is expensive, a luxury item accessible only to those elitist latte-sipping, NPR-listening liberals who have enough money and leisure to worry about such things. Or: hybrid cars aren’t really about protecting the environment; they’re about proving that you’re better than your poorer neighbors who can’t afford them. I find this kind of reasoning maddening, but also somewhat difficult to counter, because it does contain more than a grain of truth. Many well-off liberal environmentalists are, indeed, elitists who hold themselves superior to the masses because they buy hybrids or organic food (or fair-trade coffee or what have you); and many of them do, indeed, fail to consider that many people simply can’t afford to buy environmentally-friendly household goods or adopt green lifestyle practices. In many respects, being green is a privilege available only to the well-off and well-educated.

But of course that in no way changes the fact that organic produce (for example) is better for the environment than its conventionally-grown equivalents—and it’s telling that this kind of argument often comes from the mouths of conservatives, who in some cases are no more likely to be true champions of the poor than was an 18th-century British lord. Self-satisfied elitism is obnoxious, and people should be called out on it—but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the genuinely environmentally-friendly practices and products that elitists have sometimes been among the first to adopt. Rather than condemning people who buy a hybrid or an organic apple for their elitism, we should ask the question of how we can make hybrids and organics affordable for everyone. And surely if most people can’t afford to adopt environmentally friendly practices, it’s that much more important for those who can afford it to do so.

Further, the onus is on people in positions of privilege to do whatever they can to help the rest of the world catch up. One current example: instead of complaining about developing nations’ failures to adopt more stringent carbon dioxide emissions standards, rich nations ought to be putting their financial and technological muscle behind efforts to make green practices more practical and affordable everywhere on earth. Again, Shevelow’s book offers a relevant example. When animal cruelty legislation was finally passed in 1822, it forbade the abuse of horses, donkeys, and other animals that were frequently employed in the everyday working lives of England’s poorer citizens. The legislation’s chief sponsor—a charismatic and eccentric Irish aristocrat named Richard Martin, who was famed as a duelist in his youth and who was known to switch between a rich populist brogue and a refined upper-crust accent as the occasion warranted—was known to actually patrol the streets in order to catch Londoners in the act of abusing their animals. More often than not, the men Martin brought to court were poor—but, recognizing this fact, Martin would often pay the fines levied against the very person he’d testified against moments earlier, just so long as he felt assured that they’d learned their lesson and would not abuse any animals in the future. Martin recognized that the point of his legislation wasn’t to make poor people pay fines; instead, it was to prevent animals from being abused, and he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make certain that this end was actually served.

Martin’s behavior here is a bit uncomfortably paternalistic for my tastes—any contemporary model for change really ought to incorporate solutions that empower disadvantaged people to work to address the roots of their concerns. But regardless, people in positions of privilege do need to be keenly aware of the ways in which their own practices and goals might place economic or other pressures on other people. To extend the comparison further, here’s Shevelow on Hogarth:

The audience Hogarth could and did reach comprised middle- and upper-class people who, though they might not have acknowledged it, shared culpability for tolerating such cruelty and often benefited from the overloaded wagon or whip-driven stagecoach. These were also the people who were positioned by class, education, and income to create and support a reform movement dedicated to seeking recourse in the law.

Even if you’re not holding the whip yourself, the chances are very good that you are contributing to the abuse, and so it’s up to you to take the necessary steps to promote positive change.

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20 Responses to “William Hogarth, Richard Martin, class, and animal rights”


  1. 1 oldnil August 21, 2008 at 4:30 PM

    interesting post. I’ve always sort of wondered about the history of animal rights. I love dogs and am thoroughly impressed with the San Diego zoo, but I think some people today take animal rights a little too far. I remember a guy on CNN claiming that what Michael Vick did in his dog fighting ring was worse than Kobe Bryant raping a woman (later acquitted). I was outraged, and further surprised that my peers were genuinely reluctant to agree with me. Lassie and Flipper are adorable and all, but I think we need a little perspective sometimes.

    thanks for posting!

  2. 2 goodreadings August 22, 2008 at 10:49 AM

    Well, I think it’s pretty hard to evaluate what’s ethically “worse” sometimes—rape is irreducibly awful in one way, and the pain suffered by fighting dogs is irreducibly awful in a different way. It really doesn’t matter which one is “worse;” both acts are ethically reprehensible, horrifying, and deeply repugnant.

    I’d also argue that whether or not Lassie and Flipper are adorable is beside the point (just as it’s beside the point whether or not a rape victim is adorable). Lassie and Flipper are capable of suffering if we torture them; that alone makes them worthy of our ethical consideration.

  3. 3 Tracy August 22, 2008 at 12:21 PM

    Deciding to stop eating meat is an easy step in promoting positive change. For more information, visit ChooseVeg.com.

  4. 4 goodreadings August 22, 2008 at 1:01 PM

    I agree with you on that one, Tracy—I don’t eat meat, because I think current agricultural practices with respect to meat are both inhumane and unsustainable.

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