essentialisms and ideological naturalising of masculinity – reflections on Steve Best

I have recently read Lee Hall’s (2006) Capers in the churchyard: animal rights advocacy in the age of terror and revisited the edited volume Terrorist’s or freedom fighters? Reflections on the liberation of animals (2004). I found Lee Hall’s book to be one published at a very necessary time and it was quite scathing of welfarist and ‘militant’ approaches (albeit not un-problematically), the latter being promoted and supported in Terrorist’s or Freedom Fighters. I am working my way through producing a review of Capers in the churchyard, yet felt the need to comment following a recent interview with Steve Best on CUIT’s Animal Voices (Toronto). Steve Best is one of the editors of Terrorist’s or Freedom Fighters? and a vocal supporter of militancy. The sweeping generalisations, clear lack of knowledge, awareness and understandings of that which he authoritatively comments on, and the lack of critical reflexive awareness are very surprising – at least to me – from a tenured academic, especially one in the humanities. It is this interview that I reflect on…

The interview coincides with the release of Igniting a revolution: voices in defense of the earth (2006), which he is one of the editors of. I am yet to read this volume, yet the themes Steve Best raises in the interview are those he already holds and external to the content of the volume. He premises his comments with stating that actions labeled as militant now are moderate in comparison to what is needed. This is extended in that ‘any and all tactics are on the table, any and all tactics are necessary in these times of corporate facism’. What we should be focussing on, he argues, is what is effective. This is contextualised in the notion that we are apparently at war, and in conditions of war such tactics are appropriate. He does not address the very problematic pragmatisms underlying such notions. In conditions of war, non-violence, at least Steve Best’s bastardised and clearly misrepresentative populist version, are effectively tools for the state, if not of the state (i.e. ‘oppressors’). His generalised equating non-violence with legalist tactics is dumb-founding.

That he professes that violent tactics are the only possible means of ‘winning this war’ and many others, shows a complete lack of awareness of the history of non-violence. His rhetorical question asking someone to show him how non-violence has overcome oppression further exemplifies this. It also indicates, though he is clearly unaware of this, the ideologically naturalised tendency towards violence that is central to contemporary western society. As such, his labelling of non-violence as western centric (which I will come back to) is considerably ironic. For something one who is aware of institutionalised exploitation of people and animals as inherently linked, the links are clearly not made…

His misaligned engagement with violence was further exemplified in his response to descriptions of violence as hyper-masculine. In attempting to counter this, he outlines what is perhaps the most naïve notion I have seen espoused from a ‘progressive’ academic. Essentialism apparently rules the day: some women support violence, therefore violence cannot be masculine… Steve Best is surprisingly unaware of the implications and means of perpetuating itself that patriarchy imposes and draws from in western society? His attempt to draw from actions of (what he fails to see as patriarchal) feminists does little more than construct a circular reference. This further leaves him, albeit unknowingly, floundering in attempt to deny the patriarchal masculinity of violence.

It is refreshing, and I would consider essential for all of us, that Steve Best puts forward the notion that we need to have careful analysis and open debate about what tactics are help and necessary. In addressing the need for what he refers to as total liberation, Steve Best shows that he can be critical and aware of class issues. The question remains as to why he is not aware of anything more than a bastardised and essentialist understanding of both masculinity and nonviolence. To label nonviolence as western-centric represents, for me, his clear lack of historical analysis of resistance to patriarchy. It clear illustrates the impacts of patriarchal societal relations on his analysis in that he infers awareness of masculinity, yet does not attempt to move beyond its ideologically naturalised embodiment in socio-historical papers, published histories and live experiences.

3 thoughts on “essentialisms and ideological naturalising of masculinity – reflections on Steve Best

  1. hey Colin,

    how are you doing?Sorry to not have been in touch for so long-what’s been going on in your life?I just thought I’d check your website to read about your latest cogent thinking about the world.

    I’m in Cambridge now- very hard work and a lot to think about. I’m hoping to get quite involved in student politics and campaigning so that should be good. Lots of stuff going on but would be great to hear from you sometime- send me an email 🙂

    All the best from across the Atlantic,
    Charlotte

  2. You don’t have a clue. You are basing your critique of Best on the basis of one 20 minute radio interview, hardly an opportunity to make a nuanced analysis, and hardly representative of the complexities of analyses he has worked out for 20 years. Moreover, you admit you haven’t read his last two works, so how could you know what the hell you are talking about? Do your homework and don’t clutter web spsace with your insipid straw critiques. While you’re at it, read the last 4 books Best wrote on social theory, and maybe you will understand what he is talking about and why. Everything you says is wrong, and a study of the large context of his work will prove that to you.

  3. I’ve only begun to investigate Mr. Best’s thoughts. However, thus far, he has, I think, convincingly argued that one’s willingness to intervene "violently" on the behalf of an abused baby, if not extended to nonhuman animals in a similar context, is speciesism. The question, however, remains: Is it reasonable to extrapolate from this to cases of "direct action" in the form of the A.L.F., for example? Upon some reflection, I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

    However, unlike Mr. Best, I believe the issue isn’t concluded because pragmatic concerns, or means/end reasoning of the kind you suggest in the post, given our context, must enter into the discussion. Considering the practical consequences (e.g., p.r.) of open rescues, for example, as they relate to the only ethical end, abolition, the situation becomes rather muddy and difficult to resolve.     

    Mr. Best is, however, an important voice to counter Mr. Francione’s reliance and attempted moral defence of non-violence as the only ethical means to any end.

    [edited to remove field code errors and correct formatting]

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