Giving Humaneness

A Guide in Humane Awareness

In looking to the Humane Movement as a model to understand humane concepts, we find that the prevention of cruelty to animals or others plays a significant role in the Movement's goals and mission.

When we prevent cruelty, we are acting in the most proactive and kind manner. It takes foresight to prevent cruelty, and an awareness of the fact that various forms of cruelty can and do occur. Actively preventing cruelty to others and oneself requires awareness and sensitivity to the suffering of others.

Oftentimes it is only the person sensitive to cruelty to others who is willing to name and speak to the fact that a certain act is cruel. Initially, in England, cruelty to animals was criminal only when the act was severe enough to constitute a public nuisance. However, in 1822 the British Parliament passed the Martin Act for animal protection, and two years later, Richard "Humanity" Martin formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Martin was clear about what he meant by cruelty to animals. People were often surprised at what they were no longer allowed to do to animals, because animals were commonly thought to be little more than animate 'things', put on earth for the convenience of man. Martin fought against such cruelties as lack of food, water and shelter, over-driving, harnessing of dogs to carts in order to pull heavy loads, bull and bear-baiting, cock and dog-fighting, and the trapping of animals and birds.1

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed in New York City in 1875. In 1877, the American Humane Association was formed to prevent cruelty to animals and children.

Today, society no longer tolerates the abuse of children, and this is good. There are now many departments in government and non-governmental agencies that are established to ensure that children are treated with the highest level of dignity, nurturing and respect. This is a vast improvement that humanity has made in the last 125 years of development.

Education, law-making and enforcement, offering shelter to the abused and neglected, and the reporting and investigation of cruelty are strategic tools that these organizations use to ensure that cruelty is abated. It is hard to imagine that at one time cock or dog fighting was acceptable, or that the employment of children in Victorian factories was not considered to be a problem. But society has evolved to the point that we are now aware that children, animals, the defenseless, need to be protected.

At times, it takes extreme courage to prevent systemic cruelty, such as in the case of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, thus starting the end to racial segregation in the United States. Or in the case of Nelson Mandela and others who non-violently brought down apartheid in South Africa. Often these people are first considered to be subversives, radicals, or the lunatic fringe, but later we come to understand that their vision of a humane society was more just and compassionate than anything we could image societty to be.

Take, for example, the life and work of Rachel Carson who, in her book Silent Spring (1962) alerted the public to the potential long-term effect of pesticide use in terms of human health and the environment. Attacked and named as an alarmist by the chemical industry and by some in the government, she had the courage to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world, subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. Rachel Carson is now considered to be the founder of the environmental movement.2

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1848, crafted and published her Declaration of Sentiments of 18 grievances, enumerating areas of life where women were treated unjustly, men and women were shocked that she suggested that women should be allowed to vote. Seventy-two years later, in 1920, women were given the right to vote in the United States.

In each of the above cases, the individuals had an awareness of cruelty, suffering or abuse and strove, under great pressure, to bring about a change through acting and speaking clearly about the injustices they saw. There are voices that today speak to areas of human life that need our heeding. For example, the war in the Sudan with its murder, rape, starvation and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in "refugee" camps. The cry is being made, but is anyone truly listening?

When you had the experience:

  • What were you aware of?

  • What thoughts were you thinking?

  • What were you feeling?

  • What were you doing at the time?

Here is my personal experience in which I gave humaneness to another:

  • What were you aware of?

    Broken glass along a section of the seawall.

  • What thoughts were you thinking?

    I better warn the kids about the broken glass.

  • What were you feeling?

    Fear that the kids running along the seawall without shoes could get cut from broken glass.

  • What were you doing at the time?

    Walking along the seawall with a friend.

The above experience may seem to be trivial in light of those who have made great strides in preventing cruelty or suffering in all areas of society. But it doesn't take much to be humane towards another. When we warn someone that, for example, the handle of the pot on the stove is hot, we are being humane. When we offer or suggest a program or technique to a friend or family member that would help him or her stop smoking, then we are also being humane.

It is the loving, gracious, generous, empathetic and compassionate spirit within us that drives our humane impulses. In being aware of possibilities or situations in which we can be humane, we trigger a sensitivity or alertness to the potential for cruelty to exist. Once we are aware of the potential, we can then free ourselves to act in a proactively kind or humane manner and address the cruelty or potential cruelty.

A humane society is created through a combination of little, seemingly minor, acts of humaneness, and dedicated efforts directed at areas of society where cruelty remains to be systemic in the world. For example: children being used in warfare, slavery, child and forced prostitution, child poverty, illiteracy, disease or the lack of fresh water and arable land. This is not a complete list, but is a mere sample of work that needs to be done.

Take a few minutes to reflect upon how you can help to create a more compassionate and humane society, and make a decision to follow that awareness with an action. This action could be as simple as making a donation to a local charity that prevents cruelty or suffering.

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Copyright © Kenneth Hemmerick 2005
All Rights Reserved

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