What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Naisargi Dave on Affection and Animal Activism

“What does it mean to love animals?” asks Archana Venkatesan, associate professor of religious studies and comparative literature at UC Davis.

This is the question taken up by Naisargi Dave, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, in her talk “Love and Other Injustices: On Humans, Animals, and Indifference to Difference.” Sponsored by the Paul A. and Marie Castelfranco Lecture Series and the Department of Religious Studies, Dave’s talk on Thursday, March 5 drew together discourses from animal studies, ethics and religion, and anthropology.

Dave is a natural storyteller, able to weave together rigorous academic analysis with tales of people who are not only evidence for her argument but fully-fleshed out characters.

She is interested in the grounds for animal activism, particularly in India, which is where she has done much of her fieldwork. Even though animal activists often cite love as the feeling that primarily drives their humanitarian efforts, Dave argues that perhaps love is not the most ethical foundation for activism. After all, she says, “With love, we know in advance what to save.”

Love, according to Dave, is a politics and tool of distinction, a way to create a “fortress” or an island around oneself so as not to “drown in obligation.” Perhaps, she argues, rather than using love to differentiate between what is worthy and not worthy of saving, we should implement an “indifference to difference” that would open up the realm of animal activism to what is typically deemed unlovable.

Dave’s analysis is filled with stories, and as an anthropologist, these are often stories of people. In order to illustrate her call for “indifference to difference,” she tells the story of one man who runs a small organization that cares for street dogs. He cares for the animals without open affection and without attachment. She tells of how he accompanies him one day as he pulls maggots out of an infected street dog, only to have the dog almost killed by a passing car a moment later. The man, who shrugs and says, “She is old,” is an example of the sort of activist rooted in indifference that Dave advocates for.

The paper poses a sharp contrast between the seemingly insane love of animals of many activists and the productive indifference of a select few.

The shrug is an important image for Dave’s work. It represents indifference to difference, and even indifference to sameness, a mutual estrangement, and a willingness to be strange, both to another and to oneself.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English