Editorial: Small primates on a limb

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2000:

“Culture,” says the National Geographic Desk Reference, “provides the identity that links members of one society together and can also divide those members from other cultures.” In other words, culture is the learned behavior that separates the sheep from the goats, and also determines in which order the sheep and goats march. Culture could be defined as a collective term for the variety of social, economic, and political methods that humans use to form and maintain what we would recognize in other species as a dominance hierarchy.

Culturally entrenched cruelties resist abolition because the evolution of culture itself is often driven by the motives underlying the cruelty, so much so that the whole cultural selfidentification of some societies becomes preoccupied with establishing who may abuse whom. The more basic the society, meaning the most absorbed in constant struggle for both personal and collective survival, the more likely it is to be organized around “might makes right,” like a tribe of chimpanzees––and the more likely the culture of the society will consist chiefly of activities meant to remind members of their rank. The hazing practiced by social clubs and athletic teams serves such a purpose, for example, and is seldom far removed from cruelty because it is central to a culture whose whole purpose is defining the dominance of the incrowd or the winners, and excluding others from the exhalted inner circle.

Much of human culture exists, like other species’ means of determining dominance, because our forebears lived in times and places where eating, drinking, and mating ahead of others were often imperative to survival. Trying always to be first, however, could itself be fatal. Therefore rituals evolved which could establish social position short of direct all-out combat. Sports and politics evolved to test strength, courage, and cunning. Public sacrifice, including of slaves and prisoners, came about as an intimidating display of authority––and of pretense to having influence with supposed higher powers. Marriage, adoption, employment, and other contractual activities developed to codify arrangements for ganging up, so as to either achieve greater dominance or escape being dominated.

Messenger mediums of human culture such as speech, music, the visual arts, and literature grew in large part from the growling and gibbering of small primates gathered along a branch to watch dominant males try to throw each other down to the scavengers below.

The combatants in such a struggle tell each other that they are the fiercest and the baddest, each hoping to intimidate the other into retreat before an actual brawl becomes necessary. Warily moving closer, they bare their fangs, beat their chests, and toss debris. The onlookers shout encouragement, perhaps tell stories of past battles that their heroes and troupes have won, and watch for any hint that it might be time to either engage in collective combat or discreetly switch sides.

Some of that activity eventually became journalism, philosophy, and the social sciences, recording the outcome of dominance struggles and investigating ways to accomplish the goals of dominance, such as more food and mating opportunities, with reduced risk. Humans thus learned––quite recently in our evolution––that increasing production of food and other material goods is a more successful strategy than fighting over a limited supply.

Some of us also learned, still more recently, that even though cruelty can help to establish dominance, it tends to bring response in kind, from rivals if not from terrorized victims. Cruelty raises the risk of conflict. Therefore, even if those practicing cruelty do not see it as wrong, restraining it is in our collective interest. Since the invention of law, we have increasingly limited both who may be victimized, and what may be done to the victims.

Because even our restraints against cruelty have grown out of our quests for dominance, we tend to protect first and most securely those who are best able to protect themselves by commanding wealth and influence. Next best protected are those whose cries for help are most likely to bring response from the stronger members of society, in descending but sometimes varying order. Near the top of this hierarchy are the mates and offspring of the strongest. Next come others of their tribe; allies, employees, trading partners, or valued slaves; any cherished companion animals; animals kept for work or as food; and wildlife performing some useful service. Other species are usually left unprotected.

The great cultural conflicts of our time concern reordering our dominance hierarchy and refining our systems of restraint to make more effective use of the knowledge gained over the years by those who have been luckiest in escaping the incessant fighting which keeps much of the rest of humanity still focused on who can throw whom off the tree limb.

Mahavira, the Buddha, and the Solomonic author of Ecclesiastes, among others, may have understood long ago that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, that both the live maggot and the dead lion have their place and value, and that liveand-let-live may ultimately be the policy most conducive to everyone’s well-being. Yet they could only begin to introduce––and perhaps themselves barely understood––concepts so foreign to our evolutionary experience as forgoing the exercise of dominance for its own sake.

Enough humans have by now come to share some of their insights that recognition of the “certain inalienable rights” Thomas Jefferson held to be self-evident––to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness––have gradually been extended from enjoyment only by the leaders who still possessed the “divine right of kings” in Jefferson’s own time, to be claimed and used by perhaps half of all adult human males and a third of all adult human females.

We have nominally abolished such once-routine dominance exercises as slavery, cannibalism, burning widows, human sacrifice, and infanticide, though they persist here and there. We seem to be making progress, albeit slow, against female genital mutilation, compelled marriage, family violence, censorship, torture, enforced illiteracy, and denial of rights to vote and hold elective office.

In our best-organized, most peaceable and therefore most productive and culturally advanced nations, humans are even beginning to accord limited rights to animals, notably collective rights to survive as species, and individual rights to live free from human cruelty.

Global agreements and many national laws now stipulate that we have learned we must protect biodiversity, even at huge economic cost, to reduce the risk of our own extinction. The recent passage of felony anti-cruelty laws in a majority of states amounts to recogniton of the value of prohibiting cruelty to animals to reduce the odds that we ourselves might be raped, murdered, plundered, or pillaged.

Empathy for the animal victims, a powerful motivation for many people working against cruelty, was only a generation ago scorned as useless anthropomorphism, but is now increasingly understood to be of collective cultural benefit––in large part through Walt Disney rewrites of our major cultural myths––because it helps to awaken the perception that what we do to others or allow to be done may in some form eventually be done to us.

Victimizers and the victimized

Animal defenders, crime-fighters, and others contemplating cruelty from outside the perspective producing it often wonder why cruel people seem to feel so little empathy as to do what they do to either human or animal victims. A related puzzle is why some people go far beyond the levels of abuse which are accepted as culturally “normal” in such routine and generally accepted cruelties as hunting, fishing, and slaughtering animals for meat.

Two seemingly opposing explanations converge.

The first and most obvious is detachment. Most humans learn in early childhood to distance themselves from any self-identification with the animals whom they are taught to eat. Killing for any other purpose is then rationalized by comparison to slaughter: if one may kill and eat an animal, why not medically experiment on an animal? If a bull-calf may be killed for veal, why not subject a mature bull to electroshock at rodeos? If pigs and chickens may be factory-farmed for slaughter, why not shoot deer and wild geese, who enjoy a more natural life and have––usually––a swifter, less stressful death?

By extension, equating other people with animals allows easily killing them at war.

The second explanation is that natural empathy too often becomes perverted into its opposite. Many humans identify too much with their victims, animal and human alike, for their own psychological comfort. Some face the source of their pain, change their lives to avoid inflicting more pain on others, and dedicate themselves to preventing suffering. Others practice superficial detachment but show glimpses of deeper disturbance in self-identification with their victims. We have countless clippings on file, for example, in which hunters, fishers, trappers, whalers, and sealers claim that they as well as the animals they kill should be seen as “endangered species,” because their cultures are in jeopardy.

Sometimes this is mere rhetorical defense of a livelihood, akin to the Confederate defense of slavery, but at least as often it is not, because the activity requiring defense has not been economically productive for most participants in years, decades, even centuries.

Other humans’ whole lives may come to center upon a struggle to escape their fear of being victimized by victimizing someone else. Criminologists recognize an especially dangerous syndrome in which a cowardly person develops an exhalted sense of self-esteem through bullying and manipulating weaker people; forms a sense of entitlement which is disproportionate to earned worth; represses recognition of the same traits within himself which he despises in his victims; nurses a grudge over not getting what he feels is his due; steeps his rage in hate; and wreaks revenge. Through transference, any vulnerable creature may become the victim. The person exhibiting this syndrome may keep it within socially accepted bounds by living to hunt and fish, or ride bulls in rodeo. If less inhibited, however, that person may commit a long-planned mass murder, or serially rape and kill––and then, in prison, become a homosexual prostitute, as many such individuals have. Small groups of such people may become cells of hate groups.

The intensity of such a person’s fear and hatred of vulnerability reflecting his own is reflected in the vulnerability of his victims––always animals or people who cannot effectively fight back––and the extent of the suffering he visits upon them, trying to transfer and expiate his self-hatred by pretending that they represent whomever he believes has wronged him.

Similar parallel elements of both detachment and self-identification, denied yet intense, seem to be involved in every form of deliberate cruelty, from the passive/aggressive neglect practiced by animal hoarders, consumed by fear of death and loss, to the prolonged beatings and burnings inflicted on dogs and cats just before they are killed and eaten in Korea.

Ironically, those who defend such atrocities as dog-and-cat-eating in Korea by claiming it is part of their culture are right about the cultural aspect: it is a cultural legacy of a small nation whose entire history until recent years consisted of invasions, subjugations, deprivation and dictatorship. Dogs and cats are accessible scapegoats for newly wealthy people who still feel the poverty and humiliation of the desperate times which only recently ended, and lack the introspective ability to get over it instead of just taking it out on further victims.

Bullfighting is likewise part of the culture of Spain and Latin America in reflection of long dictatorial repression––and bullfighting has waned since the advent of political and economic liberty has begun to erode the frustration levels once endemic to those societies.

Nor is it just coincidence that female genital mutilation persists most in the former slave-exporting nations of North Africa. It is a relic of the cultural view that people are property. Most human residents of those nations possess almost nothing except the ability to inflict an extremely painful permanent reminder of property status on little girls.

In each instance, generations of institutionalized abuse and little for most people to take pride in have produced self-perpetuating cycles. Old abuse victims demonstrate status by initiating younger people into both suffering and performing, in turn, the same cruel rites.

Similar cycles are evident in the U.S., where underclass thugs seek status through cockfighting and dogfighting, as well as drug-dealing, pimping, and mayhem.

Hunting, fishing, trapping, and rodeo are not yet universally seen as underclass activities, yet participants these days can rarely rationalize their actions with economic pretext, and the very nature of the activities makes clear that establishing symbolic dominance is what they are all about. Hunters, fishers, and trappers take trophies from their dead victims; rodeo cowboys’ rides on bucking steers and horses crudely symbolize bestial subjugation.

The humane movement is about taking human culture in an altogether different direction. It is about invalidating, incapacitating, and replacing any cultural institution or whole culture which requires the practice or glorification of cruelty. We must not be afraid to say so, or to point out the perversion inherent in allowing anyone to equate cultural self-identity with the extent to which he or she can make other beings miserable.

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