coromandal


The difference between man and animal is one of degree and not of kind

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Image: Henri Rousseau

I walked into the bathroom to see what my dad was doing. He was drowning Pixie’s pups because no one in Visag would take them. They looked  up desperately through the clear water and bubbles. He set their limp bodies aside and later buried them in the yard. This was wrong, but I had almost no emotion. My dad was so assured of the issue of animals and I believed him. We ate meat at meals and we were taught that animals are dumb, and the people who worship them, Hindus, were wrong to do so. Pixie herself, who I still love after all these years, was euthanized and buried in the yard when we left the country.

I put out traps in my apartment during the winter when the mice come in and start to bother me. This was before I found out there are more humanitarian ways of getting rid of them – moth balls work, they hate the smell. Once, I found a mouse caught in a trap behind the TV and he was still alive and terrified. The wire had pinched his lower body but not the vital organs. I worried how long he had been there. I picked him up and filled a bucket as my dad had done and drowned him. The same thing happened: he looked up at me as he expelled his last breath. I was more emotional; I believed the assurances of my father less and felt the pain of the mouse more.

Darwin said humans are different from animals ‘in degree not kind;’ significant difference but fully related. And since he said it, we have basically believed the opposite, that animals are completely different and fully inferior. We believed the opposite so we could conquer and use animals and not feel bad about it. We did the same with slaves, they were mere chattel.

What inconvenience would result, and what new world emerge, if we began to think as Darwin did? A recognition in the eyes of a mouse his short life is ending with regret, longing and pain. The extension of the human condition to include the animal kingdom. As Barnes says below, a revolution in how we live and organize the planet – or allow it to organize us.

Carl Safina, a professor of nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, New York, wrote:

“Suggesting that other animals can feel anything wasn’t just a conversation stopper; it was a career killer. In 1992, readers of the exclusive journal Science were warned by one academic writer that studying animal perceptions ‘isn’t a project I’d recommend to anyone without tenure’.”

It is odd that scientists, who claim to work only from data, and philosophers, who, like Wittgenstein, might speculate without anything as sordid as data but still love a good bit of logic, operate on the certainty that, while all placental mammals are put together in the same way physiologically, one of them is somehow completely different from all the other 4,000-odd – so different that we don’t even need evidence to prove it. Are we talking about the soul here? I ask only for information.

Throughout the years, people have sought to isolate and identify humanity’s USP, and every time they have done so, they discover that some animal – some non-human animal – has it, too. All the barriers we have erected between ourselves and other animals turn out to be frail and porous: emotion, thought, problem-solving, tool use, culture, an understanding of death, an awareness of the self, consciousness, language, syntax, sport, mercy, magnanimity, individuality, names, personality, reason, planning, insight, foresight, imagination, moral choice… even art, religion and jokes.

It’s all in Darwin, but we have spent getting on for two centuries ignoring or distorting the stuff he taught us. In The Descent of Man, he wrote: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” If you accept evolution by means of natural selection, that must be true.

Why, then, are humans so resistant to the idea? We can find the answer in human history. For many years it was important to uphold the notion of the moral and mental inferiority of non-white people, because without such a certainty colonialism and slavery would be immoral. And that would never do: they were so convenient.

To change our views on the uniqueness of human beings would require recalibrating 5,000 years or so of human thought, which would in turn require revolutionary changes in the way we live our lives and manage the planet we all live on.

And that would be highly inconvenient.

Simon Barnes, Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom: Books by Elena Passarello, Peter Wohlleben and Lucy Cooke explore our relationship with wildlife, The New Statesman

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ressentiment

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Ressentiment is the emotion of the outsider looking in – to what? – with envy and powerlessness. It’s ascendant among the ranks of the precariat and gigger.

It’s an emotion that results from secularism, meritocracy, egalitarianism and market fundamentalism, ideologies which strip away social bonds and leave us each to struggle – nobly – on our own.

Ressentiment manifests in the outsider as envy, fascination and revulsion; and in the insider as vanity and narcissism.

The outsider is envious of the insider who is an empty shell. The insider, steeped in schadenfreude, hates. The outsider struggles to differentiate himself from peers and friends, and learns to love his abasement.

Rinse and repeat.

Here is Pankaj Mishra on the Age of Anger:

Ressentiment – caused by an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness – is not simply the French word for resentment. Its meaning was shaped in a particular cultural and social context: the rise of a secular and meritocratic society in the 18th century. Even though he never used the word, the first thinker to identify how ressentiment would emerge from modern ideals of an egalitarian and commercial society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An outsider to the Parisian elite of his time, who struggled with envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection, Rousseau saw how people in a society driven by individual self-interest come to live for the satisfaction of their vanity – the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself.

But this vanity, luridly exemplified today by Donald Trump’s Twitter account, often ends up nourishing in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and it can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby individuals feel acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection. (As Gore Vidal pithily put it: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”)

 

Welcome to the Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra