January 27, 2007
"Watching people interact with their pets, I often wonder
why we can't treat other human beings with the compassion that animals seem to
evoke in us." --Patrick Moore
After the war in Afghanistan, the citizens of the United
States, out of the goodness of their hearts, donated 50 precious cents for
every Afghan man, woman and child; each animal in the zoo received $10,000.
Marjan, the wounded lion, became a celebrity, and died in regal style after his
16 minutes of fame. No stronger evidence of the tendency of Westerners to
identify more with animals than with human beings can be adduced by the author.
(Except one, perhaps: the fact that the British parliament was passionately
debating banning fox-hunting while calmly murdering 1.7 million Iraqi children
Now, to research the reasons, the why and wherefore. For it
must be admitted that had we Asians been sending aid, the figures would have
been reversed: the chicken feed would have been for the animals, so to speak.
Would our priorities have been wrong? Are people more important than animals?
That Western men and women should identify with animals has
political as well as historical reasons. The latter first. Sociologists have
revealed that Europeans have been individualists for at least 700 years. They
would grow up in a family, and leave as soon as they could (the same could not
be said of the children -- especially the first-born male -- of aristocrats,
who had a great deal to lose by gallivanting off into freedom). Individualism
was the fate of the ruck of western men and women. As for the dog, sociology is
strangely silent on the subject. But one can hazard a conjecture: the lonely
individual needed company.
From history we now cast a retrospective glance into
prehistory. When humanity moved about the face of the earth in hunting and
gathering bands, the dog -- or its predecessor -- wandered about in similar
fashion. The creature lived off the offal -- a bit like western aid. And, like
western aid, the effect was similar: loyalty over millennia. Finally, around
10,000 years ago, we settled down and the dog with us, too.
Back to European history. The individual Englishman, say,
needed companionship. He could, of course, marry. But he would have to be able
to support himself before he could do that. And if peasants married, well one
of them would die and the kids would be off. The dog would be loyal; true, the
dog would also kick the bucket, and every dog is individual -- if one will
pardon the confusion of terms -- in its own way; but no dog is irreplaceable.
Dogs are, like coins, homogeneous up to quite an extent. Hence began the
association between individualism and the dog.
Now for the political reason, and this is closely tied to
the historical. Animals, we have noted, are all of a piece, and so are birds: a
myna is a myna is a myna. Association with the dog began just before the
imperial expansions -- before the 'discovery’ and destruction of the 'Red’
Indians, for instance. By identifying with a lesser creature -- the dog -- the
European was able to assuage his guilt at the torment of an equal -- the human
being in North America or Africa. By being kind to the former, he could be
savage with the latter. Notice the case of the Afghans: people are individuals,
and that’s a fact that Americans did not wish to take into account. Animals are
uniform: they are the same in every hemisphere. Marjan could equally have been
an American lion. Not so the Afghan -- heaven forbid! She is Muslim, veiled,
says her prayers five times a day, wears her hair long, and has never seen the
inside of a Wal-Mart store.
Animals constitute a kind of universal constituency. The
priest, Bartoleme de Las Casas, was horrified by the suffering of Indian slaves
in South America. He was so moved by the spectacle of enchained Indians that he
requested the monarch, out of sheer humanity, that Indians be not enslaved
anymore; certainly not! But then, who would take their place? He gave the
matter a moment’s thought, and, Solomon-like, suggested: Africans!
When the African slaves began to arrive, again, to his
horror, he began to notice their unmistakable similarity to human beings. They
talked -- uttering strange sounds, it is true, but they definitely talked; they
walked on two legs; and they wept. Convinced that he had imported human beings,
he was again filled with remorse. But the damage had been done -- the slave
trade had been started by a priest with noble intentions.
The point of this story is that the Western person conceives
of the rest of mankind as animals. Only when faced with the irrefutable
evidence of a creature’s humanity will they concede the fact. Conversely, they
regard animals as universally human. The treatment of Palestinians and blacks
testify to the first truth; the Royal Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To
Animals the other.
Every dog represents all other dogs. But every human being
does not represent all other human beings. Humans have culture, ways of life,
religious beliefs and values which differ from society to society. The attempt
to find universal values on the part of Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch is nothing but the attempt to rob us of our humanity, to dehumanise us,
to make us more like animals.
But above all -- animals can be subjugated. The Afghan and
the Iraqi cannot. And the West despises people it cannot subjugate. Those of us
who wear dog collars receive their affection: they stroke us and we purr (dogs
don’t purr, of course, but it is difficult not to mix one’s metaphors here).
Those of us who bite, they whip -- and whip!
Animal-love, then, arises from a kind of democracy of
animals, in their uniform representation over the face of the earth, in the
feeling that each white person is a kind of MP for the particular animal
species concerned. Philanthropy, on the other hand, arises from a feeling of
difference. Christian missionaries spread out all over the world because they
felt those ugly savages had to be civilised -- even at the point of a bayonet,
if necessary. Joseph Conrad, himself a victim of imperialism, puts these words
into the mouth of one of his characters in Heart
of Darkness. The exploitation of the Congo, he maintained, was being
conducted to wean "those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." How many of
those ignorant savages were murdered -- worked to death -- by King Leopold and
his agents is a matter of historical record (and has found only one historian
so far). They were simply not animal enough to be put in game reserves.
Notice the absence of animal terms in our language -- when
they do occur, they occur as pejorative expressions. Where is the equivalent of
'top dog’ or 'pig in a poke’ or 'not room enough to swing a cat in’ or
'lionise’? There is a psychological separation between us and animals. We know
we are not animals; an Englishman or American lacks that insight regarding
those who are not English or American; in downgrading us to the lower level, he
degrades himself even more.
The language -- and without paradox -- betrays the beast.
Iftekhar Sayeed was
born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as
well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial
Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The
Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal,
Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong;
Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal
in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour
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