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Individualism and the dog

Iftekhar Sayeed, Online Journal Contributing Writer

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 with sanctions.)

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 Bangladesh.

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