Friday, June 13, 2008

Rambling Rant on Empathy

This week I was watching The Colbert Report, and saw a guest Steve Colbert had on called Alan Rabbinowitz. Rabbinowitz told the story of how he was a stammerer as a child, and how as a sort of therapy he talked to animals he had as pets. Apparently stammerers have little trouble talking clearly to animals, as there is no judgemental mind to make them nervous. Anyway, he made a promise to these pets that if, when he grew up, he could overcome this speech impediment, he would use his voice to be a voice for animals. He has indeed gone on to make good efforts on behalf of large wild cats, like tigers, panthers, and jaguars. Colbert said, after hearing this story, that he had come the closest to crying that he ever had on his show. Rabbinowitz said he thought it was obvious that animals had minds, personalities, and emotions, but no voices, and that he wanted to be "a voice for the animals."

Yeahmm...Whenever anybody sets up to be "a voice for the voiceless," little alarm bells go off in my head. It always suggests for me a subtle grab for power from groups which, by their very definition, can never disagree or protest decisions made in their name. Decisions made for non-coherent groups of humans, such as the very young, the senile, the comatose, the mentally disturbed, made by some self-appointed ambassador, seem to me questionable if they pose these decisions as the sensitively divined wills of the non-coherent themselves, rather than as the decisions of the ambassadors, no matter how humanely and ethically arrived at they may be. It seems to me to be patronizing in the worst, most extreme sense of the word. People can have trouble figuring out the will and desires of people they know and can speak with, sometimes.

How much more difficult it must be to figure out what an animal or plant would say if it could talk. For all we know know a tiger might say, "I want little fat babies, and plenty of 'em." An oak tree might want its forest to spread to cover the earth, with no other trees to compete. In nature there are checks and balances to keep species strong and controlled; it is true that humans have in some instances damaged the balance, and if they want to restore it, must take action. But we have to do it as the only ethical self-aware sentient beings we know of on the planet, not as the prophets of the birds and beasts.

"If I could talk to the animals." "I speak for the trees. Let 'em grow! Let 'em grow!" It has been a dream of mankind since we left the Garden to commune with nature. We fill our literature with talking beasts and walking trees, with elves and hobbits, and people the stars with aliens, all in our desire to communicate with the Other, in our loneliness as the only perceived intelligence in the universe. It is part of our empathy, one of our noblest traits, to want to treat others as we would want to be treated. It is what made Mr. Colbert want to cry when he heard it. I hope it is only a metaphor that Mr. Rabbinowitz uses to further his worthwhile goals. But an over-developed anthropomorphism can lead on one hand to the person who treats their dog like some kind of mute child, and on the other to a kind of tyranny in the name of a constituency that can never bring its leader to heel.

I would dearly love to be able to talk to my cat, Shadow, if only to ask him not to throw up hairballs on my treasured possessions. But to do that, he would have to become more human, in essence ruining what it would mean for him to really be a cat. Or I would have to move to his level, becoming more of a beast. Neither option appeals to me.

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