BY JIM MASON
(or... Our Blindspot for Animals)
For over 150 years now, leading Western thinkers have been pondering The Nature Question, i.e.: What is to be our place in nature? Most of them have questioned our Western tradition of seeing ourselves as masters over nature. A good many have written about our “alienation from nature”—our sense of being above and separate from the rest of the living world—as a basic cause of much human misery.
Such thinking accelerated in the 1960s, when more and more people began waking up to our rape of the environment (the living world). In 1967, for example, California law professor Christopher D. Stone wrote a law review article that has become a sacred text of the environmental movement. His “Should Trees Have Standing?” called for “a radical new connection of man’s (sic) relationship to the rest of nature.” In the same year, historian Lynn White, Jr. wrote “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in which he urged a rethinking of “fundamentals.” Many other notables have echoed them: Humanity needs “radical” and “fundamental” changes in its relationship with nature (the living world).
Okay, then what about our relationships with animals? Oddly, this “Animal Question” is strenuously avoided, for it is too emotionally sticky. The great thinkers have put up barriers here, and branded the whole area silly, sentimental, neurotic, and misguided. One who ventures in there is rarely taken seriously again—especially in academia.
This is tragic, for the Animal Question is the very heart of the Nature Question. For the human mind—the sum of human experience—animals have always been the souls and spirits of the living world, its most lively actors. Animals figure in our art, folklore, speech, and creation myths everywhere. Animals start up young children’s thoughts and fuel our dreams throughout life. A few thinkers know that we have animals on the mind—more so than any other things in nature (the living world). It is pretty hard to see how we can ever have any honest, meaningful discussion of the Nature Question so long as we keep the Animal Question off limits. It is either shallow or cowardly thinking that calls for a “radical” overhaul of the West’s worldview and then rigidly avoids the very core of that worldview.
I will admit that the Animal Question is the biggest and most disturbing part of the Nature Question—too upsetting, really, for much of a long, sober look. But that must be our first step: to see just how basic it is. The next step is to feel out the cultural and emotional barriers that keep us away from the deeper layers of the Animal Question. When we do this, we will see that many of these barriers come from a kind of prejudice, an attitude of hatred and contempt toward animals. I call this “misothery” (from the Greek, meaning “hatred of animals”). Like misogyny, misothery is deeply embedded in our patriarchal, dominionist Western culture. Its helps keep animals in their place—some on our plates, others as either pests (to be eliminated) or tools (to be used).
There is more to be gained here than mere integrity and intellectual honesty. We humans beings sorely need a better, healthier sense of who we are as a species and of how we ought to carry on among the other living beings of the world. Let’s just say that we need a better, healthier human spirit. The logical place to start is to take an honest look at biological realities: We are animals, one kind among millions of others; we are the youngest children of a great family of living beings.
Kinship is the biological reality on this earth, but our worldview and prevailing religions deny it and promote misothery and alienation instead. No wonder we destroy the living world and suffer a malaise of the human spirit.