Thought over Culture

The controversy over whether to dissociate Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton is of far less importance than (just to name a few) climate change, terrorism, gun absolutism, racially motivated police shootings, and speciesism, that last of which ruins the environment, damages our health, and makes us cruel. Nonetheless, the question of whether or not to remove Wilson’s name has gained attention and might have more importance than it seems in revealing just how unthinking a species we tend to be. Why not step back and consider why we have a mania for naming buildings, bridges, roads, and concert halls after some man (and I mean man as opposed to woman, although I am not suggesting that the practice would be more defensible if only it were more gender neutral). I would hate to be called upon to write the essay explaining in 500 words or less why it is important that we put mens’ names on things. On the other hand, I could write the essay why it makes little sense that we memorialize men, from the old days and recent times, in this way.

Any man who has received this “honor” did whatever it was he did in his own self-interest and reaped the rewards. Why must we reward someone who was doing what he wanted and probably succeeded at least to some degree whether president, senator, mayor, or baseball player. Second, we did not need the example of Woodrow Wilson to know that there is no such thing as a “great man.” I have no reverence for a slave owner. I don’t think a single founding father who owned slaves could be seen as a positive sum of very negative parts. They did some notable things (again, of their own volition and to their own aggrandizement while alive), but if they owned slaves, they were not moral in that regard, which is not hindsight given it was the age of reason and enlightenment, that most of the Western world at that time did not own slaves, and that England was on the verge of ending, or had abolished slavery. They also of course were sexist, appropriating for themselves power and rights and depriving women of pursuing meaningful lives. As with abolition, ideas of the equality of women were also available; there was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, if they needed help in understanding why subjugating half of the population was wrong.  Leaving the “great man” idea aside, I must wonder what does anyone, particularly the deceased, gain by having his name attached to a structure. It must be for the gratification of his heirs, who certainly have no right to special treatment by the accident of their relationship to one of these successful men.

Vaguely sensing that “honoring” someone in this way is the “right” approach probably just counts as one of those things that we do without any real thought at all—it’s just what we do.  However, although it no doubt figures as a lapse in the exercise of reason, it might be more than a cultural eccentricity or neutral practice of no importance, like shaking hands rather than saluting, bowing, or embracing. The practice can lend itself to a more insidious use because the name can reflect not so much the famous “great” man per se as much as what he stands for, and the group in favor of emblazoning his name on the roadways uses the name to promote its self-serving and recondite agenda.

The only exception to the pointlessness of naming buildings, bridges, and roads is when a large donor of funds insists on having his name attached to the project. Okay, if there is quid pro quo attached to the money, then it must be done; spend the money and leave for no one to bother with the question, “What petty thrill of fame does that donor get from seeing his name on the placard?”

 

Hip Undertakers, Seneca, and Emily Bronte

Did anyone read the article in The New Yorker “Or Bodies, Ourselves”? As a Stoic, I am drawn to reading anything that brings death forward for our consideration.  Stoics use thoughts of death to appreciate life, to remind themselves to make the most of time with loved ones, and to remember that most things in life are trivial.  I think death, in addition to being the catalyst for the carpe diem mentality just described, is the great equalizer; we humans are quite smug in the superiority of our species, but we are animals and, like all the other species, we will die and become nothing more than that which we were before we were born. Some may question the latter part of that assertion, unable to accept such finality, but at least it is true that our bodies (if not cremated) will rot just like the bodies of our dogs, cats, and other animals great and small. Seneca exhorted his readers to study death up close in order not to fear it. Given the times and situation of living under the gaze of a crazed emperor, Seneca and his friends needed to be prepared at all times to dispatch themselves at his command.

The article acquaints us with a young, hip undertaker named Caitlin Doughty, who runs L.A. Undertaking.  She is a proponent of returning to the old-fashioned way of handling our dead. Similar to the at-home birth, she advocates an at-home death, complete with participation in corpse preparation.  Returning to the good old days in this regard is worth doing only if we stand to benefit by it.  If by handing over the corpse, we are somehow depriving ourselves because doing so fosters our fear of death or complicates or worsens our grief, then we should take her up on this idea.  If not, then keeping the corpse around is no better than returning to a lot of old fashioned things that ranged from very inconvenient to miserable. Women used to get this task.  Read Wuthering Heights: Nelly Dean is routinely called upon to deal with a dead body. On the topic of women and death, a subtopic of the article is the infusion of women into the undertaking field, which was traditionally male.

One thing that strikes me right away about our having a more involved role with our dead is that bathing and dressing a body is not something we do for each other generally dead or alive. That thought leads me to suppose that I might actually feel that tending the body would be more natural and better if it was that of my own child, but even then, only if he or she were young. However, body preparation is not the sole aspect of the return to the old way of doing things; another is the suggestion to have death occur at home and keep the body there for a while. I have gotten close to that proposed situation to evaluate. I had Gentle Goodbyes euthanize my golden retriever in my home for a backyard burial, which approximates the death experience Doughty endorses. I would hope nobody scoffs at the notion that love of a nonhuman is profound and that the loss can be as great as a human death. I am pretty normal (who isn’t or who is) and have experienced both.  In familiar surroundings, without subjecting Katie to the pain of getting into the car, we remained at home, and a veterinarian of trust-inspiring calm and tangible empathy (a woman) made Katie comfortable with drugs, let me take my time, and ended her suffering. I think Katie had a better end, but did I suffer less? Did having her die at home help me? After all, right behind me will forever be the place where she last lay. My memoires of the room and this house must include her death and the ineffable sight of her dead body, on the floor, then in the blanket that we wrapped her in to place her in the grave dug outside.  My conclusion: it was better that way, so maybe Doughty is on to something, with a large qualifier that I find expressed (again) in Wuthering Heights.  In that novel, Brontë expresses her realization that grief is a personal experience of which the severity or nature depends on the survivor’s particular feelings for and level of dependence on the deceased and not at all on the relationship per se. This is not something Doughty mentions – that dealing with grief is not one-size-fits-all and sorrow does not result in the same ways even for the same kind of losses.

I wonder if Doughty has ever read Wuthering Heights, that death-infused prose-poem, or read it carefully enough to notice all the scenes involving corpses and how some of her words describing her own experiences in dealing with death echo lines from that book.  In particular Ellen Dean’s: “I don’t know if it be a peculiarity in me, but I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death should no frenzied or despairing mourner share the duty with me. I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break; and feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter.”

Killing is the Answer

Under “The National Briefing” in the New York Times this week, appeared the news that Yellowstone National Park officials want to kill one thousand buffalo. The reason is that they might carry disease to livestock. This is a cycle of killing: kill the bison so that ranchers can raise cattle and kill them. Killing is so commonplace when it comes to nonhumans: we kill them to eat, to wear, to experiment on, even for trivial inquiries, and for entertainment.  With killing such an unquestioned part of the acceptable approach in our lives, small wonder we are violent in general. How many of the mass shooters at schools and in movie theaters were hunters; how many would have hesitated to kill an animal? It seems axiomatic that if we did not kill nonhuman animals, we would not so easily kill humans.

The argument that we should stop killing animals because it primes us to kill humans is well known in the animal rights debate and is disfavored by some activists for two reasons. It is easily impeached, and it is not the real reason we should not exploit and kill animals. Regarding the former, the counter argument is easily made that there are a lot of people who kill nonhuman animals who do not kill humans, so there is not a cause and effect relationship. To address that counter argument, I would point out that many people who eat animals or take advantage of them do not do it themselves and manage to keep it up only through complete ignorance or by turning the blind eye of convenience and expediency; that there is indeed a correlation and that animal killing is a gateway to human killing because, as pointed out in the opening paragraph, our mass shooters would not hesitate to kill a nonhuman; they generally did so and enjoyed inflicting suffering on them. On the second objection, I agree that it is more intellectually comprehensive and honest to stop killing animals for the reason that a difference in species does not abolish a moral obligation to have compassion for others. The realization of the evils of speciesism, as developed perfectly by Peter Singer, should change anyone’s outlook on our cruelty toward nonhumans on every level, at least for anyone who has a brain and a conscience strong enough to question culture. Culture—there’s the rub. A mental groundwork  must be laid before any idea like compassion can take root; the understanding, maybe even epiphany, that culture is not sacrosanct, that it is up for critique and needs to be questioned; that just because great grandpa did such and such does not make it right; that just because “everyone” is doing it, does not make it right.  Reaching that point centers the problem because people cling to culture to define themselves and gain a sense of identity.  They are lost having to think for themselves. If you can’t think for yourself, than how could you reach the conclusion that you are somehow better than the nonhumans you mistreat and eat.

A Fairy Tale Death

Here is the blurb about the book “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettelheim.

“Bruno Bettelheim was one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century and perhaps none of his books has been more influential than this revelatory study of fairy tales and their universal importance in understanding childhood development.

Analyzing a wide range of traditional stories, from the tales of Sindbad to “The Three Little Pigs,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Sleeping Beauty,” Bettelheim shows how the fantastical, sometimes cruel, but always deeply significant narrative strands of the classic fairy tales can aid in our greatest human task, that of finding meaning for one’s life.”

I suggest an addition to what fairy tales tell us about not only children, but also about adults: that we innately feel horror about the slaughter of animals for food. Somehow that horror is culturally excised, but it is there, and the fairy tale capitalizes on that sensation.

During the period of the creation of the fairy tale, there were many ways in current practice to torture and kill people. Burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering, being ripped apart by horses, breaking on the rack etc… Nonetheless fairy tales from those bygone eras feature the horror of a different kind of death. Although, I have not and have no desire to do an in depth study of fairy tales, I know the popular ones as many children do who have access to books in the Western world.  I do not recall anyone in a fairy tale meeting his or her end, or fearing to do so, through one of those standard methods. There were the poisoned apple and the poisoned spindle, but the respective victims did not fear those innocuous objects and happened upon them and picked them up willingly. Instead, to engender the greatest horror in a fairy tale, the humans face the risk of suffering what is routinely done to animals. The witch is going to fatten up Hansel and Gretel and put them in the oven; the ogre at the top of the beanstalk is going to grind up human bones for dinner; the wolf is going to eat Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother; the wolf is going to eat the three little pigs, all of which have entirely human characteristics (the ability to build houses and talk, for example). In short, how awful and frightful to be subjected to the fate that we inflict on nonhuman animals, i.e. killing them for food. The strong affinity for animals that many children have and which is fostered by “stuffed animals” and story books anthropomorphizing them, which are either a cause or effect of that affinity, might well make a child subliminally view an animal type of death as particularly horrifying.

One might counter that what is found horrible in those stories is the cannibalistic nature of the death, not a connection to what is done to nonhuman animals. Not so, I would say because cannibalism was not as prominent of a practice in the world that gave rise to the fairy tale as animal confinement and slaughter for food; in fact, it might not have even been known or even comprehensible. Cannibalism was a practice discovered at some point among other cultures or egregiously resorted to by starving sailors, post the period of the fairy tales’ creation.

So, if, as psychologists avow, fairy tales tell us something about ourselves, they are telling us that the most terrible and scary treatment we can imagine is that which we inflict on animals. This is the point where people take up the dogma, “Animals are different,” overlooking the scientific fact that of course humans are animal (not vegetable or mineral and those are your choices). No question, all species differ, but all species have their own interests, have a capacity for suffering, and fear death. When a group, in this case our exalted species, is perpetrating an evil on another, it is always best to consider the victimized group as different, otherwise what that dominant group is doing might be too horrible to contemplate, so horrible that it counts as a terrible and frightful prospect in stories that hold up a mirror to our hidden selves.

A well regulated militia

We hear a lot about the rights under the Second Amendment, so dear to the hearts of so many people, so I thought I should read it again. I must not have been remembering it correctly, since I thought it addressed maintaining a militia. Here it is in all its glory:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

If that sentence were on the SAT writing section, there would be choices for rewriting it, with the correct one eliminating the weak gerund of the verb “to be” and the passive voice, bringing clarity and directness to the message, to read as follows:

“The people have the right to keep and bear arms in order to maintain a well regulated militia, which is necessary to the security of a free State.”

Even in 18th Century syntax, there is no question what the import of this sentence is. Any lawyers out there who have ever drafted a document?  I have drafted many, and when a lawyer writes a modifying phrase like, “A well-regulated militia being necessary,” he or she intends to convey that what follows is modified by that phrase. Actually any grammarian-writer would recognize that.  The Second Amendment does not say, “Hunting being necessary,”  “Shooting ranges being necessary,” “Handling deadly weapons to boost a diminished ego being necessary,” it says a well-regulated militia being necessary.  The right to bear arms is conditioned upon the necessity of a militia.  Is there any question about what the word “militia” means, here is the definition:

A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.

A military force that engages in rebel or terrorist activities, typically in opposition to a regular army.

All able-bodied civilians eligible by law for military service.

The Supreme Court, in its 5 to 4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (and its evil progeny McDonald v. Chicago), disregarded logic, grammar, drafting intent, and the context in which the Amendment was written in order pursue a political agenda. The Court had its work cut out for it, trying to find words in a sentence that were not there.  Somehow, the Second Amendment did not mean that the right to bear arms was for the purpose of maintaining a militia, but was a general right. Four so-called “justices” made one whopping big mistake, but it is of course not the first time, as history has shown, that a political agenda, bias, and willful ignorance have held the day in a Supreme Court decision. In so ruling, the Court missed a chance not only to deliver a legally defensible and rational opinion, but the opportunity to save lives.

There are the nut cases out there who would take the Second Amendment at its real meaning and argue that we still might need to rise up in arms to defend ourselves against the government of the United States.  That was a precaution that someone back in the 18th Century at the debates over the Amendments wanted and that might have had some relevance at the time, given that the colonies had just fought a revolution and the new ruling government was an experiment. Whether or not it made sense then, times have changed; having a regulated militia is no more necessary than slavery (that other necessity of 18th Century America). However, most defenders of gun ownership wave the Second Amendment flag as the basis for their right to have firearms for their pleasure, supported by that dastardly Supreme Court decision.

Even if we kept this antiquated provision, every single right we seek to enjoy is severely limited. There is no rational basis for not constraining this purported right to the utmost extent. However, the proposals for limitations are weak becasue they do not reallydo enough to solve the problem, and  being weak are subject to attack—so let’s just face it. Limitations will not do.  The Second Amendment has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any. It has fostered horrible violence, death and fear; it is a child killer.  Get rid of it. And fine if hunting goes out with it. The world would be a better place anyway if  non-human killers (fondly called “hunters”) found a less violent and cruel way of feeling good about themselves.

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Calculated Anger

Fundamental to Stoicism is the idea that our negative or excessive emotions do us more harm than good; that includes the “good” emotions if they are immoderately felt or indulged. Regarding the negative emotions, anger concerned Seneca probably more than any of the others, given that he analyzed and wrote about it particularly at great length.  He refuted the idea that anger at times has a useful purpose, such as spurring us to action or giving us a sense of courage. He concluded from his exploration of the topic that it was never beneficial to let anger overwhelm reason.

I know what Seneca wrote and I completely agree, so I have to ask myself why I keep indulging my anger in situations where I have calculated that I can get angry, express it, and not suffer any consequences.  Oh boy! Here is a situation where I can really let loose without any else knowing, without losing a friend, alienating a family member, ruining a business deal, being barred from an establishment, or so on in a list of consequences that would make me forego a gleeful vituperative tirade. As I write that, I sound like a rather ill-humored hand grenade. I am to an extent and that personality trait, along with other faults, makes me a prime candidate for Stoicism, which has helped me enormously identify the problem and remedy it.

Upon due reflection, the idea that I can unleash my anger in certain circumstances without negative consequences is a fallacy that overlooks the cost to myself in several ways. For one, the act itself undermines the development of the practice of resorting to reason rather than emotion. The more I make exceptions, the more I will deviate from the Stoicism that I know makes my life better. Like all selfishly indulged exceptions, too many exceptions, and they will take on a life of their own.  More importantly, during every episode of anger indulgence I realize there is indeed a cost to me. Feeling angry is not a good sensation; it lingers and occupies my mind. Even if I am not exactly feeling guilty about the slip, anger is in and of itself such a detrimental emotion that it takes a toll for some period of time, sometimes several days. Last, I have made a bad bargain between myself and that other person. I have handed over to another person control of my state of mind; that person, whom I don’t even want in the car, I have placed in the driver’s seat.

In honor of Stoic Week, conceived of by Patrick Usher at Exeter University, I am going to make my pledge to quit making this insidious exception. Reason should never be pushed to the side.

In Praise of Sherry F. Colb, Cornell Law Professor

Here is an excerpt from one of the best things I have ever read, “Decoding ‘Never Again,’” by Professor Sherry F. Colb. The cite to the complete essay follows.

“The solution to “might makes right,” then, is not for victims to become perpetrators. Instead of protecting ourselves by identifying with the oppressor, we serve justice when victims instead identify with other victims and extend the compassion and justice that should rightly have been extended to them, to the rest of sentient creation.”

I wish I was taking a class with this professor; I wish I was her friend. She is compassionate and brilliant and my only criticism is that she has not been pushy enough to hit the radio talk shows and get a book touted by a big name in order to bless the main stream public with her presence.  She is too good to be relegated to academia, but maybe she is too good for most of us.

LEGAL STUDIES RESEARCH PAPER SERIES

“Decoding ‘Never Again’”

Sherry F. Colb* Cornell Law School Myron Taylor Hall Ithaca, NY 14853-4901 Cornell Law School research paper No. 15-27

This paper can be downloaded without charge from: The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2614100

Along the Appian Way

I believe that I saw my first crucifixion when I was ten, getting a pretty close look at the arresting spectacle as I rolled past in the family ox-drawn cart that was taking us from our villa in Apulia down the Apian Way to visit Uncle Antonius at olive picking season.  My first experience gave me a lot of bang for my buck because there had been a little slave revolt in a neighboring town and a hundred of the rascals were all nailed up along both sides of the road at intervals of about an arm’s length. One could hardly miss taking in every detail with the crosses lining the road at no more than a man’s height from the ground, but my gaze stayed the longest on the ones that were most alive. We did whip up the ox a bit to get through quickly because the flies were really annoying.   I asked my father how come I had never seen a crucifixion before, given that they were common; I heard all about them and had thought about practicing one for myself on a cat, but he got away and then I lost the nails.

“Well, figlio mio,” Pater explained, “crucifixions are for the vilest kinds of criminals, like slaves and traitors. So you wouldn’t see one every day.”

“But it seems like a waste when they could have gone to the Colosseum as entertainment.  I’m sure we would rather see them trying to run from a hungry lion and then get ripped apart one limb at a time rather than hanging there groaning and making faces.”

“I guess there is no shortage of folks for the games, and the Tribune needed to make a lingering example. For some reason slaves keep trying to revolt; they don’t get it that there will always be slaves and that is their lot in life.”

“Maybe a revolt will succeed one of these days and there will be no more slaves?”

“No, no, figlio, there have always been slaves; that is the way of the world.  It is human nature to take captives from a conquest. Look at the example of history.  Everyone has done it. I think it is in our genes as humans to subjugate other weaker individuals. Some day we might evolve to be able to take another creature’s perspective, but as of now our credo is, “If it’s good for me, then it’s good.”

“But slaves are sort of like us.”

“No they are of an entirely different sort—not Roman at all; so we can do whatever we please.”

Pater’s way of looking at things has stuck with me for a long time and has worked out all right as my approach to living.  However, there have been moments of doubt . . . when I think of our conversation I also remember the distorted bodies and anguished cries and at times I wonder at my feeling a vague sense of unease and dislike for crucifixions.  However, I just cannot get over the immutable truth that both slavery and severe punishment are part of our culture, that Rome’s culture is the best, and that such practices have gone on for thousands of years.  Who am I to question something that Pater and his pater and so on have done?  We couldn’t live without slaves and my needs are perfectly served by the suffering of other creatures. Well!  Glad I settled that.  I’m off to the games to for some rollicking good entertainment. Wild beasts are on the schedule today; then off to a pig roast.

It’s that most horrible time of the year

At this time of year I am forced to bear witness to cruelty and death.  I cannot turn a blind eye or I will run off the highway. Dear hunting season is coming, and I must see the slaughter when I drive on the Taconic Parkway, as I do three times a week. I will pull up behind a vehicle, most likely a pick-up truck.  There will usually be a decal on the back windshield of a buck’s head drawn in white, a stylized hint of the driver’s penchant for deer blood. Duck hunters of course will have a duck instead.  There might be more than one decorative element on the truck, so great is the love of the animal’s noble profile. I don’t truck with truck people enough to know, but I bet they have tattoos of antlered heads, so that when they sit at ease, short-sleeved arms crossed at rest over their expansive bellies, their beloved trophy symbol rises and falls with their meat-filled gut. The fact that hunters relish representations of what they like to kill seems a strange love/hate relationship. I guess hate is involved or are we to conclude that are living proof of Oscars Wilde’s words: “All men kill the thing they love.” I cannot count on being safe, however, in approaching a less imposing vehicle than the pickup truck, as mighty hunters also drive SUVs (mostly of the American persuasion) or even a four door sedan or minivan.  The dead animal will be tied to a roof, like a Christmas tree will be tied two months hence, or tied on a little tray on two wheels attached to the back. I will pass as quickly as possible not wanting to stare at the picture of death any more than I would want to pull over to the side of the road and contemplate the road kill. I wonder if there could possibly be anything I could do on a public highway that would get anywhere close to being as obnoxious and repulsive as slinging a large dead animal over my car. Along with having to contemplate, whether I want to or not, the end of that animal’s life and the consequences not only for that one but for others (a doe, a mate, a grazing partner), I am also handed willy-nilly yet another opportunity to confront the mysteries of the human mind, those same mysteries that underlie every horrible event that men (mostly men, and I mean that with the lower case) have and continue to perpetuate. What is hunting? I might hurl various epithets, such as cruel and stupid.  Instead, I can establish what it is not: it is not compassionate to animals, it is not careful about inflicting suffering on a living creature, it is not saddened by death, it is not repulsed by pain, it is not the gathering of food to stave off hunger.

How can one not conclude that some people simply enjoy pain, fear, suffering and death (as long as it isn’t their own or even that of their pets)? Do they get in the killing mood through a process of rationalizing their actions? Does this happen subconsciously or is there no need to think about and justify their acts to themselves.  If the latter and they have dispensed with thought, would they say that they are functioning from instinct?  Instinct is what compels actions of animals (which we are) in the absence of thought. Maybe that’s it; hunters aspire to or actually do enter a nonhuman frame of mind, akin to the beasts who actually do have to hunt to eat (or at least some of them). They revel in shedding or pretending to shed the pesky traits of Homo sapiens (thinking, compassion and the like), but keep the sighting scope, the high-tech rifle, and the duly adorned pickup truck.

The Cultural Animal

Here is one definition of culture I found on the internet that is more comprehensive than some because it includes the statement that culture is something that is accepted without thinking:

“A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

That element seems critical when one considers how different the definition would be if it were the opposite: “. . . behaviors, beliefs etc. that are accepted by each generation or person only after careful critical analysis.”  Culture would be predicated on a world of moral philosophers.

Culture and thinking are at odds with one another. Which should we endorse? For the pro-culture position, people who do not question culture enjoy the benefit of generally fitting in. For example, they have the affirmation of numbers in their religious practices, they have no trouble ordering in restaurants, or enjoying television.  They, on the whole are bothered less: they are not bothered by hunting, cruel practices to animals, and instances of hypocrisy. They have ready-made explanations for bad things: it has always been like this; it could not be different; we have not evolved to do otherwise; what would become of such and such industry, line of work, or institution without continuing such a practice; and God wants it this way. It might seem like the mainstream, predominate group in any society is more likely to be culture-content.  That is logical, but does not take into account that many people in the satisfied groups do still utilize the power of thinking sometimes and find themselves questioning something, even at times without knowing that they are trying to unite the strangle hold of culture. That little insurrection could be the result of education; if so, that is one giant endorsement for a liberal arts education.  How does education lead to a culture-challenging idea? The study of history, for example, will quickly reveal a sophisticated culture from another time which generally will exhibit several instances of bias, discrimination, and typically appalling cruelty that makes us cringe and feel so glad not to live back then.  The next step however is to wonder how any given individual during that time got up and went around his or her business with such atrocities going on or perpetrated them so callously; are we not made of the same stuff?  Are we not all of the same species?  When did we become so unlike the Romans who simply loved to see people torn apart by wild animals or set on fire as human torches, really just for the sake of entertainment? Are there not vestiges of the displays of animal combat from that time in the bull ring in Spain?  Could it be that the objective view of our own culture would reveal to a different group a similar conclusion? Oh no, we would say—we are not like that. However in the very short (and it is very short) history of the United States, we had slavery.  The mind struggles to comprehend how the enlightened free thinking American clung to this practice even after it was outlawed by England, the Great Oppressor. I find it ironic in a way that we fought the Revolution for the all-important cause of saving tax money so that we would be a free nation, allowed to continue with slavery after the mother country outlawed it. On that note, it is interesting that culture can corrupt a person who was not even raised from childhood in its miasma:  In the 19th Century, English immigrants, who of course lived in a non-slave culture, once in the United States owned slaves.  I was profoundly disappointed to read that the brother of the poet John Keats, when he came to America and settled in Kentucky, owned slaves.  When in Rome . . .

No doubt, those who find themselves oppressed by cultural practices are the ones to give it more thought and, if in a position to do so, take steps to change it. Which segues into the proposition that not all cultural practices must be challenged or even questioned; only those that are self-serving to one group and detrimental to another—that is the test.  Innocuous cultural practices keep the machinery of life turning. If each couple had to invent a ritual for pledging their troths, if every grave memorial had to be original, if every greeting invited yet another way of extending hands, we would expend way too much thought on the trivial, and certainly the last thing we need to do is occupy our minds with more trivial questions.

What is my main point of contention?  The largest and most firmly entrenched aspect of culture, even more than religion — food. What is more defining or central to a culture?  I want us to question what we eat because after all, that stuff is not just going on around us it is going into our mouths and stomachs, and there is something evil lurking behind the curtain—we all know that.  How does the touchstone question for determining if a practice should be challenged apply in this instance, i.e. is one group serving its own interests to the detriment of another? The self- serving is interest is stunningly clear (businesses making a lot of money, convenience, money, oh! and did I mention financial gain, profits, and money) and the harm is tremendous, although it is not a detriment suffered by our species. There’s the rub, but does only human suffering count?  Obviously not—not really to anyone (consider your dog, cat, horse, canary).  Going even further to what may be even more than a cultural question, although heavily informed by culture: why must we feel so elevated and separate from other species when we are all animals? Academics who study a species always become amazed at the “animals’” abilities, feelings, interests, practices, and habits, and they wind up overcoming that feeling of separateness. Some people who are not scientists in the field attain such a realization and are simply called animal lovers. I guess the definition of “lover” there is someone who is unwilling to inflict suffering, fear, and death on another creature and is deeply disturbed at that reality.

Giving consideration to the suffering we inflict on animals under the aegis of culture is a paradigm of the combat waged between accepting and thinking.  Every statement (I would say argument but that connotes more worth than is due) that anyone has ever marshalled to defend a bad cultural practice comes into play: we have always done this; everyone does this; it would be hard to do without this; what would happen to certain businesses. Culture gives a way out, whew! That’s easy. I can roll over and get a good’s night sleep because the suffering of other creatures does not have to concern me. Where does thinking get us?  Initially, into a state of near despair in facing the tremendous, grinding ugliness and cruelty  of a factory farm and slaughterhouse death; then into the ranks of the petty activist, at odds with culture, writing blog posts that nobody will read; at the same time in the company of those who understand Morality. A benign aspect of culture itself and liberal thought has taught that notions of morality make the world a better place, so that we may understand that  might does not make right and that inflicting suffering is wrong. Morality issues its categorical imperative to live the daily struggle against the cultural behemoth, remembering that one doesn’t need hope to start out or success to persevere.