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.

The Practice of Not Thinking

I heard on the radio that there is a movie coming out about David Foster Wallace. I have read very little by him, but I always take notice of the name because he was my brother’s favorite writer. I am not drawn to his style of writing, but my opinion will stop there pending better acquaintance with his work. I am, however, very drawn to his essay “Consider the Lobster.”  I can relate to his experience at a lobster festival, having had to endure a Maine lobster dinner on a large scale at Bowdoin College.  It was impossible to look away; the boiled creatures were everywhere. How do we engage in such cruelty?  We simply don’t think, just as Wallace points out in this excerpt I have reprinted below. How many of the ills of the world can we attribute to a lack of thought and a reliance on that self-serving substitute for thinking, culture? Countless, no doubt. I would be curious to know if Wallace’s depression arose, to any extent, from a sad disgust with the practices of human beings such as the one he describes here. I also wonder if anyone did shy away from eating lobster after reading his essay in “Gourmet Magazine” or elsewhere.

“However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into a steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster is fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little light-weight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole purpose of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”