Photo: How Humaan?
If you have been following our posts, you have probably noticed that Mark and I keep returning to the subject of our farm animals and the degree to which we see them as human or not human. No wonder we are so obsessed with this subject since on a daily basis here at the farm it is with our livestock (sheep, pigs, cows, turkeys, ducks, chickens, geese and guinea fowl) we most interact with — not people. Increasingly as the years go by we have felt that we spend our days surrounded by living mysteries. Those of you with pet dogs or cats inevitably must also find yourself with similar reactions, though maybe not to the same degree.
True, it’s a long way from mucking about in the barn with shit on our boots to sitting warm and comfy in our slippers at the computer expounding on high thoughts.
But here we go again: A recent article in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times entitled “Is Humanism Really Humane?” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/opinion/is-humanism-really-humane.html?_r=0 has helped to open my eyes to the degree to which Mark and I have had our thinking about our livestock boxed in by the traditional definitions of humanism.
Since the Renaissance, Western thought has primarily operated within the humanistic world view, that sees man as the center of the world and the top of the hierarchy, a world with clear divisions between man and animal, human and nonhuman. But now we have emerging a philosophy called “posthumanism” that is challenging this world view, which Cary Wolfe, director of the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University, defines in an interview in the Times article cited above. Posthumanism, she explains, is not new but had its origins in the work of Darwin, who established man as not a separate being but a higher animal; and in the writings of Marx, who established that man rather than being the controller is controlled by materialistic forces; and in the thinking of Freud, who established that rather than being the “self,” as defined by the Enlightenment, that is, a conscious being controlled by reason Humans are instead a construct composed not only of a brain but of many non rational aspects including biological and evolutionary-inherited influences.
We are increasingly because of this seismic shift from humanism to posthumanism, together with ground breaking research into animal behavior, enabled to see ourselves as “human animals” and to see the resemblances, common biology, and instincts we share with our fellow animals.
The traditional humanist division of beings into “human” and “animal” Wolfe feels is “…inherently oppressive and violent.” By which she means that when humans see themselves as separate and superior this leads ultimately to the mistreatment of animals and, by extension, to those perceived to be “lesser humans.”.
While we may pride ourselves that we would not personally agree to treat animals cruelly, or justify such treatment by others on the basis of their designation as “animals” we are nevertheless as with the industrial raising of animals in confined feeding operations in fact participating in such cruel behavior indirectly. These creatures are not in our eyes human and, therefore, a different ethic is at work. We have been led to this acceptance not solely because we are saving money by buying these cheaper meat products but also because at some level in our thinking it is “just animals” that are involved.
Such pernicious ethical behavior, Wolfe argues, is and has been transferred into the human sphere: “As long as you take it for granted that it’s O.K. to commit violence against animals simply because of their biological destination, then that same logic will be available to you to commit violence against any other being of whatever species, human or not, that you can characterize as a “lower” or more “primitive” form of life.”
Hence slavery, imperialism, the holocaust, misogyny, and racism. And, I might add, Donald Trump (the meaning of that inclusion I leave to you).
But returning to the subject that started all of this: that is, the unresolved discussions Mark and I have had for years regarding the human/animal identities of our livestock, the resolution that now satisfies both of us is persuasively provided by Ms Wolfe, who expresses it in this way: “…the question of “human” versus “animal” is a woefully inadequate philosophical tool to make sense of the amazing diversity of different forms of life on the planet, how they experience the world, and how they should be treated…what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness.”
Am I hearing things or do I hear coming from the barn in response to these words a chorus in raucous assent of b-a-a-s, oinks, moos, gobbles, clucks, honks, quacks, and squawks. Yes, I think I do.