Harambe and the Human/Animal Binary

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.

On Bad Writing

In my last post I wrote about unsophisticated discourse.  Today I’d like to discuss some of the features of such writing.

It seems to me that one of the key features of “bad” writing is a reliance on dichotomies: liberal/conservative, good/bad, etc. Of course, every academic since Derrida has warned against the dangers of binary thinking. I don’t want to join that chorus. Oppositions, binary or otherwise, can be useful– they’re a form of abstraction which allow us to cut the world into manageable bits. Of course, as online trolls and lazy students demonstrate, the power of abstraction can also be abused. So then, what distinguishes good abstraction from bad?

One key, I think, is that the writer recognize, and signal to the reader that he recognizes, that oppositions are just tools for thinking. There is, of course, no such thing as “liberal” or “conservative.” These are just symbols we use to signal a certain web of political commitments. Such a web naturally has contradictory element. A sophisticated writer/thinker knows this. For example, instead of “all liberals hate America,” she may write, “liberals have a tendency to be critical of the dominant culture.” The nuance in the latter statement indicates that the writer knows that an abstraction is just an abstraction. The former writer, on the other hand, seems to fetishize his abstraction. The term “liberal” appears monolithic to him, and therefore, he appears simple-minded to us.

Unsophisticated writers also use a lot of insults. On the clickbait website I discussed yesterday, it seems that every other post refers to someone as “stupid” or a “moran.” Why is this? Are people with low literacy skills just jerks? No. Following my always generous sensei Dave Bartholomae, I see these writers as trying to express their experience using the limited linguistic tools available to them. There is pain in their world. They have named that pain “liberal” or “Obama.” And by writing, for example, that “Obama is a hommos muslim,” they are attempting to share their subjective experience of this pain.

So in short, as a writing teacher, when I see writers resort to petty insults I want to find out what’s really bothering them. They are undoubtedly feeling some complicated stuff (all feelings are complicated). They’re just expressing it in a way that users of SWE/SBL find simplistic.