Friday, December 23, 2005

Us and Them

In one of my capital punishment posts, Dan Harper asks if executions are part of a system of desensitization that make things like torture possible. I know there is some research that shows an increase in violence after publicized executions but I suspect it is pretty far down the chain of causality.

Yesterday I explored how some people need to believe that there is an other that could be controlled, incarcerated or eradicated and all would be right in the world.

An article online gave me a couple new thoughts.

In 1917 Sigmund Freud put the issue in perspective when he wrote: "In the course of his development towards culture man acquired a dominating position over his fellow-creatures in the animal kingdom. Not content with this supremacy, however, he began to place a gulf between his nature and theirs. He denied the possession of reason to them, and to himself he attributed an immortal soul, and made claims to a divine descent which permitted him to annihilate the bond of community between him and the animal kingdom."

In this light I have to reflect upon the ways we talk about reason in Unitarian Universalism. In general, my thinking is influenced by Peter Singer and his notion that sentience, or the ability to feel pleasure or pain, may be a better guideline for evaluating ethical concerns. If we can kill and eat animals because they can't reason, can I eat my racist neighbor? Of course you can still end up in situations where neither reason nor principle work well.

The exploitation and slaughter of animals provides the precedent for the mass murder of people and makes it more likely because it conditions us to withhold empathy, compassion, and respect from others who are different. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler." Indeed there is. About the same time the German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno made a similar point: "Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals."

Maybe it is the Buddhist influence, but I tend to think of the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, though I find person and being to be fairly interchangeable. Also, I think there are ways to be reverential of this worth while still in a subsistence relationship with other animals. I believe that many of the indigenous cultures of North America managed to strike this balance, though I am not sure it is possible in the current food system.

I'm not convinced yet that human-animal cruelty is the source of human-human cruelty. I tend toward a joint cause of both, though I do not believe that innate human depravity is the cause. In general I subscribe to the Seville Declaration:

Believing that it is our responsibility to address from our particular disciplines the most dangerous and destructive activities of our species, violence and war; recognizing that science is a human cultural product which cannot be definitive or all-encompassing; and gratefully acknowledging the support of the authorities of Seville and representatives of the Spanish UNESCO; we, the undersigned scholars from around the world and from relevant sciences, have met and arrived at the following Statement on Violence. In it, we challenge a number of alleged biological findings that have been used, even by some in our disciplines, to justify violence and war. Because the alleged findings have contributed to an atmosphere of pessimism in our time, we submit that the open, considered rejection of these mis-statements can contribute significantly to the International Year of Peace. Misuse of scientific theories and data to justify violence and war is not new but has been made since the advent of modern science. For example, the theory of evolution has been used to justify not only war, but also genocide, colonialism, and suppression of the weak. We state our position in the form of five propositions. We are aware that there are many other issues about violence and war that could be fruitfully addressed from the standpoint of our disciplines, but we restrict ourselves here to what we consider a most important first step.


At 2:13 PM, Blogger Bill Baar said...

A Nurse who worked at the Detroit VA Hospital told me her staff viewed slides of horrific gunshot and traumatic injuries to steel themselves to see and care for the many casualties they expected to see in the course of the first Gulf War.

The estimates then were upwards of 10,000 casualties during the first few days of battle and thankfully none of that came to pass.

Whether viewing those slides made them more violent I don't know.

It did scar them in some way though I bet.

I think the reality of sin and human evil, whether it stem from our nature or nurture, is one of the most compelling arguments for God because it's our sense of the injustice in response to evil that compels us to believe there is a God who gave us the sense of unjustice and who isn't indifferent and that in fact God will judge it all.

Sometimes though people can lose that faith too.

I read a book once called Prisoners of the Japenese. In there a devote Catholic described how everyone in his POW camp including himself lost their faith. He never regained it and said while there are no athesists in fox holes, they were often found in Japenese POW camps.


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