Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Ugly American

“Know thyself.”   Those were the words inscribed above one of the temples to Apollo at Delphi.  Taken together, they form one of the most important principles of Empathic Rationalism.   Nobody can be rational without first understanding oneself.   And even though we often don’t like what we find out when engaging in self-discovery, empathy begins at home – what starts with understanding, and sometimes turns into a bit of self-loathing, should soon elicit our compassion.   After all, “if I am not for me, who will be.”

I offer that prologue to assure you that I have not lost my self-respect.  But it remains the case that what I learned about myself earlier this week wasn’t pretty.  My lesson began by reading this article.   I’m sure you all know about the story by now.   It involves a dentist from Minnesota who loves to engage in the “sport” commonly known as big-game hunting.   Presumably, most of the victims of big-game hunting are anonymous.  But this week, it was revealed that one of Palmer’s latest victims had a name – Cecil the Lion – and that this lion was beloved far and wide among visitors to a national park in Zimbabwe.   The incident has generated so much international outrage that Palmer is now in hiding, his dentistry business is closed, and the government of Zimbabwe is seeking his extradition to stand trial for violating the nation’s hunting laws.

So this is a story of man-kills-animal.   Stories like that happen every day, right?   I have seen estimates that each year in the world, more than 150 BILLION animals are killed for human consumption.   Those killings don’t cause international outrage.  So why has this one act evoked such a reaction?   Surely, that’s what Palmer must be wondering right now.  He’s probably questioning the collective sanity of the world, including millions of folks who sit down at their dinner tables to munch on chicken flesh, cow flesh, or pig flesh while waxing eloquent about what a terrible man Palmer was to kill an animal that actually – I mean WHO actually – had a name.

I’m with you, Palmer, at least to a degree.  If it’s OK to kill animals for food, why isn’t it OK to kill them for “sport”?   Who are we to look down our noses at a man responsible for the gratuitous killing of one mammal if we contribute to the gratuitous killings of so many more?   It’s not like we need to eat animals in order to enjoy nutritious, tasty food.   For the most part, we eat animals because we want the optimal taste experience, and because we don’t give a damn about the animals that contribute to that experience.   Palmer wanted the optimal hunting experience.  What’s the difference?

Actually, I used the first person plural in the last paragraph because I ate meat for more than 30 years and loved every bit of it.   But I kicked that habit 22 years ago and went vegan.   As a result, it wasn’t my own hypocrisy that caused the Palmer story to get under my skin.  It was my reaction to the story.
As I was reading about Palmer and Cecil, I wasn’t thinking about the international response.  I wasn’t thinking about the injustice of this one big game hunter being singled out for reproach when all the other participants in his “sport” were able to carry on with their lives.   Nor was I thinking about all the other “Cecils” of the world who are killed every year, many of whom have two legs and opposable thumbs.   In fact, I wasn’t thinking at all.   I was merely emoting.   And the emotions I felt were savage and hateful.   Apparently, my heart was telling me that Palmer’s “sport” was among the most vile and wretched manifestations of the human condition.

I can’t speak as to why other people react so viscerally to the idea of big-game hunting.  In my case, though, the trauma had a clear origin.  When I was about eight or nine-years old, my parents took me on a trip to Southern California.   After spending a few days in La-La Land, we went south of the border to Tijuana – it’s not the entrance to Hell but you can see it from there.  Since my parents and I were either too old or too young for the brothels, my mom decided that we should go for the second best thing: a bull fight.  So there we sat, for hours, watching one group of homo-sapiens cheer while another group of homo-sapiens stuck daggers into bulls until they died. 

The afternoon at the bullfights was one of the seminal experiences of my life.  It was easily the most depraved.  My primary recollection is that I wanted every human being in that ring to die, and I mean die painfully.   All of my compassion – not 99% but 100.000% -- was extended to the bulls.   I hadn’t the insight to realize that the human beings who participated in that industry were “animals,” just like the bulls, and they were merely reacting to the electrical-chemical stimuli in their own brains, which obviously lit up at the challenge of taking on ferocious beasts in much the same way as a race car driver lights up at the challenge of taking on the Daytona Motor Speedway.

As I read about the Palmer story and sensed my own rage, the memories of those bullfights returned.   I realized that I had never really gotten over my afternoon in Tijuana.  I am destined forever to deny that the gratuitous killing of animals is a “sport.”  I will always feel in my heart that it epitomizes injustice, cruelty, inhumanity, parochialism, ignorance ….   You get the idea.   And when I think about what it means to be a big-game hunter, I begin to realize that even a vegan like me cannot fully analogize this activity to the mere consumption of animal flesh.  There is something especially rotten about enjoying the process of killing big beautiful mammals that isn’t present simply when you consume what some businessman has taken the trouble to kill for you. 

I have friends who hunt birds and mammals.  I realize that in some places, that’s just what red-blooded Americans do.  I’m not here to condemn these people or call them names.   I’m only here to bear witness to my own emotions.   There is something about the killing of large animals that, at my core, horrifies me perhaps even more than the killing of other human beings.  As a rationalist, that reaction makes no sense.   But it would make even less sense to deny my own feelings.

Speaking of killing human beings, it has become a well-accepted fact that serial killers commonly start out as animal killers.  So what should it say about us as a species that we have turned the routinized killing of billions of animals into an industry and turned the spectacular killing of large mammals into a “sport”?   As much as we might want to focus all of our enmity on Palmer, we might be better off focusing our attention on ourselves. 

As for me, I need to come to grips with the rage that I felt when I read about this story.  While it’s easy enough to have compassion for Cecil, who was apparently a “Lion” of a lion, I need to be able to show compassion for other beasts, including a beast like Palmer.  There’s no excuse for rooting on another person’s death or torture.   Indeed, Palmer is just another animal – much like the rest of us.   I might add the words “only uglier,” but then again, my own reaction was not terribly beautiful either.   

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