Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A response to the Spectator article about Pen Farthing's animals

This is a limited, very personal part-response to this Spectator piece expressing anguish about the evacuation of Pen Farthing’s animals from Afghanistan, and calling it a “moral abomination”. (I wrote a bit about Farthing's books here.) As often happens in these cases I’m caught between feeling sympathy for the basic concerns expressed in the piece while also being aghast at how the whole thing is founded on the comfortable certitude that animals are innately less important than humans; that they can’t be sentient in the way that we are; that we don’t have a huge responsibility towards them, especially during catastrophes manufactured by our species.

I’m cynical enough to know that this is a pointless exercise
(apart from helping me articulate some of my feelings), that nothing I say here will make a whit of a difference to anyone who hasn't had the firsthand experience of seeing how “human” — or more than “human” — an animal can be. But here goes anyway, picking on a few specific things.

About this:
…a perfect example of esoteric domestic western priorities being put ahead of the people we were supposedly there to help, the sort of behaviour that dooms our efforts overseas and alienates the rest of the world.”

“Esoteric domestic western priorities”? Recognising that non-human animals are capable of the same degrees of suffering that humans are, that they can have comparable emotional lives — and that in a world chockful of human-constructed disasters and conflicts, we might have as big a responsibility to living, feeling creatures that have been domesticated and made dependent on us as we do to our own species: that’s an “esoteric priority”? Politely, no. And it shouldn't be.

I also find the conflating of this with “Western/First World” — and the implication that this is all about privileged/bored people and their prioritising of “cute puppies” over suffering humans — very condescending and strange. Especially since I am involved with “esoteric” pursuits every day in the context of street dogs and the conversations/arguments around them in India; conversations that most “developed” Western countries wouldn’t even be having since they have zero tolerance for such animals.

About this:
Consider that many Muslims consider dogs to be impure. Now imagine how it must look for us to airlift them out ahead of our human allies.”

IF that first sentence is true in some sweeping, general sense, maybe the problem lies with the people who hold the view. In an ideal world (definitely not in this one), it might be amended at some point with the aid of some education, including emotional education. (Though plenty of non-Muslim anthropocentric “liberals” are in need of this emotional education too, as one can tell from the worthies who have been endorsing the Spectator article.)

If I were to make a statement like “My belief system considers Muslims to be impure” or “…women to be impure” or “…Dalits to be impure” (or insert whatever other human group you like), I would understandably be cancelled for all time (at least by the members of any circles I might want to belong to). But when faced with the possibility that a culture or religion considers *dogs* to be impure or beneath contempt (and the horrible consequences of this in countries like Afghanistan have been well-chronicled), we are expected to be mindful of it (or completely kowtow to it) in the interests of tolerance or cultural sensitivity. Or, well, realpolitik. The piece certainly carries the implication that we should respectfully tiptoe around such “beliefs”. 

(Amusingly, that paragraph begins with the line “Even setting morality to one side…” and in my view that’s what the writer ends up doing by the end of the para — though he almost certainly didn’t intend it to be read that way.)

About this:
…as one interpreter asked me a few days ago, why is my five-year-old worth less than your dog… I didn’t have an answer. What would your answer be?”

Not that anyone asked me, but my answer would be: not worth less, worth *the same* as my dog-child. (Privately I have always felt that my maternal love for Foxie and later for Lara has been deeper and more involved than the love that many fathers of human children
— mine included feel for their offspring; but that kind of judgement has no place in a piece like this.) What we have in Afghanistan — and in many other places at various times in history — is a horrible situation where it’s a given that some people (through a combination of influence, position, circumstance, contacts and of course sheer luck) will get away relatively unscathed while others won’t. Let’s hypothesise that non-human animals weren’t part of this equation at all — that only humans were involved at every level. In that case, we would STILL have multiple situations where the parent of one five-year-old human child would be able to ask the parent of another five-year-old human child: “Why is your child worth more than mine?” There's something I'll just use the word "mischievous" while I think of a better word about framing the question in the particular way that Ashworth-Hayes does in his piece.

Without going on nitpicking about other things in the piece, here’s a bit that caught my eye as I was skimming over it again:
“I don’t particularly blame Pen. I’d probably want to get my pets out of a warzone too.”

“Probably”. That tells me everything I need to know about Sam Ashworth-Hayes’s understanding of what a human-animal relationship can be. I hope he doesn’t actually have any pets of his own, or that if he does have any
as status symbols or house decor or whatever they are being looked after by someone who is better equipped to do it. Anyway, it’s obvious that the Spectator piece and the approving conversations around it are for people who have never been able to see the worth and individuality of animals (outside of their usefulness on a plate).

P.S. one last thing — I actually agree with the first sentence of the Spectator piece. There are no genuinely meaningful "feel-good" stories from Afghanistan at the moment; in the sense that every such tale of rescue is offset by a dozen other tragedies (for all sorts of creatures). Even we tunnel-visioned animal-rights activists know that.

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