Biased in Favor of the Known

By Cyberquill 07/08/20126 Comments

The other day, I was informed that some friends were in the process of constructing a little rabbit warren in their backyard to accommodate two pet bunnies they had acquired for their kids. I casually remarked that they should add a chopping block for convenience, so that when the time came, the bunnies could be slaughtered right there—a comment that earned me a disapproving frown and a pouty “Awwww,” for how could I entertain thoughts of such prodigious cruelty as to imagine putting cutesy bunnies to the sword?

Curiously, though, just a few days earlier the person now oh so indignant about the prospect of terminating bunnies had actually served rabbit to her dinner guests without displaying an iota of compassion for the roasted creature. My question about what exactly the difference might be between a bunny we know personally, so to speak, versus an anonymous one slated for the frying pan—specifically, in terms of whether (and if so, based on what data) the latter might experience any less pain and fear during his or her termination procedure than the former, thus resulting in the verdict of “cruel” only when it came to slaughtering pet bunnies but not others—wasn’t received too well.

As a inveterate vegetarian, I am, of course, accustomed to omnivores flipping their wigs and branding me a “radical” anytime I offer any type of commentary that might be construed as critical of their eating habits. After all, the argument usually goes, they’re being tolerant of my vegetarianism, so I ought to be equally tolerant of their carnivorous proclivities—to live and let live, except without the “let live” part, as it were—generally followed by a selection of soporific brickbats from the steak scarfers’ collective intellectual kiln that produces penetrating insights such as “If everyone were a vegetarian, all Eskimos and all lions would starve” or “Every time a vegetarian takes a shower, he kills microbes!” (In fact, I find that, in general, taking ever so subtle digs at people’s meat consumption makes them fly off the handle more quickly and with greater ferocity than openly attacking their religions or politics. Of all instincts, food seems to be the most primal, and meat the most primal of all foods—make a move, even a solely rhetorical one, as if trying to take someone’s meat away at your own peril!)

As the loyal visitor to this forum may have picked up by now, I currently reside in exile, not quite sure quite yet whether this place is my Elba or my St. Helena. Either way, I’m stuck in a one-horse suburb of Vienna (Europe, not Virginia), a place where violent crime happens more infrequently than Britain changes queens.

So when earlier today news broke that badly decomposed human body parts were discovered at a nearby lake (see above), the story quickly made national headlines, although whether a crime has been committed at all is far from certain at this stage.

And now the same person that had apprised me of the rabbit warren and subsequently chided me for inquiring as to the distinction between pet bunnies and non-pet bunnies when it comes to premeditated jugulation, has just told me that a 16-year-old girl had gone missing two or three days ago, but that due to the advanced stage of decomposition of the body parts discovered, “luckily” those parts could not belong to this 16-year-old.

I asked why it was “lucky” that it couldn’t be this particular 16-year-old. After all, it was definitely somebody that had met his or her unfortunate and potentially premature demise, and I saw no basis for automatically putting a lesser value on a yet unknown individual than on a specific one.

Yes, the person responded, but the 16-year-old was a “local.”

A theme begins to emerge here: the gravity of an act of violence—or a potential act of violence— appears to be a function of the victim’s identity rather than of the violence itself. If the victim is a “pet” or a “local,” any violence they may have incurred is considered worse than if they were a non-pet or a stranger.

Put differently, familiarity with the victim counts as an aggravating circumstance, whereas unfamiliarity mitigates the heinousness of the deed; in the case of animals, not knowing the victims “personally” appears to be grounds for acquittal altogether; the human capacity for compartmentalization when it comes to mustering compassion and solicitude for their pets versus “food animals” is simply staggering.

While it is only natural that our emotional investment in other creatures, human or otherwise, declines with the square of their distance to the centers of our personal lives—and, of course, this hardwired impulse to privilege the known over the unknown dates back to our tribal days in the Savannah—such thinking also seems a bit callous. Breathing a reflexive sigh of relief because a dead body discovered turns out not to be a particular individual from our neighborhood ignores the possibility that it might be—and probably is—the body of someone who’s being equally missed in another neighborhood. There’s nothing really to be “happy” about just because the victim turns out to be somebody else.

A life cut short is a life cut short, and the stranger that has met a violent demise, just like the little bunny unfortunate enough to end up on a plate rather than in a comfy and custom-built warren, may have gone through just the same amount of agony in the run-up to separating from their mortal coil as would have an acquaintance.

Conservatives are known for being more family-centered and territorial; liberals for being more universally compassionate; as illustrated by their respective positions on the estate tax, to name just one typical example. So unless you’re cool with dispatching decidedly conservative vibes into your surroundings, you may wish to curb your overt emotional bias in favor of the known.

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  • Richard

    I bet you’re popular with your warren-building friends.

    You would not have your massive brain had not your ancestors taken to being carnivorous, so they say.

    I watched a kestrel diving for its prey yesterday. Nature doesn’t share your scruples. Who do you reckon will win the argument?

    That said, I have eaten much less meat for the last 6 months, much as a result of your influence.

    Whenever I settle down to a supermarket chicken or a fillet steak I thank the creature, out loud, for giving up its life for me. Not that it has much choice.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      The creatures you eat had no choice, neither does the kestrel’s prey, and neither does the kestrel, for that matter. The massive brain I acquired courtesy my carnivorous ancestors, however, enables me to make choices, and therein lies the difference. 

      Of course nature doesn’t share my scruples. As the nun in African Queen so aptly puts it:

      “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put is this world to rise above.”

  • Richard

    Those rearing animals for meat become quite casual about killing an animal they know well and have become attached to.

    Our ancestors ate the bodies of relatives who had died naturally. Apart from CJD, have you any qualm about that?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      No, and neither do I have any qualm about eating road kill. 

      • Richard

        We visited Cheddar Gorge recently and went round the caves. There are finds there which show residents from 12500 years ago roasted the brains of their deceased in half the skull. Probably went quite well with the cheese.

        • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

          Early residents of Swiss Canyon and Ricotta Ravine are also known to have feasted on brain, which, after all, is one of the few foods that nature conveniently serves in its own dish. 

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