The animal lurking in us

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There are the thousand and one ways in which we regularly humiliate the animals with whom we share this planet. Every reference to them, every categorization of them, is pejorative, to a point where in our efforts to undermine a fellow human being, we hurl at him the ultimate insult, that of placing him at par with an otherwise innocent animal. There are of course the many dimensions in which we kill other creatures for food, for our dinner tables to be enriched with protein and carbohydrates and what not. That is a sad tale. But sadder is this story of associating animals with some of our worst instincts.

There is the time-honoured ritual in many, indeed most, of us about referring to individuals whose intelligence is suspect to us as goats. That person who cannot follow your instructions is a goat. But observe that little goat prancing around the pond in your village. What is so lowly about it that you so easily associate it with one who to you does not have the ability to think straight? You often tend to wonder how all or much of our negativism has come to be related to animals. For a focused study, you will of course have to go back to a detailed discussion of culture as it has evolved through the long course of what we would like to call civilization. And yet in our civilized attitude to the world, we have remained steadfast in our belief that it is all right to insult our animals. After all, we are under no threat from an animal farm ready to explode into revolt. George Orwell will always be part of fiction.

Think of the smugness with which we assault the dignity of a pig when we refer to a stubborn person as pig-headed. Whatever has the society of pigs done to deserve such humiliation? In some of our more exasperating of moments, especially when someone is intent on irritating us, we sternly admonish him through warning him not to be a pig. We thus commit two mistakes here. The first is we are insulting pigs, all of them. The second is we are undermining the dignity of the person we are describing as a pig. Either way, it is the animal concerned that is the butt of our ill-treatment. And why do we do it all the time? No one knows. Perhaps Winston Churchill is so far the only representative of the human species, at least as far as we are aware of, who has professed any respect for pigs. “I love pigs”, he said once. “Cats look down on us. Dogs look up to us. Pigs treat us as equals.”

Look into that Churchillian phrase deeply. He was simply hitting out at the human race, at its manifest barbarity despite all that veneer of civilization. But move on, to cats. The ages-old reference to its nine lives is certainly not a term of endearment but a remark on its sinister ability, if we may put it that way, to survive in the most dangerous of circumstances. Thus judgment is already made about the cat. And when you refer to women who are forever spoiling for a fight with other women or with their neighbours, you again insult cats inasmuch as you insult those women by your reference to catty women. Where is the basis for such a bad analogy? No one will answer that question for you, just as no one will explain why he breaks into a loud denunciation of an individual by a reference to dogs. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was being absolutely uncouth when he called India’s very respectable Sardar Swaran Singh and his team at the United Nations Security Council in 1965 as dogs. Around us, there are thousands of people who see in the dog a symbolism for everything that is nasty and ugly and abhorrent. That is sad, given the truth that dogs happen to be some of the most loyal of friends to man.

When we are under the weather, it is a dog’s life we lead. The implication does not leave anything to the imagination. Dogs lead the least dignified of lives and therefore serve as a ready reference for us when we seek to explain away our own state of misery. And our folly? It is the sheep we remember when it is the foolish in ourselves that we dwell on. That sheepish smile from ear to ear is a sign of the foolishness we have succumbed to. Observe sheep, carefully. They do not smile; they have impassive countenances. So where do we spot the smile we so readily transfer to those we catch engaging in acts of folly? We insult the sheep and then we humiliate birds as well. Many are the moments when we taunt an individual with less than average intelligence as a bird brain. Now, if you reflect on the life of a bird, there is not an iota of vacuity in the way it thinks or moves. It knows when dawn arrives; it understands the advent of twilight; and it remains aware of its need to fly away to a warmer region in winter. Natural intelligence underpins the way a bird carries itself. A bird’s brain is thus an intricate system that links its owner with the cosmos of which it is an integral part. But in our pretension, we go on insulting birds. Inadequacies of the human brain, would you say?

During his campaign for the American presidency in 1968, Hubert Humphrey repeatedly challenged his rival Richard Nixon to a television debate. Nixon, badly burnt at the 1960 debates with John Kennedy, would have none of it, for he was unwilling to slip up once again. And Humphrey hit back, through a reference to chickens. Nixon, said he, was chicken-hearted. That was a clear playing around with the more positive appendage of ‘lion-hearted’, one that was ascribed to King Richard long ago. But note the unkind reference to the chicken. The chicken is small, and biologically so. Is it its fault that its heart is a tiny organ within its innocent, feather-strewn little being? There is the ease with which we describe a naughty child as a monkey, which, if you think of it, is derogatory to some of the most clever of animals in our world. Some of us feel no qualms about comparing the shrewdness of some of our fellow beings with the stealth of snakes. In our lives, we come across men with sharp, darting eyes and quickly go to the fox for an analysis of their character. Such men, we tell ourselves, have a foxy appearance. In the murder and mayhem Rwanda was pushed into in 1994, the majority Hutus went on an orchestrated campaign of killing cockroaches, the cockroaches in this instance being the minority Tutsis. In the end, over a few days, 800,000 Tutsis were murdered.

Men, said the philosopher Hobbes long ago, are nasty, brutish and short. Observe the absolutely insensitive ways in which we have historically treated donkeys. The donkey has always been a beast of burden. But that is not the only insult poured on it. Shakespeare had the head of one of his characters take the shape of a donkey’s. And, yes, we are quite adept in calling people we are not particularly fond of as donkeys. No one has ever considered the fact that the donkey, through the generations, has always led a sad, morbid existence. And men being the self-righteous, pretentious creatures of God they are, have quite refused to give themselves over to such thoughts. They have killed other men, they kill animals, they plunder the earth, they wage war and burn villages and kill and molest women and children. And yet they ascribe all this terrible behavior to animals that have done little harm to them, instincts that take possession of their dark souls.

Fish is a delicacy many amongst us cannot do without. But that has not held us back from engaging in fishy activities. What has the poor fish done to deserve such ignominy?

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Time & Space
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Issue 11
  • The animal lurking in us

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