Tuesday, February 14, 2012

More proof of Pinker's hypothesis

Read this article from the Winnipeg Sun about a teen who beheaded a dog. What's extremely fascinating to me is that the reader's reaction is invariably "oh my god that's horrible". Although I've heard a few people claim that this kid should be imprisoned. I've even heard one person say that this kid will end up a serial killer (as if we're all experts of psychopaths thanks to omnipresence of serial killers in culture).

My reaction was thus: Pinker's hypothesis is proven once again. In the physical newspaper, this story was on page 3. That means that the paper thinks this is news-worthy enough to put it in front of other stories. It speaks to Pinker's hypothesis that we are overly sensitive to any type of cruelty that this story finds its way as close as possible to the front page.

Of course, over a hundred years ago, what we deem animal cruelty now was simply entertainment or part of life. Now, thanks to empathizing of everything, we can't imagine killing or eating a dog. Dogs have become so humanized as to be privileged over humans. For proof of that, notice that barely any dogs are killed on screen in movies. When they are, again, the audience reaction is visceral and immediate.

We discussed the eating of dogs at work, which was thoroughly fascinating for the range of responses that were reported. Many people were disgusted and morally outraged. One guy was mad, even furious that we would come up with such an idea. My answer, which was shared by a few, is that dogs are animals and there is nothing stopped us from eating them other than cultural taboo. I think this might be the rational answer, but it's also rather cold and emotionless. I put to people that if I was starving, I would eat anything, whether the animal was cuddly or not.

This anecdotal evidence helps to prove Pinker's hypothesis that we are less violent than ever. We are morally outraged that a teen would behead a dog. Even though, like I say, the torture of people and animals isn't that far away historically speaking. The fact that this story made the third page in the newspaper is a new phenomenon.

Since I started reading Pinker's book I have been unable to see the world in the same light. Everything I see, I start to recontextualize. I cannot see things the same way. It helps that I am also taking a course in cultural studies (which is why the past month's postings have been academic rather than book reviews). The world is fascinating even in its ugliness and stupidity. As Raymond Williams says, culture is ordinary.


Anonymous said...

"It speaks to Pinker's hypothesis that we are overly sensitive to any type of cruelty that this story finds its way as close as possible to the front page."

Sorry but that's a completely baseless connection to make.

a) Discussing a single anecdote as support for a social theory doesn't stand up to logic. How does one event "prove" anything? Is your bar for proof that low?

b) Where an article about a *local* event is placed in a *local* newspaper can hardly be used to support theories about the entirety of human civilisation.

c) Sensitivity to "cruelty" is cultural, and therefore incredibly fragile. Bull-fighting or dog-eating are quite widely accepted in other places. This stuff is all subjective.

"Dogs have become so humanized as to be privileged over humans"
Lol! Sorry but this is typical of Americans - assuming the entire human race behaves like you. :) Heard of Islam? 1.5 billion humans don't agree with Americans about dogs. Shocking I know.

Good on you for the cultural studies - we need more people doing stuff like that. But you do need to take a wider view - your arguments are still very narrow and parochial. There's a whole world outside America. :)

matthew. said...

I appreciate the feedback! Let me address some of your points:

1. I explicitly referred to the evidence as anecdotal, and it is merely indicative of Pinker's wider hypothesis, not the conclusion. I wasn't planning on finishing the debate re "the civilizing process" with this one post. I never meant to call up Pinker and say, "Hey, I finally found the Final Proof".

2. Sensitivity to cruelty is cultural - of course it is. I never made claims that encompass the entire world in its totality. To do so would be utterly foolish.

3. I am not American. There is a whole world outside of American and I am part of that.

4. Pointing to Islam's relationship with dogs does not dispute that Western middle class society tends to privilege their pets.

5. I am not interested in the entirety of the human race because who can possibly represent the world in its totality? I choose to focus on Western society, specifically the middle class that I am a part of.

Hope you keep reading!