Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gorillas and Zombies: What does it mean to be human?

watched a movie and a TV show this past week that were loaded with worldview messages.  Both had a serious statement to say about what it means to be human, but ended up in remarkably different places.


The movie was a lighthearted family comedy, Zookeeper. It was basically an apologetic for the idea that animals are not only sentient, but emotional and intelligent.  As the animals teach him how to be an alpha male, Kevin James, the bumbling zookeeper, becomes a better man and a fine catch for all the ladies who are mysteriously attracted to him.  I kept expecting Christopher Hitchens to walk into the zoo and say, as he says at the beginning of his debates, “My fellow primates…”

This anthropomorphism is not new.  After the movie “Babe”, the pork industry took a hit. Seriously.  Entertainment has the power to change how people view the world, and that cute little pig put the idea in a lot of young minds that pigs are very much like us.  Cute movie; wrong message.

No wonder so many nations are passing laws that increasingly give animals the same rights as humans. ABC News has noted, “some legal reformers would like to see the legal definition of "persons" expanded to include chimpanzees…” Recently,  Spain gave 'human rights' to apes, joining Switzerland, Germany and other EU nations in the race to broaden the definition of personhood.  


Here’s the problem:  When we treat things that are not human as if they are human, we become very confused about what it means to be human.  And when we become confused about our own nature, we are in trouble.  


On the other hand, there is the AMC drama  The Walking Dead.  I don't like the comics, but the show addresses some pretty deep philosophical issues, not the least of which is the question of  (once again) what it means to be human. 

One of the key tensions in the show revolves around the fact that the Walking Dead are former friends, relatives and neighbors of the living.  They sure look a lot like they did before, and have at least some sentience, awareness, and consciousness.  So….how do you treat someone who sure looks human, but might not be anymore…or might be… (The end of season one suggested at least a minimum of brain function).  

Because the stakes are so high, the Living at times have to kill the (un)Dead to protect themselves.   It’s interesting, though: the more callous the characters become toward the Walking Dead, the more hardened they become toward the living.  It’s as if committing violence against even a shadow of humanity kills a person’s soul bit by bit. 

By showing this dilemma, the show makes an important point:  When we treat things that are human as if they are not human, we become very confused about how we ought to treat other humans.  And when we become confused about how we ought to treat others, we are also in trouble. 


If Zookeeper is correct, the definition of "human" apparently ought to be blurred; if The Walking Dead is correct, that line should never lose its clarity.

11 comments:

  1. I love looking for worldviews in a movie.
    Great post.

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  2. very interesting thoughts... I had a similar discussion with my son, who thinks it's ok to kill zombies in online games.

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    1. More and more people are asking questions about the role video games are playing in shaping how people view the world. I suspect most of the influence is more subtle than obvious. Video games don't make people do a particular thing in real life like they do in the game, but, as all entertainment does, it certainly impacts the way they think about at the world.

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  3. I am very bothered by this post and your conclusions, specifically your concerns about a supposed confusion over what it means to be human if we treat animals equally. Actually, I'm more than bothered, I'm downright flabbergasted that this is your view. I'll start with this: wouldn't you agree that how we treat other living beings is a reflection of who we(humans) are? Isn't compassion, respect, tolerance, etc... part of your definition of being human? Your statement implies that by somehow giving rights, it lessens our own. Yet if you note, in your comments on the second movie, you included "the more callous the characters become toward the Walking Dead, the more hardened they become toward the living. It’s as if committing violence against even a shadow of humanity kills a person’s soul bit by bit." Wouldn't that be the same? The more we demean or diminish animals, the more we kill our own souls?

    My question for you: what do you mean by "the way we treat"? Certainly there is a distinction between treating any being like a human and protecting them from being treated in any way that keeps them from living full lives as the creatures they are. (and I say this loosely because I don't like the idea of humans deciding what that life is, but that's another discussion) I agree that the level of anthropomorphism you describe in this movie (I've not seen it) is not appropriate. (In fact, it can be demeaning to the animal!) I agree that this can cause confusion, but not just about human behavior, but also about true animal behavior, which can be destructive.

    As to how to treat humans who are no longer quite human, your second example, don't we do that already? Don't we incarcerate humans we think have bad (human) behavior? Don't we sometimes kill them with the same justification in this society? (capital punishment, self defense, enemy combatants) Don't we also treat humans with lower mental capacities differently? A better example, what about a psychopath, with no human empathy? How should we treat him? Like a human?

    The problem with your example about animals, the pork industry, is that by taking an attitude that animals are lesser beings, that don't have "rights" is exactly what causes unnecessary pain and suffering, horrible conditions of abuse, desensitization in people to these conditions, and more. I could go on and on. My point is this: if we create a world where we teach our children to care about the well being of our animals, we teach them compassion, respect, tolerance, a whole host of other things. Again, a reflection of what it means to be human. The flip side to this, we know for a fact, when you study the mind of the psychopath, the complete lack of empathy, and how that manifests in the world, serial killers start with animal torture.

    Your reluctance to "give rights" (as if you have the right or authority to give rights, which again, is an entirely different thread) because you believe that somehow diminishes your own is a dangerous notion. Well, maybe not for you. But certainly for them.

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  4. Kim, we agree on a couple key point:.
    "Wouldn't you agree that how we treat other living beings is a reflection of who we(humans) are? Isn't compassion, respect, tolerance, etc... part of your definition of being human?" Yes.
    "Certainly there is a distinction between treating any being like a human and protecting them from being treated in any way that keeps them from living full lives as the creatures they are." Agreed.
    I'm not sure, though, why you think my reluctance to give human rights to non-humans is dangerous. I believe we should grant them respect and the rights due them as animals. I don't think it lessens my rights as a human at all, so I am puzzled by your claim that I am apparently intimidated or scared by these looming animal rights. Perhaps I misunderstood you (feel free to clarify).'
    " in your comments on the second movie, you included "the more callous the characters become toward the Walking Dead, the more hardened they become toward the living. It’s as if committing violence against even a shadow of humanity kills a person’s soul bit by bit.' Wouldn't that be the same? The more we demean or diminish animals, the more we kill our own souls?" Well, the same in the sense that something bad happens inside of us when we treat other living creatures with a coldness, callousness, and perhaps a cruelty that they do not deserve. This is one reason why police take animal cruelty seriously - it says something about the person involved, and it's not good.
    But I'm not sure your examples involving people are in the same category. We incarcarate criminals precisely because they are humans, not animals. They are moral agents, while animals are not. People are liable, or culpable, in ways my dog, a pig, or a bear is not.
    My cat brings a a mouse into my house almost every morning. Sometimes it's dead; sometimes she plays with it until it dies (or, if I get to it first, until I take it outside and set it free). Now, is my cat bad, or evil, or cruel? Nope. She's just doing what cat's do.
    Wouldn't you agree that humans aren't like that? And when a psycopath treats humans like my cat treats that mouse, we cringe because something has gone terribly wrong: a human being who was supposed to be a good moral agent in the world is acting like an animal. And because he or she is not an animal, we don't simply hope they play with their victims somewhere we can't see it unfold (as in the situation with my cat). We stop them; we try to cure them.
    My cat does not need to be cured. She's doing what cat's do.
    So, yes, I am certainly reluctant to give animals the same rights we have, but not because I am afraid of their worth and want an excuse to hurt them. They simply aren't like us.

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  5. Kimberli BindschatelJune 19, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    As usual, you give a cogent argument, and certainly, make me believe our goals and intent is closer than I thought at first glance. But this discussion begs the question: what is your definition of human rights vs. treating aminals "as if they are human"? (if you mean the legal definition, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then I would agree, some are not applicable) But honestly, I'm not as interested in parsing out the fine details of rights in that respect, as I am "treatment", in this context. I'll explain, because I fear the fault is all mine in a lack of vocabulary or a true understanding of the terms used.

    Your cat example is an interesting one (ironically, I had a debate with someone else once who used the same example) I believe this boils down to motivation in a natural world context, which I believe you might agree with due to your culpability statement. The cat is not "toying" with the mouse in the same way a psychopath toys with a victim. Kittens are taught how to hunt this way, to survive, the only way a cat can kill a mouse. It is human emotion that makes us see it as "toying" The fact is, as far as we can understand, animals don't kill for the shear thrill of killing (if they do it is very rare) like we do in the human world. Only humans are that cruel. So, I guess I wholeheartedly disagree with your statement that "humans are not like that." Murderers and trophy hunters come to mind. Quite common.

    so, back to treatment of animals. Do you believe animals have a "right" to live their lives as free from pain and suffering as possible (imposed by us, not circumstance of nature of course)? If a person tortures an animal, why isn't the punishment the same as torturing a human? If not, and your answer is, animals don't have the same inherent value as humans, why is that relevant in this context? meaning, if you believe a human can be rehabilitated through incarceration (I don't, not for this crime!) why would the punishment be any less? Shouldn't the punishment be related to the harm done, not to whom? And don't animals have the "right" to the same protections? Why not?

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  6. Kim, sorry I missed PT tonight at the Brew. Busy week. I'm sure it was lively as always :)

    1) Re: paragraph 2, I should have said in my earlier response, "Humans are not meant to be like that." My bad....

    2) Re: paragraph 3, I think people who torture animals should be punished for it for two reasons. First, it is cruel to the animal. Second, it is changing something inside the person so that they are losing part of their humanity: the ability to empathize and care. Purposeful, unnecessary infliction of pain is a bad thing every time.
    You and I are going to disagree about whether or not humans and animals have the same status, I'm afraid. Maybe one way of thinking through this is by addressing what happens when we accidentally harm or kill an animal vs. a human. What do you think of this example to highlight the difference? If I back my car up and run over my neighbor's dog, is that different than if I back up my car and run over the neighbor's daughter? One is manslaughter; one is a tragic accident. If my dog brings home a rabbit dangling in his jaws, or a small boy, two very different series of consequences will occur, and I believe rightfully so. One is not the same as the other.
    It strikes me that we instinctively know these two events are fundamentally different.
    Agree or disagree? (I'm gong to be gone until Monday night, so it might be a bit before I get back with you).

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  7. Kimberli BindschatelJune 23, 2012 at 4:34 AM

    Interestingly, the discussion ended up being an in-depth exploration of this very topic. Wish you had been there. I believe you are right, we won't agree here. I have a hard time with the concept that a human life has so much more value than an animal life. I also suspected all along, of course, that we agreed on animal cruelty and am most delighted that you definitely see the connection between how we treat animals and how we treat humans.

    I am still curious though, about the definition of "rights" as perhaps we are not thinking of them in the same light. But more importantly, to me, is this: when we look at different cultures of history, or even some today, but most commonly cultures that live more closely with nature, we see a RESPECT for animals that, in my opinion, is lost in our modern society. Yes, they hunted for food, but often there was a spiritual ceremony where the animal was honored, thanked. I can't imagine in those cultures killing was condoned/done just for fun (like trophy hunting today, we give permits! and ooh and aah over their horn trophies. sick!) The key is they saw animals as part of their world, a world that they were part of. Now I know we've discussed the line from Genesis and the translation of dominion vs. stewardship. And if we go with yours, stewardship, then the discussion ends here (because I can't convince you of equal VALUE). My concern is, there is a whole world of people out there who do not think of it that way, who think all "natural resources" are here for the taking. I'll let the environmentalists argue how the industrial age mentality is decimating our planet, but it carries over to our "use" of animals as well. I know, if you truly understand that cruel treatment of any other being takes us away from our humanity, then you can see it on a wider scale, yes? If humans believe they are the highest form of life, the most intelligent, the ones with the most value, it leads of course to believing they are "in charge" and with what we know about human behavior, we know that is a dangerous notion. We almost never do what's in the best interest of other species and rarely do what's truly in our own best interest in the long term.

    so, I'll ask this question, (and I don't mean to sound hostile, my tone is purely honest): wouldn't it be better to teach humans pure respect of "nature" and let God be in charge, rather than this point of view where humans seem to be on a higher plane, acting more like God?

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  8. Kimberli BindschatelJune 23, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    BTW- I thank you for taking the time on this discussion, for many reasons. But it helps me to define exactly my own views and how to articulate them, which is fun.

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  9. "If humans believe they are the highest form of life, the most intelligent, the ones with the most value, it leads of course to believing they are "in charge" and with what we know about human behavior, we know that is a dangerous notion. We almost never do what's in the best interest of other species and rarely do what's truly in our own best interest in the long term....wouldn't it be better to teach humans pure respect of "nature" and let God be in charge, rather than this point of view where humans seem to be on a higher plane, acting more like God? "

    I largely agree with you, Kim. Putting people in charge is always dangerous. I believe it was Lord Acton who said something along the lines of, "Power tends to corrupt." That's why I find the concept of stewardship in the Bible appealing. As I understand it, stewardship has two main points: 1) We need to take care of the world, and 2) we better give it back better than it was. The ones who take care of it have to be (almost by definition) the most intelligent - the highest form, if you will - to be responsible in this way. Apes simply can't do it, but people can. As a Christian, I believe I will have to give an account to God concerning how I treated all of His creation. I don't want to "act like God' in the sense that I decide for myself how the world should be; I do want to be what I would call an ambassador for God in the sense that I want my life to positively and accurately represent Him.
    I personally (and I can't speak for every Christian) thinks this creates in me a serious obligation on behalf of the rest of creation. By virtue of being human, I believe I have a greater moral obligation than the rest of the animal kingdom to treat everything around me in a manner consistent with its innate worth. If I don't, I do wrong to the animal; I undermine my own integrity; and I will one day have to explain to the Creator why I abused HIs creation. That's not a conversation I want to have :)
    Yes, you and I disagree on what particular worth goes with a particular animal. In spite of that, I think we share a fair amount of common goals (though not entirely). We both share a desire to see every part of the world treated well.

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  10. Kimberli BindschatelJune 27, 2012 at 6:29 AM

    Indeed

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