Unfamiliarity Breeds Contempt

Patrick McDonnell’s wonderful Mutts
An op-ed in todayís NYT by Jonathan Safran Foer describes the challenges that pets, and their companions, face in a city like New York. In the greater Toronto area, the loathing for our animal companions has recently spiked sharply, largely due to the huge new immigrant population here, some of whom have grown up with an irrational fear of animals (they are used in some struggling nations to intimidate and extort money from the poor, and in others, because of superstitious religions, they are considered a cause of disease). The fear comes from exposure to the darkest side of our animal friends (a side brought out deliberately by despicable humans). The loathing comes from ignorance. As Foer puts it:

In the course of our lives, we move from a warm and benevolent relationship with animals (learning responsibility through caring for our pets, stroking and confiding in them), to a cruel one (virtually all animals raised for meat in this country are factory farmed ó they spend their lives in confinement, dosed with antibiotics and other drugs).

How do you explain this? Is our kindness replaced with cruelty? I donít think so. I think in part itís because the older we get, the less exposure we have to animals. And nothing facilitates indifference or forgetfulness so much as distance. In this sense, dogs and cats have been very lucky: they are the only animals we are intimately exposed to daily.

This is, of course, true of more than just the fear, hatred, cruelty and neglect we show animals. It is true of almost every creature, human and other, we fear, despise, and mistreat. We hate and fear ëterroristsí because we are not exposed to the plight that so many people in struggling nations live with every day, which seeds the desperation their actions manifests. The suicide bombers hate and fear us in return because they donít know us, donít know that weíre not just shallow, amoral, mindless consumers prepared to destroy the planet, and their home, to meet our arrogant and insatiable materialistic appetites.

English-speaking and the French-speaking Canadians have never got along well, largely because most of us wonít or canít talk with each other, and donít see just how much they have in common.

The old fear the young, and the young fear the old, because they have so little contact with each other. Except for those who have regular contact with them, we fear those who are physically and mentally disadvantaged, because we don’t know how to relate to them, don’t know what they’ll do.

The poor hate and/or envy the rich, and the rich fear that the poor will steal from them, or worse.

And we all fear nature — from the farmer paranoid about coyotes and poultry flu to the city-dweller paranoid about mosquito bites, bacteria and viruses. So we poison coyotes with agonizing strychnine, trap ‘vermin’ with torturous leg-hold traps, kill millions of factory-caged birds rather than adopt responsible, sustainable farming practices, and spray our homes and lawns with toxic chemicals that destroy ecosystems and poison every creature that comes near them, including ourselves.

It is in our nature to fear and shun what we do not know. Discretion is the better part of valor, after all, and creatures who are cautious tend to outlive those who are rash in confronting the unknown. Our dislike of people who are different and unfamiliar has a second Darwinian advantage: It increases the genetic heterogeneity and physical separation of tribes and hence reduces the spread of communicable diseases.

In the crowded modern global village, however, this Darwinian advantage becomes a disadvantage: Although we are in physical proximity with different cultures, we don’t mix with them and hence don’t know, distrust and often end up in conflict with them. Our economic and military reach vastly exceeds our cultural grasp, so we pass and exercise judgement on other cultures (often with the best of intentions, though sometimes not) without understanding what we are doing or the effect of our reckless presumption that everyone shares our goals, ideals and values. Our intolerance of those who are not like us makes us angry, hateful, violent, distrustful, paranoid, and ultimately numb and indifferent to the suffering of ‘others’.

And as we lose touch with nature, and become disconnected from all life on Earth, we forget who we really are, and we destroy the natural world and all its creatures without knowing or caring what we are doing.

This destruction of ‘otherness’, of heterogeneity, of difference, is a vicious cycle: Lack of diversity means we have less opportunity to meet and see and appreciate cultures, creatures and environments different from our own, so we become even more distrustful of them, and indifferent to them. The conservative dream of one single global culture, all of us indistinguishable from each other, and of one single species squeezing out all others’ rightto exist, is the world of the Borg — with zero diversity comes zero tolerance.

The death of nature, and of culture.

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3 Responses to Unfamiliarity Breeds Contempt

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  2. mcewen says:

    Before we get here, we always hear about the US being a ‘melting pot’. Pity the reality is on the back burner.BEst wishes

  3. Pearl says:

    Good argument with making small talk with strangers and engaging if I ever heard one.

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