Tag Archives: human

You Animal!

Another blog about habits of speech and why they might need some scrutiny. When a human does something especially vile, it is common to refer to them as an animal. There are a number of problems with this.

For a start, it reinforces the idea that humans are fundamentally better than other animals but that we can fall, through our actions, to being at the same lower level as animals. This in turn backs up all the ways in which we otherwise mistreat and exploit other life forms.

Secondly, it gives the rest of us some rather unreasonable insulation. If we give truly offensive humans animal status, we tell ourselves that they are not us. They are not like us. We are not part of the problem. If the perpetrator in an animal, we don’t need to talk about rape culture, or how fascism is permeating our culture, we don’t need to talk about reasons for radicalisation, or gun control or anything else. Refusing to identify a terrible human being as a terrible human being, we let ourselves off the hook for perhaps helping provide the context in which they have acted.

Thirdly – and this generally applies to men – it suggests there was no scope for them to do better. We often apply animal language to men who sexually offend. They are sharks who can hardly be expected to avoid a piece of meat. Which is shitty logic, because it perpetrates the idea that men can’t control themselves, can’t make rational decisions and so forth. It also suggests that rape is a natural/animal thing and it isn’t. Most species have all kinds of complex things going on around sexual selection. Most often it is the female of the species who chooses the male. Mallard ducks aside, most creatures have reproductive strategies that are either cooperative, or about showing off to attract a female.

At the same time, we deny our fundamental animal natures. We are animals. We are mammals the same as all the other mammals. We are different in some ways but there are plenty of differences between other mammals, too. If we reserve ‘animal’ as a term for those we don’t want to recognise as human, we make it that bit harder to identify ourselves as animals, because it becomes a term of insult. We need to recognise our animal selves, and that all humans are animals of the same sort, stop pretending we are separate from nature, stop denigrating nature and stop creating ways to ignore unacceptable human behaviour.

Changing the words we use won’t change everything overnight, but it is an easy place to start. Change the words we use and we can change how we think about things, and that in turn changes behaviours, and ultimately, cultures.


Angels, Demons, and being human

When I blog about human eccentricities, I generally try and cobble together a body of anecdotal evidence, pertaining to other people aside from myself. It’s hardly science, but it does mean I can form a broader perspective. The pattern I want to comment on in today’s post isn’t one I’ve knowingly seen happening for anyone else, so if you recognise it, feedback would be especially welcome as there’s a lot I’m still figuring out. This is a pattern I’ve experienced repeatedly when dealing with an array of people over a period of years.

The essence of it goes like this. A person will accuse me, publically, privately or to others, of being something terrible. This is the ‘demon’ role. That I’m bullying has come up repeatedly for me, and is something I’ve done no small amount of soul searching over. I am, I have been told, demanding, unreasonable, unfair, a liar, a manipulator, a user. The same person will then expect me to behave like an angel – to be kind to them, patient, generous – perhaps do some free work for them, or keep doing the same things despite them having a go at me. I must not inconvenience anyone by expressing distress or resentment over the accusations. I must take it on the chin and be an angel.

Alongside this, where I’ve called people out for behaviour I have a problem with (often but not always the same people) my expectation is that they won’t be grateful for the feedback. One of the things I learned in a support group for domestic abuse survivors, is that abusers are abusive, and thinking they are going to change just gets you more hurt. Faced with someone I think is a liar, manipulator and so forth, I move away, because I expect them to repeat the behaviour. I’ve no experience of telling someone I think they are dreadful, and then being able to use that as leverage to change their behaviour to better suit me. Only someone whose inclination is to be kind and co-operative can be manipulated into giving more of themselves by being told they are awful. People who enjoy causing distress won’t be moved to change tack. It raises the possibility that people who cast other people in an angel-devil role are doing so for manipulative reasons.

I have my share of normal fallouts with people I care for, and I’ve worked many of those through over plenty of years. There are normal patterns to discord – often deriving from innocent misunderstandings. No one is being terrible, it’s just a case of figuring out what went awry, and fixing it. This is my default starting place, and I tend to find that when trading explanations with people who like me, all manner of things can be resolved.

Of course if you start from an inclination to blame, solving things is hard. It may be that those who want to cast me as both demon and angel simply want me to take total responsibility for what’s going on. I am the demon so it’s all my fault, I must fix everything and be the angel. In matters of honest human cock-up, even if the balance of responsibility lies with one party, the other party can do a lot to help by explaining clearly and listening, and engaging actively but without too much blame, in the process of figuring out what went wrong.

There’s a vast giving away of personal power once you start casting people in angel-devil roles. The person who is both devil and angel is the only person in a scenario who can fix things – I wouldn’t much fancy being the person who thinks they have an angel-devil to deal with. The person who steps up to work on resolution has far more power than simple blame can ever give them. However, if all you know how to do is give away power by making others responsible, it would (I speculate) be easy to then hate and further blame the person you’ve decided has all the power in a situation.

I must note this is not the same as a situation of genuine power imbalance – teacher/student, boss/worker, matters of financial control, or controlling behaviour. I have certainly seen people who had definite power in a situation treat the person they have power over, as the one in control, and that creates some very strange dynamics.

I have no great insights at this stage. What I do know if that a person thinks I can be both a devil and an angel, they don’t know me. They aren’t dealing with me as the human (flawed and striving) that I am. They are dealing with something they have imagined and wish to impose on me, and with the best will in the world, there’s not a lot I can do with that.


The Emperor’s Old Clothes

If the emperor had woken up the following day and realised that perhaps clothing invisible to the stupid wasn’t a good way to go, he might have acknowledged the mistake and got in with his life. Making mistakes is inevitable for humans. We all do it. Lack of experience, not having the right information, miscalculating, and a host of other reasonably honourable, natural shortcomings can result in getting things wrong.

One answer at this point, emperor-style, is to just insist that you are right, and require everyone else to go along with the farce. Real life dictatorships do this kind of thing, I believe. But yesterday I listened on the news to the story of someone who had failed to spot rickets in a baby who consequently died. The parents were accused of murder, and went through 2 years of total hell. Other experts think the rickets evidence was there to be seen. But the person who made the mistake is in court saying that the evidence isn’t there. When people acknowledge error, there is scope for learning. Other lives can be saved. Future suffering can be reduced, or avoided.

It takes courage to admit a mistake, especially with the current blame and litigation culture. It would be healthier to encourage people to own up. It would also be good if we could collectively acknowledge the idea that people do make mistakes. And not just ordinary people, but professionals and experts. Professionals misdiagnose, misjudge, underestimate, overestimate, and all the rest of it. Professional people are not magically infallible, and yet I’ve run into a few who will answer any query or challenge with an assertion that their professional status means they must, by definition, be right. This kind of arrogance is incredibly dangerous. A person who thinks they know it all already does not listen properly or consider the evidence. Not least, they will never be able to identify and properly handle a situation they have not encountered before. New things do happen. New diseases evolve. New technology creates new crimes, and so forth.

The sooner a mistake is recognised, the easier it is to get things back on track. It may seem like losing face, but the temporary humiliation is worth enduring. It’s so much better than what happens when you have to tune out whole swathes of evidence, or refuse to look at anything that doesn’t fit. The more you try to cover for a mistake, the more likely you are to compound it, adding to it with lies and misdirection, and possibly a few rounds of self delusion for good measure. Now you aren’t holding a cloth that doesn’t exist, you’re walking about in public with no clothes on. And really, by that stage it doesn’t matter what you want people to believe, they know they can see your arse, and not a one of them is ever going to take you seriously again.

Mistakes are inevitable to the learning process. If it isn’t acceptable to get things wrong, then it isn’t possible to learn or experiment. Giving permission to yourself, and to others, to be imperfect, is really useful and allows amazing things to happen. It enables the new bard to stand up and have a go. It enables the druid student to call to the spirits of place and not feel awful that their voice quavered a bit and the words weren’t quite perfect. Accepting mistakes opens the way to compassion and greater mutual tolerance. It turns us away from blame and anger, towards cooperation and getting problems solved. It allows us not just to be human, but to be the best kinds of humans we can imagine ourselves being.

Yes, I have made mistakes.

Does my bottom look big in this?


Human Nature

One of the popular reasons, historical and contemporary for trying to keep women out of positions of power, is that our cycles of bleeding and pregnancy make us crazy. One of the ongoing consequences is that most women will do everything they can to hide the fact that they menstruate so that no one thinks less of them. Of course some cultures have had different attitudes, treating it as unclean, maybe even segregating women for the duration. Now, for some of us, going off to the red tent for a while may be appealing, but for women who have brief, light periods, that can seem a pointless infringement of liberty.

My fantasy is to live in a world where it is normal to respect the cycles of the seasons and the natural cycles of our own bodies. A world in which needing to work from home for a couple of days because you’re cramping a lot would be fine. A world in which there is no shame in saying that you are bleeding and need some space, quiet, chocolate or whatever. And to have that be true for everyone else too, for the challenges of teenage growing to be better accepted, where we are more open to the trials of menopause, aging and whatever it is that blokes do and I don’t know about…

I’m back to the issue of the ways in which to be socially acceptable, we are expected to hide our animal selves.

Bleeding is messy, however you deal with it. Often it hurts, for me. My breasts swell up, as does my stomach. My back aches, and it usually last about five days. For several days before I bleed, I am usually maudlin. I don’t get the angry effects some women experience, but that may be because my bloke is respectful and supportive, so I have less to get mad about. When it isn’t ok to be, or feel any of the things your body is doing, the rage can come more readily. When I bleed, my emotions are closer to the surface and I find it harder to convince myself not to take seriously things that I feel strongly. Problems in my life become more visible, and I’ve learned to take the blood-wisdom seriously rather than try to tune it out.

I am a mammal, and once a month, the inherent naturalness of my body becomes visible to me. But bleeding, and talking about bleeding are still social taboos. But here’s a curious thing, because what else do we currently, and historically tend to find distasteful, or obscene? Urination and defecation are right at the top of the list. There are so many social complexities around eating, too – especially for women. How much should you eat, and of what? Gluttony is an old sin, being overweight is a modern one. Appetite is so often offensive. We’ve got fewer taboos around sex and the discussion of it than we used to, but that doesn’t say much. It’s still really hard to talk about rape and abuse or to talk about kink, polyamoury, or anything else much outside the het-romance standard. Breathing is ok. Nothing obscene about breathing. Birth and death we try and keep away from other people. Natural body smells have to be masked with weird chemical ones. I could go on…

The more I think about this, the more it troubles me. Our most basic and natural functions are the ones we are under most social pressure to disguise and deny. We are animals. We have animal bodies that do all the things other animal bodies do. Pretending they don’t is just silly. Pretending that we don’t have urges and appetites, pushing them under so they come at us in sudden lunges, does not make us better human beings, only more confused ones.

There are few things I find more attractive than the scent of my bloke’s sweat. Chemical smells make me feel queasy. I love body hair. I have always loved the feeling of tiredness that comes after physical exertion, be that work, or sex. I bleed. I also cry, sometimes so much that snot leaks out of my nose. I am a creature. I shit, and eat, but not usually at the same time. I need fresh air and exercise on a daily basis. I need to roll in the grass and rub against trees and have my feet bare. We write ourselves manuals for looking after other creatures who live in our houses (or boats), reminding ourselves what sort of habitats they need. I need epic views, or I get miserable. We don’t pay much attention to the habitats and natures of our own animal selves. Most of what we do to ourselves is entirely about suppressing what is animal, what is natural and wants to run wild. But then, you can’t work in an office all day or stack shelves for hours at a time if you are wild. I know, I’ve done enough of this kind of thing along the way.

But if we did allow ourselves to be natural, perhaps we’d see those little office cubicles as being as cruel, and undesirable as battery farms. Perhaps we’d look at people with long, miserable working days and find this as vile as making wild animals perform in circuses. If we took human nature seriously, we’d want to do some pretty radical things as a consequence. I want to break into offices, like animal rights activists of old, and let all the people out. But, like anything that has grown used to a cage, most of them would probably be too confused and alarmed to run for it. Still, I like the image.


Creativity and Human Nature

One of the biggest and most dangerous mistakes we make is to assume that humans are not natural, that we are capable of acting in ways that are unnatural, and that we are somehow separate from nature. The belief in our separateness impairs our ability to have good relationship with the rest of the planet, and contributes to the harm we still seem to think we are entitled to cause. We may be natural, but we are going to turn ourselves into an endangered species if we do not preserve our own environment. Air, water and soil are not infinite resources, no matter how much we may want to pretend otherwise. Neither is oil, gas, or coal, on which our cultures currently depend.

 

All the wrongs in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the planet stem from that which we have made. Our industrialisation, our sciences, our meddling with nature, is all a direct consequence of our own, inherently creative nature. Our cleverness invents ever more ways to kill, damage, pollute and degrade.

 

At the same time, if anything is going to save us as a species, it will be that same capacity for innovation. We might yet invent our way out of the problem of fossil fuel dependence. We might yet create more sustainable ways of living. We might invent more social justice, and discover better ways to act as caretakers for the rest of the planet.

 

Anyone looking to ‘nature’ as a big, vague amorphous thing that isn’t us, might note that nothing else out there seems to be using its innate abilities to try and take care of other creatures, so why should we? It’s natural to predate, and seek the best for ourselves. It’s natural not to want to share, and not to care too much about the weaker things we squash. It’s natural to compete and to destroy competitors. It is natural to put our own comfort first, to think in the short term and pay no regard to the challenges future generations may face. Does the locust swarm worry about the farmer, or what tomorrow’s locusts will be eating? Of course not.

 

Nature is vast and diverse. It’s very easy to pick the ‘lessons from nature’ that you want to learn. As with yesterday’s post – nature taken as a whole thing can indeed be shown to offer nothing by way of inherent justice. But how about individual communities? Behaviour that harms the herd, or the pack, doesn’t tend to be tolerated by communal creatures. When we talk about ‘nature’ it’s like talking about the Bible – you can always find an example that will support your point of view.

 

As humans, it is in our nature to create. That’s not limited to the bardic arts, or even to science and technology. Our languages, social structures, laws, beliefs – these too have been created. We are capable of incredible ingenuity and innovation. There may be no justice in nature, but it is in our own natures to imagine its existence and strive towards it. There may be no fairness inherent in the world, yet still we can envisage fairness and make it part of our dealings with each other. It may be natural to let the weak and injured die, but we can choose to care for them. It would be arrogant to assume we are the only creatures capable of imagining in this way. Everything that has spirit may well be capable of imaginatively engaging with the whole, and creating anew. Trees are forever hybridising, inventing new forms of self. Nature gets into every niche. Urban foxes most certainly know how to innovate!

 

If we can imagine it, then it can exist. If we can imagine it, it is not unnatural, because we are part of nature. I doubt there were a bunch of mammals thinking ‘no, we’d better not get back in the sea, it’s not what’s natural for mammals’ at the time the first whales and dolphins were evolving. We cannot do other than what it is in our natures to do, but the potential within our nature is vast, perhaps infinite. Just because we can imagine a thing doesn’t make it a good idea, or clever. We are all capable of imagining things it would be better not to do, and as a species we don’t seem too great at enlightened self interest. But apparently that’s natural as well. For the purposes of long term survival, it’s going to require a bit of a rethink though.