Disclaimer: I am not an animal rights activist, I have zero connection to that movement and their personal sets of widgets, and often only minimal exposure to them through some of their worst representatives (PETA, Peter Singer).
I think the argument about whether animals (including humans) have a nebulous and abstract quality called “personhood” (which seems to have to do with the values of a particular set of human cultures) is the entirely wrong way to go about giving respect to animals. Too often it is terribly ableist and depends upon whether the creature in question possesses certain traits valued by certain humans, and when you go down that road you end up creating a set of criteria that not even all humans let alone all the rest of animals meet. Then you end up creating a system that privileges people based on those traits. And Singer is only among the worst of human beings to do this, he is far from the only one. In fact most people I encounter regularly seem to do this sort of thing all the time, to one degree or another. Arguments about “sentience” are similarly doomed, offensive, and full of the obvious limitations of various human imaginations when it comes to non-humans and some humans. Except that somehow they’re given even more of an outer sense of objectiveness because “sentience” seems to mostly be used in scientific or science-fiction circles.
[Edited to add: I have been told that some of that may matter in legal situations. But this series of cat posts is about personal situations between humans and cats. So in this context, cats should be respected because they exist.]
I base my beliefs in matters like this on respect.
I believe that everything, human or not, animal or not, conventionally considered alive at all or not, is worthy of respect.
I do not believe this in some fluffy insubstantial manner; fluffy sorts of people have been attracted to me in the past because the words I use superficially resemble words they sometimes use, but as soon as they find out a bit of what I am actually about they have a habit of running away rapidly. It is serious to me, solid, and ethically demanding. I also happen to believe that everything communicates and can be communicated with. I do not mean sitting around speaking out loud to rocks and having them speak out loud back. I mean that everything conveys information to everything else, whether or not that information is transmitted through the laws of physics or through complex linguistic patterns.
This is a perception that I have had my entire life and that has often been at odds with my culture. But I can’t let go of it just because some people have done terrible (and I do mean terrible) things to me on this basis (although at times I have learned to avoid the subject altogether). It is too important to how I treat others, from humans to cats to plants to rocks. I am not (as some have misinterpreted me) attributing human traits to nonhumans, I am rather saying that I view every kind of thing from humans to nonhumans as having a quality entirely their own that is important and valuable and worthy of respect and sincere attempts to listen to what they have to say to the world around them.
(I also don’t divide the world up the same way the English language forces me to sound like, but I have learned that very few other humans can speak the language I started out with and have always carried with me underneath the various attempts to sound as if I speak English. I have also found that attempts to translate my language to English not only fall short but cause reactions in others from ridicule to condemnation as incredibly inadequate in some manner whether moral or functional. And that linguists get pissed that I use the term language at all but I don’t know a better one.)
How do I know this language or whatever you call it is shared by other people? For one thing, I see it mentioned from time to time:
Momo listened to everyone and everything, to dogs and cats, crickets and tortoises — even to the rain and the wind in the pine trees — and all of them spoke to her after their own fashion.
Many were the evenings when, after her friends had gone home, she would sit by herself in the middle of the old stone amphitheater, with the sky’s starry vault overhead, and simply listen to the great silence around her.
Whenever she did this, she felt she was sitting at the center of a giant ear, listening to the world of the stars, and she seemed to hear soft but majestic music that touched her heart in the strangest way. On nights like these, she always had the most beautiful dreams.
Those who still think listening isn’t an art should see if they can do half as well.
–Michael Ende, Momo
Or the following quote (somewhat autistic-centric and specific-culture-centric, so occasionally prone to generalizations):
MM: [Speaking of some autistic people...] we do not draw a line between inanimate and animate beings, that they all have a soul to us.
Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs have enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn’t, and what is human and what isn’t.
Ava: Or maybe what is and isn’t alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental developmental process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades. Whereas we ACs retain more of the direct experience of the world and less of the face-addiction-belief thing.
Sola: This reminds me of a poem that I studied in high school, “The Pond” by Bjalik. The poem describes a secret place in the forest, where there is a little pond and a tree growing from it. When the poet was a little boy, he used to go there, alone, and listen to the “language of visions,” an unmediated way for the child to communicate with the tree and the pond. The articles that I read about this poem discussed the role of spoken language, as adding the social aspect, separating the initially naive child from the true essence of the world. I was enchanted by the poem. For many months I perseverated on the meaning of communication and language, searching the library for more articles about this. However, unlike the conclusion of the poem, I did not feel that growing up and maturing inevitably meant losing this innocence and being expelled from nature. I felt that I was still that child in the forest. Now that I know that I am AS, I am not surprised that the poem had such influence on me.
MM: We are always sewing souls into the things we create.
Jane: Yes I think soul (essence of being) is created through the creation of a relationship. I call it a moral relationship (which I know sounds prissy or sanctimonious to some), by which I mean a relationship where there is acceptance/acknowledgement of agency and responsibility. When I relate to an object (whether it is another human or a bear I have created out of cloth), with my moral/aware consciousness, when I acknowledge my power to affect (recognize, hurt, heal, shine like the sun or nourish like rain — even to destroy like lightning), I also give power to the other (the object) to affect me. So that other is as alive as I am (in this sense). We are in a moral relationship that gives life meaning. That is why I know the bears who are my most intimate and daily family do help me be/have whatever is good in who I am and what I do. It is the relationship that makes us who we are (that makes me who I am). And I say that even though I have a strong tendency to want to say/feel I am I, alone. That fraction of truth lives inside the larger truth of relationships.
MM: Most of humanity is ignorant for not seeing what is around them. I hear the rocks and trees. Wish me well and tell me I am one of them, one of the silent ones who has now been given a voice, and that I must come out of hiding to protect others without voices: in my case I tend to help give voice to persons with Alzheimer’s disease. My washer and dryer speak to me, and I painted a face on them and gave them names and make sure I don’t overwork them. When I worked in a copy shop I could produce more copies than any other employee. Yes, I could understand the physics of the machines and their limitations from overheating etc. But for me the machines were talking to me and I talked back regularly.
I was raised by my Siamese cat I could understand her language better than the human language, and so I spoke Siamese before I spoke English, and I thought the cat was my real mother because I could understand her more than I could understand humans. I speak to children, babies, machines, rocks and trees as if they can hear me and they know what I am talking about. That is why my success with Alzheimer’s patients is so high: I treat them with such great respect and assume they know what I am saying. And I wonder why the rest of the world is so ignorant as to treat others as stupid and dumb and things and animals so terribly because they are somehow less than us? Well I think that this is a very arrogant stance to think we are better or more alive than these others who very much have a soul.
The last set of quotes is from a set of conversations between several autistic women in the book Women from Another Planet edited by Jean Kearns Miller. It’s not identical to my experience, but the basic idea many of them are getting at is quite similar to my own idea of my innate “language”. These are not the only autistic people I have heard say this either, just the ones readily accessible in a book. Whatever way I innately perceive the world around me in this sense has a lot in common with a specific subgroup of other people, many of whom have been defined by others as autistic but not exclusively that. And I am always glad to hear something of autistic people that isn’t the stereotype of either having an empty head or a head filled exclusively with elaborate formal logic like Spock.
So how does all this apply to cats? Well, in my book cats are as deserving of a fundamental respect as are humans, rocks, and all kinds of other things whether traditionally considered animate or inanimate. Like all forms of respect, this doesn’t mean treating all cats identically to all humans (that would be a frightfully human-centered way of doing things), or even treating all cats or all humans the same as each other. Respect has to do with really listening to who someone is and treating them accordingly, even if that differs from how you would treat someone else with respect. Identical and equal are not the same. It is as wrong to reach out and pet all over a cat who finds indiscriminate petting unpleasant, as it is to withhold petting from a cat who thrives on it (but in both cases it’s also wrong to approach the cat in a way that has everything to do with your own preferences and nothing at all to do with the cat’s!). Respect doesn’t mean you don’t have to work to understand the cat either, but that is a topic for a later post in this series.
This post is the first in a series of posts I am planning to write about how to deal with and interact with cats. It’s an attempt to give a broad overview of where I am coming from before I jump into all the details. And my reason for writing this is my reason for writing most things: I rarely see anything written about the subject matter from this perspective, I know I can’t be unique in valuing this perspective (because no one is that unique no matter what they believe), and so I write the kind of thing I would like to see written. And because a friend and I have been discussing nothing but cats for ages, so my brain is pointed in this direction.
[Photo is Fey, viewed from over the top of both of our heads. Her face is pointing the opposite direction of mine, and mine is barely visible in the photo. Her cheek is partly on my cheek and partly on the grey neck pillow. She is a grey cat with ticked fur, and a white area on her nose like a diamond on top of a triangle of white. There is also some white visible on the tiny part of her chest that you can see. She has green eyes, each one partially shut but with one more so than the other. Her ears are in their normal relaxed position. Her whiskers are neither pulled in nor pushed out, and can only be seen on one side where they spray upwards (her face is pointing to the left side of the photo). And to me, the way her face looks in this photo is both intense and familiar, although I don't know how they would look to anyone else.]