Daily Archives: April 14, 2010

Feline Ethics, Part 2: Avoiding Arrogance

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This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about feline-human ethics. The first post is Dealing with cats, part 1: What is Respect? The current post is on the topic of avoiding arrogance. The post that’s currently planned as the next post will be about the power humans hold over cats.

Human arrogance towards cats frequently goes two apparently opposiite directions.

1. Cats are like miniature humans in every way. They understand every word of what we say, are motivated by exactly the things that motivate us, and if they don’t respond exactly how we expect another human to respond then they are just being stubborn, callous, cruel, manipulative, etc. Any attempt to say otherwise relegates cats to the realm of dumb animals.

2. Cats are totally unlike and inferior to humans. They do not understand a single word of what we say, cannot love, cannot reason, are not self-aware, etc. They see us as food sources and nothing more. Any claim otherwise needs to be rigorously proven in a laboratory setting, and is probably a misunderstanding of basic instinctual behavior.

The first approach is arrogant because it comes from a tendency to view the world, and especially cats, as a reflection of humanity. So it views respecting cats and seeing them as human as if these two things are synonymous. The second approach is arrogant because it views certain traits as exclusive to humans (or at least to “advanced” animals). It also, like many false ideas about cognitive disability in humans, views it as “scientific” to start from the assumption that cats lack certain abilities and demands absolute proof of the presence of those abilities before it will believe in them. Whereas for “normal” humans the preesumption is that we have those abilities.

From my standpoint those views are two sides of the same coin. The idea they both stem from is that humans are superior in certain ways. It’s just that one solves the problem of respecting cats by giving them traits identical to humans, and the other just doesn’t bother respecting cats and assumes that only humans have traits that are common among many species, cats included.

Often someone who holds one of these beliefs will assume that the other belief is the only other one possible, so that if you doubt one you must believe the other. If you doubt the first one someone will think you believe cats are nothing like humans and are overly wedded to the biases of many scientists, and if you doubt the second one someone will believe you’re engaging in overly sentimental anthropomorphism.

When most people think about cats, they see them as having a life that is simpler than our own. A little life that can be contained inside the bigger concepts that humans have. Emotions are like ours but fewer of them, thoughts are like ours but less complicated and not as many, and so forth.

This is not a useful way to look at the lives of cats. They are not miniature humans, and they are certainly not like humans but with certain aspects blunted, removed, and simplified. They are cats. They have their own complex way of relating to the world and each other. They have their own emotions which they feel according to their own values. They have things in common with us, but it’s dangerous to assume either identicalness or that they are just limited versions of us.

So when you think of cats, have some humility. Understand that there are more aspects to their way of doing things than humans can even perceive, let alone understand. This doesn’t make cats innately mysterious, it just means that we are working with different bodies, sensory organs, and brains. Even humans with the best sense of smell have nothing on cats. Our visual system is set up totally differently, not only can we not see in low light levels but our perception of motion is nothing like a cat’s. These are not little differences, they shape cats and humans into very different beings. As humans trying to understand cats, there are just flat out things we will only comprehend the vague shape of, and others we will never guess.

Be excited over these differences rather than trying to think of cats as inferior or even simpler beings. This is not to diminish what we have in common either, just an attempt to avoid making them into lesser beings just because they are different ones.

It is also important not to think of yourself as a Cat Expert. If all the stories you tell others or yourself contain phrases like “good with cats”, “a way with animals”, etc., then you are headed in the wrong direction entirely. You may have an affinity with cats — I have always found them easier to relate to than humans — but the moment your self-image depends on being right about all matters cattish, you are doing the cats a grave disservice. Because once you enter that frame of mind, you will begin to delude yourself and forget that you can make mistakes. The moment you forget that you can make mistakes, you are able to do great harm to the people you base your ego on understanding. And ‘people’ there includes cats.

Whenever someone meets Fey and begins by saying they are ‘good with cats’ or similar, I try to convey enough watchful alarm in my body language for Fey to pick up on it and get on the alert herself. (Such people never notice this body language in either one of us.) Some things I have seen such people do:

1. Grab her and find a way to hold her where she knows she can’t fight. At that point she gives up (but looks terribly uncomfortable) and they tell me, “See she likes being held after all if someone who is good with cats does it”.

(I have even seen mention of that one in a better than average book about cats. But most cat books don’t mention it or other ethical issues at all, except sometimes to reassure humans that whatever decisions they make for cats are the right ones.)

2. Try to do whatever I just told them not to do. If they succeed in doing it without provoking a major response, they assume she is okay. If they do provoke a major response (hissing, spitting, tail lashing, ears back, clawing for instance) they go “awwww what a cute playful little kitty cat” and make me want to go at them with my claws out.

For example, Fey has some kind of condition affecting a particular nerve going to her back right leg. The vet said she had never seen a cat so thoroughly indicate that the problem is a particular nerve and not others. I tend to tell people to avoid her entire back end. On good days she will initiate touch in that area, on mediocre days she will allow touch but stiffen and look uncomfortable, and on bad days she will indicate pain in every possible way and defend herself by any means necessary.

Some really egotistical people will, upon explanation of this, proceed to grab her by the exact body part that hurts in order to try and prove they are Special People Gifted With Animals who can touch her there without provoking a response. And even if she responds by mauling them, they Dont Get It. At all. No matter what happens, they especially don’t get that causing another living being intense physical pain on purpose to prove that they are a special good kind of human only proves that they are an especially terrible, insensitive, and cruel kind of human who ought not to be allowed within a mile of a cat.

(I have also seen these sorts of people at the animal shelter. Fortunately they get thrown out pretty quickly because, among other things, if an animal scratched someone they have to be put in isolation for a long time which is horrible for the animal and everyone wants to prevent it. And because the people who work there actually care about animals.)

3. Read all sorts of bizarre and obviously false things into her behavior because they just can’t possibly handle the idea of not knowing what some action on Fey’s part means. Which in turn leads to really pissing her off eventually.

4. Use their “knowledge” about her as an ego trip or power play with me or other people.

5. Do any or all of these things to me as well, because lots of people who view themselves as Good With Cats also view themselves as Good With Autistics (or sometimes Good With Nonspeaking People). And they especially love to do it in situations where I can’t do anything about it. Such as get me in a situation where I can’t respond well and then harangue someone for ‘upsetting me’ or something when nothing of the sort has even happened.

Viewing yourself as Good With an entire category of people opens you up to massively egotistical mistakes that lead you down the road to outright physical and emotional abuse. It doesn’t matter if everyone around you comments on your gift with cats, your way with cats, your being a cat whisperer, whatever. I ignore such comments if I get them. I have a close relationship with a cat. Not special powers. You should never ever let praise go to your head. No matter who you are, your ability to make grievous mistakes when trying to understand another species is an absolute given. Until you understand this, avoid cats.

And if you have either thought “This part of the post doesn’t apply with me because I am too good with cats to make serious mistakes,” or if you respond to other cat lovers admitting to serious mistakes by either thinking or uttering “I am so good with cats that I could never make that level of mistake”? That goes double for you. I have a deep and rewarding and loving two-way connection to Fey that is more detailed in our understanding of each other than any other relationship, human or cat, that I have ever had. And we both make mistakes and have misunderstandings every single day. If you think that doesn’t happen you are fooling yourself and setting yourself up to harm the cat.

The other direction arrogance can go is in assuming there is no actual harm in making massive mistakes because it’s just a cat. Or worse, that because the cat can’t tell anyone what you do, it is really okay. I have only ever got one person to admit that last one. But as someone whose ability to communicate in standard ways can come and go, I have watched what I thought were decent people transform into assholes many times the moment they thought I was either unaware or unable to tell anyone what they had done. And if it was bad for me it would be worse for cats.

I don’t really know what to say to all that. I know people who think if someone purportedly can’t understand what’s happening then cruelty isn’t wrong. I know some peopleonly care about being caught doing wrong, not about doing wrong itself, because such people have done awful things to me when I either couldn’t tell anyone or wouldn’t be believed if I did. But I know that each time people play out such attitudes on cats, the cats suffer.

Cats also suffer when treated like humans in cat suits. They end up being punished in ways that feel like a random attack from nowhere for no reason. People do things that are polite to humans but terribly rude to cats. And cats also suffer when people assume that things like love are too human for cats to fathom. Working across species is even harder than working across cultures in many respects, it’s hard to know what’s exclusively human and what we share with other animals. And there are things we may never know.

The best way to approach learning about cats is with a combination of respect and humility. Know that you’re going to mess up, but don’t focus on it so hard that you don’t even try. Be alert to signals that the cat doesn’t like what you’re doing, and don’t laugh them off with “awwww aren’t we feisty today”. Treat the cat as an individual and conscious being that you are getting to know, not as a human or a mindless automaton. Keep your ego out of the way. And above all, be aware that despite differences in species, you are dealing with someone (not something) who is capable of feeling love, physical and emotional pain, anger, joy, fear, and many other things. Treat them accordingly.

Fey on my bed

The photograph is of Fey, a grey cat with ticked fur and some white markings. She is lying curled up on a foam mattress on top of a hospital bed tilted slightly upward. Her face is at the top, in profile. You can see the dome of her eye, with a large black pupil underneath, her eyebrow whiskers pointed straight up, and a big triangular ear pointed directly at the camera. The focus becomes fuzzy towards her tail, which is curled up and around. You can also see the shiny bedrail with some notebooks behind it. The mattress she is laying on is yellow memory foam with a pale green bedsheet part on and part off it. The foam is roughly the same shade of yellow as her eye.