Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Eat or Not to Eat: A Chinese Societal Debate on Dogs and Cats

Here are some of my thoughts connecting some of my roaming mental voyages about China. I apologize for these random thoughts in need of a real thesis. One of the difficulties with living abroad and thinking about  foreign objects in an estranged or estranging land is that clear understanding are not always easily got at. The slow maturation makes it hard to even discuss with the human hope for superficial answers.

Eat or Not to Eat: A Chinese Societal Debate on Dogs and Cats

There has been a considerable amount of news about the treatment of dogs and cats in China recently. A few days ago there was something like a group sit-in to prevent the transfer of a truck overfilled with dogs. The pictures and videos present a dramatic portrait of ill-treatment dogs and cats experience in China–pet stealing, transferred in trucks across to butchers and restaurant tables. The fact remains that China is still a country where people eat domestic animals.

China is a country deeply divided by differences. An especially prominent difference is the economic, social, educational and mentality difference between the rural and urban areas. The Chinese tend to see this in terms of a difference between “farmers” and the denizens of China’s most prosperous cities (generally thought of “citizens” of cities like Shanghai, Beijing, etc.). While there is barrage of talk and propositions about how to elevate this gap and bridge a somewhat hostile, geographical separation, the barrier remains, a barrier of situation that carries a frontier of disparate values.

Last night there was a debate on Chinese TV between two groups of professors about whether an animal protection law should be enacted in China. The specific question turned around something that would translate as “Whether it should be okay to eat cat meat?”

Debates are as not as uncommon as people outside of China might think. But like many televised affairs, the debate wasn’t one purely of ideas and values nor a probing of the question itself and society at large; it was partially a scene of “showmanship.” Specifically one of the debaters who was supporting the position that eating cats is an acceptable practice seemed to be revealing a Chinese, err human tendency to make himself famous.

It is hard to point to a number on this idea. But there are several memorable incidents in the last several months about Chinese individuals pushing the barriers in the hope of achieving enough recognition, enough fame to then turn into something profitable. It is difficult to exactly put a Western label on this type of phenomenon, and perhaps it is even more difficult for Westerner, err an American to see through such “showmanship.”

One of the debaters supporting the “eat cats” team was an older professor who spoke little but whose presence there gave witness to his general agreement.

The other, younger debater was significantly more active in supporting that animals should be allowed to be eating. Apparently, this professor over the last several months has been slowly making a name for himself by defending the right to treat animals as, well, animals.

To put things in perspective from perspective, one of my good friends in China is and was quite active in the “protect animal” groups in Chengdu. Several years ago she was significantly more active, and at that time, she was running a dog rescue center and even appeared on some television programs. The images that I saw from that time also show a significantly more wearied face. She never really explained to me why she stopped, but she slowly retracted her activities for protecting animals and now only has a small apartment where she cares for a few stray cats and a few old and disabled dogs. I tend to understand her retraction as a statement to the fact that society wasn’t and didn’t change just because she believed it should.

The recent news in northern China dealing with trafficking dogs has stirred a strong emotion in her when I saw her last night. When I met her last night, I didn’t initially notice what was on TV, but I saw that her face and body were prone with line of anger and contempt.

The debate had already started. My friend’s focus was on the young professor who was supporting the acceptance of eating dogs. My friend was adamant that this “professor” was merely playing a game and probably didn’t really believe what he was saying. He was simply seeking to grab enough attention and gain enough of a following that he could then appear thereafter in various other cultural discussions. As my friend saw it, this guy was a cheater, a wolf in sheep’s clothes.

Not only was it my friend’s opinion, but the opinion of reportedly over a million online people. Like lots of cultural and societal debates in China, the repercussions entered the digital realm. In fact, the cause and effect is more the reverse: the internet space, attention and discussion created the need for more officially public attention in the form of news reports and this televised debate.

 

Enter my Opinion, Attempting my Understanding

I made the mistake of trying to discuss with my friend about this issue.

Her opinion was this guy was a kind of false professor. My rebuke was that this guy as a professor was no different than anyone else. I didn’t really see this guy as a “cheater” supporting a position he didn’t like to get a taste of fame. Looking back now, I probably couldn’t know or see it as such, but she probably was more correct than I.

My friend speaks relatively poor English, and I speak relatively poor Chinese, so it is a situation demanding patience. I have background in philosophy and sociology so I tend to take issues like these and attempt to understand them from different angles and adjust accordingly.

This debate about eating or not eating pets spoke to me about a lingering ethical dilemma that of moral relativism. Basically, moral relativism is the idea that since there is no universal right or wrong, it is impossible to say what morals should or shouldn’t be. As a philosophical position, moral relativism is extremely debilitating for ethics, but as a sociological premise, it is taken as a basis for our coming to understand human societies.

People from China like those from Western countries don’t tend to be aware of this idea about morals being relative. People can accept that you like this kind of food or prefer that kind of entertainment but questions of right and wrong don’t often make people think, Oh they believe that because of their differing religion, background, morals, etc.

In broken Chinese and simple English, I attempt to broach this point with my friend. I said more or less that this professor might simply be speaking and defending a portion of society that indeed thinks it’s okay to eat domestic animals.

My friend’s response was that I hadn’t seen an earlier part of the debate where the older supporter said that he didn’t agree with changing the currently laws to protect animals now. His point was that China wasn’t ready. My friend, of course, emphasized it as a question of “not right” and “not everywhere”; at least not yet.

My friend went on to explain that even though she couldn’t accept the younger, educated professor’s belief, she could accept and understand why the older professor might think it’s okay to eat domestic animal meat. In the same way she could accept “farmer’s peoples” (her words), she could accept the older professor’s position. Why? Because he’s older, that’s just people that are old are.

In the background of her thoughts was the idea that over time more people will come to understand better and their belief and their morals will “evolve” and will become more “civilized.” Not now, of course, but one day they will agree with me, agree with us. Us animal lovers.

If only.

 

A Personal Conclusion: A Communitarian Approach

It’s dangerous and often inappropriate to enter inside of a different culture’s, a different country’s debate. As the case is, what business do I have having an opinion about a place I’m not really a member of. At the risk of ill-feelings and my lack of place, I’d like to offer a few personal thoughts about this “debate.”

One of the radical ideas that entered the political world over the last few hundred years was that all, free peoples should be accepted into modern societies. That sentence was careful word, but if they are a free people and haven’t had ideas or beliefs forced upon them, then their beliefs should be accepted within society. The liberal ethical extension starts at the point where your beliefs and practices infringe upon my rights.

It is increasingly accepted, even if not universally applied, ideal that all humans have rights. The most basic are “right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” as well right to your own religion, right to your own thoughts, right to live your life your own way. Social welfare states extend this basic political freedoms with social protections that include the right to access free education, the right to health care, and the right to a place to live, finding a job, etc. History has created a political world where people possess and are thought of possessing rights.

These rights are the abstract core of how people are protected in most human societies today. But these rights are rarely if ever thought of as part of what makes a human a human. People tend to think of themselves are members of a shared community of language, culture, history, practices and morals. There is a dark dichotomy between this political vision of man as a bearer of rights and this fleshy reality of man as an embodied person among like speaking, thinking and acting persons.

This division becomes clear when a society tries to debate something that it doesn’t have the vocabulary, perspective or community body for finding an acceptable solution. The current “debate” in China about whether, how and when to enact a law protecting domestic animals points to these lacks.

How can you adequate debate or even resolve a debate like this when a society has neither a shared moral vocabulary, a common ethical compass or perspective or even a true community body of deciding?

One of the problems I see in the debate for protecting animals is that the political ideals of rights are ill-fitting when applied to animals. I don’t believe the vocabulary of human rights can be applied correctly to animals. The idea that humans have rights is built from earlier writings and discussions that assume a human has a self. There is evidence that some animals possess some limit aspects of a self. Unfortunately, those limited aspects among a selective group of animals does little for us in applying the rights vocabulary to a wide range of animals including domestic pets.  This doesn’t mean I think animals should be protected. It just means that the two dilemmas (protecting animals and moral relativism) require a different political way of thinking.

As I noted earlier, the political thought on humans having rights doesn’t provide much flesh to the actual picture of who and what a human is. The protection of the integrity of a human body and his or her limit sphere of actions is good, but it is only a partially adequate answer to the human narrative of self and others.

Political and philosophical thought in the West has been largely premised on the idea that humans are separate. The questions tend to start with “I”: how to do I know I exist? how do I know anything? how do I know God? how to do I know what I should do in an moral situation? etc. We enter into a solipsistic nightmare.

This kind of epistemology makes it difficult to ever reach the other or even understand yourself as a reflection and participant with and for others. By starting with a different premise (a premise I would argue there is more epistemologically proof for) that self can only exist in relation with others, we can begin to rethink many of these so-called impossible debates.

By seeing the self and other as intrinsically tied does not remove the idea of individual rights, it simply modifies the reasoning slightly. A communitarian approach as this might be called also allows us to think about community problems. In fact, I might argue that liberalism creates a difficult optic for even discussing community problems. Phenomenological Communitarianism (to give it a clear name) provides us with a community with a more robust vocabulary for thinking through community problems.

By changing the perspective, moral relativism and the treatment of animals can be rethought through accordingly.

Communitarianism means we can envision a community of others, not simply adult humans. We can not only imagine the correct treatment of humans in our community, we can think about the correct treatment of animals, environment and even (hypothetically) aliens in our community.

Communitarianism does not mean we create a massive shared community of similar values. This is impossible and not desirable. It means that the political sphere must find a way to act in a way as a community decider and chooser. While democracy is indeed a product of liberal thought, this last point about creating a situation or community where choices can be made through plurality (as opposed to counted singularity of voting) is a subject for another discussion.

Whether it’s in China or another country, hopefully by changing the way we understand how humans can and do relate, our thoughts about how humans should relate and think about relating can be better resolved.

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