Thursday, June 4, 2009

Anthropomorphizing cats

[The following appeared in Dissent the Blog. I include it here owing to its (admittedly meager) philosophical content and nature.]

RECENTLY, I added two cat images (see) that I thought were funny. I especially liked the commando-cat image. I thought the other image was iffy, humorwise.

One of our readers (MAH) objected to the commando-cat image. In a note to another reader (BS), she opined (in passing): “the cat with [the] gun is horrible!”

BS responded, noting (in passing) that he liked the “cat with a gun,” judging it to be a “creative” use of a yawning cat.

Later, MAH shared her usual thoughtful reflections about things, but she added:
All right: just to show my grumpiness at the June gloom, I don't even like the cat with mouse and laptop. I never did care for that kind of anthropomorphized imagery of animals. Remember those godawful commercials in the old days that made cats appear (not very well) to speak words? Hated 'em more than I can say. The magnificent creatures are interesting enough in their own right not to need "enhancement" with faked human activities. [I added the dictionary link.]

I briefly responded, arguing (good-naturedly, I hope) that the “commando” image either did not anthropomorphize or that it did, but in an acceptable way. I said that, at least for me, the humor of the image depends in part on the manifest absurdity of placing a cat in these settings—not on the idea that cats are like Rambo (or are like computer geeks). (No doubt MAH will explain to me that she doesn't need me pointing this out.)

I’m not sure, but I think that the commando-cat image is “fun” for me in part because it vaguely ridicules the embarrassing and unsophisticated “Rambo/Hollywood-commando” fantasy or mindset. It does not ridicule cats or suggest that cats are anything like one of these stupid cartoon-commandos. (I’m passing no judgment on real commandos.)

OK, so one point is this: I do not object to portraying cats as people per se, just as I do not object to portraying, say, babies as adults per se. (No doubt, MAH will agree.) I noted that the current E-trade commercials (portraying a baby/toddler as a kind of hip young male stock speculator) are funny and unobjectionable (at least re our attitudes toward babies). (See below.) Their creator is clever and understands the creepiness and absurdity of viewing babies as hip young traders. These commercials are generally striking and entertaining, to me. (On the other hand, they utterly fail to cause me to buy what E-Trade sells. In fact, I had to look up whose commercials these were!)

Along with MAH, I did not like those old Meow Mix talking-cat commercials and the like. (See below for the "meow" commercial, although MAH perhaps had some other commercials in mind.) These kinds of commercials don’t strike me as objectionable. To me, most of them are simply unclever and stupid. Do they imply anything about the nature or quality of cats? I don’t see how. I think they pander to a common capacity to be dazzled and entertained by stupid things. (OK, I am now flashing my “elitist” card.)

MAH is of course correct: some commercials anthropomorphize animals in the sense that they in some sense impute human thoughts and attitudes to nonhuman animals. And some of these commercials are stupid precisely on that score.

My candidate: the “Morris the cat” (9 Lives) commercials. (See below.) There’s something too easy, and somehow just stupid, about the "haughty cat" stereotype. Cats can be finicky, of course, but I don’t think they are ever haughty, and that's what these commercials suggest. Are they sometimes indifferent to our desires and actions? Well, no, for indifference implies awareness, but it seems to me that on those occasions that inspire talk of feline “haughtiness,” cats are not aware of our efforts or wishes. Are they disdainful of us? Well, again, no, for they seem to proceed as though we are not present. There’s nothing really present for them to be contemptuous or disdainful of. It seems obvious (to me) that cats are never contemptuous or disdainful, though they share some of the behavior associated with those attitudes among humans.

No doubt some of you will now reveal your claws.

As any cat person knows, it is possible to “connect” with a cat. With some effort, one can make a cat aware of one’s presence and needs or desires (to some extent). When prompted, cats have no trouble looking into a person's eyes and paying attention to them. Such occasions seem to interrupt the general flow of feline obliviousness to others. I think cats are more oblivious of others than humans are. It's just their way.

I guess I “object” to Morris commercials more or less in the way that I object to silly and crude stereotypes generally. Most of the time, crude stereotypical thinking strikes me as stupid more than wrong. But, obviously, it can be wrong, too.

BTW: it turns out that Morris the Cat is a fairly decent guy. According to Wikipedia,
Morris has appeared in [various] media over the years. He starred in the movie Shamus with Burt Reynolds and Dyan Cannon in 1973. He also appears as a "spokescat" promoting responsible pet ownership, pet health and pet adoptions through animal shelters. To this end, he has "authored" three books: The Morris Approach, The Morris Method and The Morris Prescription.

In 2006, Morris was depicted as adopting a kitten from a Los Angeles animal shelter, L'il Mo, who represents the first in a campaign known as Morris' Million Cat Rescue.

Yes, I know. It would be naive to conclude that the "9 Lives" people are focused on the welfare of pets.

Morris the cat “9 Lives” commercial:

E-Trade “talking baby” commercial:

“Meow Mix” singing cat commercial:


Roy Bauer said...

See comments appended to the Dissent the Blog post.

Bohrstein said...

POS is indeed Philosophy of Science. And so yes, it is the dream combo (I quite agree). Though it appears this is a scheduling nightmare. I might have to reserve an extra year at UCI to graduate with the POS degree. I do have plans to go to graduate school for Physics though, so who knows. I’m probably going to be in school for awhile no matter what.

On with the debate!

With regards to why it seems reasonable for Chunk to save the healthy baby over the kitten, I would argue, that you argued, by transitivity, that Chunk is engaging in speciesism and in deciding to save the life of the baby (based on DNA). The argument goes like this,

=> You said, Chunk decides whom to save by which animal has the most potential.

=> What has the most amount of potential is based on the programming of the animal. (This just seems true in general. DNA is the plan + programming for the animal, we know from biology that nature follows this plan, thus we know what the creature that results is potentially capable of)

=> And what something is “programmed” to become is based on its DNA.
Ergo, Chunk is saving the life of the baby based on its DNA.

This is my attempt at a "Gotcha!" So don't disappoint me :P

Even if my "Gotcha!" succeeds, it doesn't change the fact that only if Chunk takes this path of reasoning is he committing speciesism. My thought experiment alone doesn’t justify that Chunk is a speciesist, and as you said, nor does it justify speciesism. There could be any number of reasons why Chunk might prefer the kitten over the baby (say, fear of being socially rejected when he survives, or by your modification Chunk actually perceives the kitten’s worth aside from the babies worth).

But I am beginning to feel that judgment by species is a pretty arbitrary thing (how enlightening is that?). It’ll have to stew in the mind for awhile though. I've learned to become skeptical of these awe inducing little thoughts.

Regarding your cheetah, this is a really excellent point (in my humble opinion). I thought about this awhile back, and have held it in my head for awhile, and you will have no argument from me on this. It seems that all animals have a thing they can do to promote their survival. Ours, being reason, allows us to pull this cloak over our eyes and call ourselves the best. Little do we realize, things like “best” are merely the result of human reason, and so we have essentially created an award show, and put ourselves in first place.

That's it! That's all I have. it seems like I am coming around to your side. I have all these little inconsistencies I need to clean up in my mind so I blame you for the mental torture that will ensue in time. I promise though, that if I find something awry I will post here and grab for your attention. An infinite thanks to you MAH for the dialog thus far. I know you're a busy person, so taking the time to think and write (basically, to humor) me is freakin' awesome.

now in need of a nap - BS

mad as hell said...

Omygod, BS; that is about the greatest thing in the world--that you are, indeed, majoring in Physics and Philosophy of Science. Thanks for clearing that up. If you do need to stay the extra year at UCI, it will be well worth it.

Really cool and interesting points you've got here; sorry that I must defer a response for a bit later.

So: later!

mad as hell said...

Ok, Bohrstein.

Basing decisions and treatment on one's DNA isn't the same as basing them on the potential that DNA makes possible. Thus, when things go wrong (let's say, a davastating head injury) and the DNA can't any longer cough up the potential that most humans carry, then STILL, the classic speciesist will hold that individual human life to be more valuable than that of a fully aware, sophisticated, intelligent, altruistic, fully functioning gorilla (or kitty). Traditional speciesists don't think through the intricacies of what DNA makes possible; they simply think that the human species is in itself more valuable than any other.

Maybe Roy can remind us what the fallacy is that I think is involved in your "gotcha" argument: is it the fallacy of division? (X is y; X is made up of z's; so all of the z's are y. So: "Roy's decision is based on potentialities; potentialities really are made up of DNA; so Roy's decision is based on DNA." This isn't quite it, since you're not equating potential to DNA, but saying that it's based on it. In fact, programming that makes a thing possible is distinct from that thing itself--e.g., the experience of sight is distinct from the "programming" that makes it possible--unless one is a reductionist, which just doesn't seem tenable. Thus your "gotcha" argument fails, it seems to me. Still, interesting.....

Besides, if an alien life form (a la Mr. Spock or Data) were to appear on earth and commence to converse, fall in love, and in other ways exhibit mental abilities most often associated with humans, then classic speciesism would have to hold that this being has no moral value or rights. I don't think most traditionalists would find this plausible; so they would have to acknowledge that it's the abilities in question, and not DNA itself, that they (we) value. They'd have to give up speciesism, if they wanted to be consistent--and rethink their treatment of gorillas, cats, pigs, mice, and so on.

"... we have created an awards show, and put ourselves in first place." Love that!

The thing that may not come through these (very enjoyable) debates is how terribly important it is to think clearly about speciesism--for it results in absolute misery and torment for billions of animals, year in and year out. That's one reason that I'm happy to put any amount of time into revealing it as the prejudice I think it is.

----now can go nap in peace.

Bohrstein said...

Sorry for the delay in response, but I keep distracting myself somehow from important manners. I.e. I'm doing a lot of nothing lately.

So, I see the fallacy I committed (I'll be honest, upon reading your post, I was way more satisfied that I didn't 'Gotcha' you, sometimes being wrong is way more satisfying than being right) . I suppose it is sort of the fallacy of division, but instead of equality it is some other relation. This very post, by the way, has led me down an interesting path of reading, specifically related to emergence. That's for another time I suppose.

I'm trying to be careful not to ignite a debate that strays further than the anthropomorphism topic, but you have to tell me in a small blurb, why you are saying reductionism is not tenable. Are you saying it is not tenable in the case of supporting my argument, or are you saying that in general, reductionism is not tenable?

With regards to the seriousness, this is the sort of inconsistency I note within myself. With the strength of your arguments, I see little reason why I shouldn't do away with my meat eating habits, and join the vegetarians. With the amount of thinking I've been doing on this topic lately, I feel almost excited now to do away with the bad habit. But, maybe as you can understand, it seems like a whole new way of living from my point of view. I was raised by Republicans, where Men (with a capital M) eat meat. I don't think anything like my parents but a defensible position is of the utmost importance to me. I am assured that it is merely a matter of time before I fully embrace your method of thought. Actually, I was thinking about doing a 30 days of vegetarian cooking or something. I'd collect 90 vegetarian recipes, or maybe some recipes, and restaurants, etc. and blog about it. It would give me another activity to do for the summer.

If I left anything out, or if I seem a little rushed or not as well thought out this time, it's because I wrote this right after a long work day. My head hurts, and I need rest - I meant to respond earlier, and I typed out a more thoughtful response but in a rush to close Firefox, I hit the mac equivalent of the "Close All" button, and pretty much eliminated everything. Shit happens, I guess.

Again, I thank you a million times over for the attention you have given me, and without a doubt you and I will meet again. I'm just such a belligerent dork, it's impossible that you won't say something that makes my ears prick up again.

experienced heart burn for the first time yesterday and was scared by it -- now has a bad headache -- is certain his summer habits are bad BS

mad as hell said...

BS, thanks a million for the thoughtful response. Don't be apologetic for slower or less involved comments; hey, it's SUMMER! I've been travelling and out of touch for a bit --hated that. I need my hit of the blog (now both blogs) every morning, I've discovered. Gotta have it!--it helps to wake one up and get one back into the wonderful world of dialogue and thought, eh? (Still, coffee is also essential.)

Your idea of a trial vegetarian period and blogging about it is WONDERFUL. It could be both serious and humorous, or (of course) whatever tone you wanted it to be.

I totally sympathize with your feelings of how strange the prospect might be. Hey, I was raised by Republicans who own a cattle ranch! And it wasn't until grad school that I realized that my own convictions and loves required at least that I take the step to vegetarianism. (After 20 years, I haven't quite fulfilled my intention to get to veganism--and I have no good excuse whatsoever.) I remember actually feeling a big frightened: what would be on the plate in place of the big hunk of meat? But it's honestly SOOOOO easy to eat well without it--and this is coming from a lousy cook!

You may want to check out the HSUS site or another ("goveg"); many will offer you free "Vegetarian Starter Kits" with a lot of good advice and recipes. It helps to think simply: grains, nuts, legumes, vegetables, fruits: that's all you need, truly. And Trader Joe's has fantastic meat substitutes like Tofurkey, which I adore for both taste and texture.

Must run; I have limited time here in my tiny hometown (was ecstatic to find WIFI in a coffee shop). Do write in if you try the vegetarian route! I know that many, or at least Chunk and I, would love to hear about it.

Oh: I'll write about reductionism another time! I meant that I find it untenable in general, but have to admit that I'm not well-versed in Phil. of Mind. (I meant the view that mind is really nothing more, and nothing other than, brain.) I'll try to gather some coherent thoughts about it, but am not at all sure I'll succeed.

Thanks, as always for your honesty and real thought: priceless.

Bohrstein said...

Hitting up both blogs has become quite a habit. Probably occupies more time than it should, but eh, whatcha gonna do about it?

Vegetarian Tales:
I'll be honest, I hate these websites. Also it looks like someone stole my 30 days idea: "Pledge to Be Veg for 30 Days!" Honestly, that was my own idea!

While I have ALWAYS found Alicia hot as hell, I hate the fact that because she strips nude, I'm supposed to be persuaded to go vegetarian. Though, I'm inspired to make one of my own nude commercials: "Hi, I'm Bryan Arant, and I'm a vegetarian." The camera can pan around me in the kitchen, nude, sitting at the table on a wooden chair, eating a bowl of cheerios. Yup, that'll work.

It seems that there are some soy products I am allergic to, though I have no idea how this allergy works. I went to a Starbucks a few months ago, and tried a soy drink. Throat closed up in a few seconds. It was no good. However, the other night at a friends house, I had a small sampling of his soy milk. Nothing. I'm also able to eat Tofu, vege burgers, etc. with no problems. One thing is for certain though, trying to find straight answers to diet related questions is frustrating! Simple Google-ing is unlikely to turn up authoritative sites, or sites using authoritative sources. A lot of the persuasion is "I feel like I have so much more energy!" I'm always skeptical about those claims (I mean, if Alicia had more energy, what the hell happened to her career, eh? eh?), I don't eat much meat as it is - in fact, most of my diabetic-prone diet of Ramen noodles, bagels and coffee will go untouched.

I'll save the rest for the blogging adventures.

I do hope Roy writes up something controversial soon. I sure could use another argument.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I know, BS; some vegetarian sites are really dreadful--exquisitely annoying, and perhaps aimed at 12-year-olds (without any training in critical thinking). I mentioned them solely as a source for recipes and meal ideas.


Bohrstein said...

MAH, or Chunk, could you share your thoughts on Pescetarianism?

mad as hell said...

Hi, BS. Is that the practice of eating fish, but no other animals? (I think so.)

As with vegetarianism, there are many reasons why one might adopt such a diet. Some people eschew meat (from land animals) but not fish for health reasons, since there are some benefits to eating fish and distinct health threats posed by too much meat.

But if one decides not to eat meat for reasons of not wanting to contribute to animal suffering, then pescetarianism (is that the spelling?) won't really hold water. Fish, of course, have nervous systems and evolutionary advantages in moving away from painful stimuli (and so in feeling pain). When they are killed, I believe it's almost always by being either hooked with sharp points in their mouths (full of nerves and so probably extra-sensistive), or, more often, by being caught in nets and then suffocated by removing them from the water they need for "breathing." Not a great death, either way.

Environmental reasons certainly dictate eliminating meat from one's diet (or at least mass-produced meat), and also for eliminating mass-caught fish from one's diet, given the endangered status of many fish and other water animals who are "collateral damage" of the fishing industry.

So I think that pescetarians may be consistent, if their aims are to preserve their health; but not if they are seeking to withdraw from supporting animal exploitation/abuse or environmentally damaging practices.

That said, some people I know (and I, too, when I was new to changing my diet) retain fish in their diets for a time so as to ease the transition and thus to be more likely to stick with giving up (other) animal flesh. I think that's often a wise approach.

Thanks for the question! What do you think?

Bohrstein said...

A flash news update for ya (i.e. not much editing or thought involved, just lots of slightly aimed writing) because I have to run:

Well technically I've been pescetarian (I guess, but I'd prefer 'mostly vegetarian') for over a week (since the last comment anyways). But only because I felt obligated. I went out to dinner with the family, and I was keeping the vegetarian idea silent for awhile, so I could contemplate it without stupid discussions. They didn't have any salads at this place I was at, but the fish/shrimp menu was hefty, so I ordered salmon. A day later I had shrimp at TGIF with the girl. Since then, however, I have had a few dinners and have not minded at all about dining on the tasty salads, or the vegetarian burrito (which I ate last night).

The reason I asked was specifically regarding consistency in my arguments. I had heard that fish don't actually feel pain, but googling "fish feel pain" puts up a lot of articles conflicting that lone factoid in my mind. Some of which suggest that they feel pain much like humans do. I was reminded of the one time I went deep sea fishing, and accidentally got a hook stuck in my lip. It was my first and last piercing (by the way, I don't actually have a HOLE in my face).

It is difficult to find "straight answers" regarding this, so I am appealing to your vegetarian experience on the subject. Mostly, though, I've already declared myself a vegetarian to the local family. Next thing I need to do is let the real family know. I.e. the beer drinkin, bbqin' MEN (you have to say that last word in a deep gruffy voice).

I am also working on that 30 days thing. I've been doing research on the nutritional facts, and it has become another summer project, if I ever finish it, you will all stand in wonder at how well I exude hard-core nerd-essence about the internet.

My meals feel lighter and I compensate by snacking more, but otherwise, this hasn't been a difficult transition.

- empathizes with Einstein: "I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience." BStein

p.s. I took a bathroom break before submitting, and thought of a question:
What about eating eggs? or drinking milk? I already expressed my concerns regarding Soy products (i.e. some of them I have an allergic reaction to) but I remember raising chickens at my house, and taking eggs wasn't, or didn't seem cruel in any way whatsoever. I don't understand these people who say that eating an egg is somehow taking a life. If they truly believe this, I'd have to argue that if a woman isn't pregnant every month, she'd be taking a life (or rather, standing in the way of one). Or even worse, some other duties guys take care of might be said to be killing life... millions of little lives even. Am I wrong? Or is it they?

mad as hell said...

Hilarious final paragraph above, BS ("other duties guys take care of...."), and a good point for those who think that destroying an unfertilized egg, or letting it go to "waste," is akin to taking a life. Fertilized eggs *could* become a chicken, of course; but:

For some of us, the point of our dietary changes is to avoid complicity in causing animals pain and suffering and premature death----and (we hope) to collectively make a difference in how many animals are tormented and killed for nonessential human food. So eating eggs in itself wouldn't, in theory, poses a problem. If they're unfertilized, there's not even a potential animal there. But:

As it happens, 95-99% of the eggs one finds in typical grocery stores are produced with horrendously inhumane practices. In fact, many say with some reason that chickens are the worst treated of any animals, even those on factory farms. They're debeaked, live in filth with no room even to spread their wings, are hung upside-down to bleed to death, and more.... all of it bad. And the thing is, laying hens are treated in these ways, too. Also, the male chicks are simply disposed of (since they can't lay eggs) by dumping them into dumpsters, or killing them in canisters with poison, or even grinding them up (alive) for fertilizer. So buying mass-"produced" eggs supports animal cruelty, too.

The dairy industry mostly treats its cows as milking machines--automated milkers that often cause mastitis; confinement; removing calves from their mothers almost immediately after they are born. The cows suffer a lot. Then there's the fact that the veal industry, another of the worst offenders in terms of inhumaneness, gets its male calves from the dairy guys. So eating dairy products almost always lends support to animal suffering, too.

That's why many aim for veganism (no consumption of animal products).

Cool to get the update on your V-month! Keep us posted, okay? (And bravo.)

Bohrstein said...

Ah, V-Month! Wonderful name. *scribbles down*

And my goodness MAH. What freakin' information you give out. When I owned chickens they did whatever the hell they wanted. I just recall collecting eggs from their little nests every once and awhile. Most of the time they just clucked about the place; those stupid little things. One was named "Turkey" oddly enough - used to confuse the hell out of my little mind.

And yeah, I'll keep you guys posted - thanks for taking the time to answer my questions MAH. Been a big inspiration!

- is amused when he eats salad; BS