If You Take Civil Rights Seriously, Don’t Make A Joke Of Animal Abuse

Civil-Rights-LawIt’s a fairly well-worn assertion that the behaviour of spree murderers often relates to them torturing or killing small animals in their earlier years. It’s been shown that numerous serial killers got started in their chosen profession by offing a few local pooches and maybe microwaving a cat or two.

For some time now there’s been a worrying increase in the level of violence used against domestic animals by law enforcement officers in the USA. These individuals have casually unloaded on everything from family dogs to a litter of feral kittens dispatched by an officer whilst consoling a group of traumatised children with the comforting news that he was sending them all to ‘kitty heaven’.

Some people might say that in the same way as serial killers become inured to violence, some US police departments have developed a similar offhand attitude towards lethal force.  If you can kill a small animal with apparent impunity, how does that feed into your behaviour when you’re confronted by a potential felon?  Certainly some of the video evidence seems to suggest that a shoot first and then shoot another 14 times pattern of behaviour is emerging.  In my opinion it points to a police service that’s becoming more out of control by the day.

As an animal rights advocate, I can’t help but see this as a part of the landscape of what many are now calling the American Spring. When the use of firearms against defenceless animals becomes commonplace, it puts the apparently unceremonious shooting of Michael Brown into a rather different context.  You can’t help but watch the video above and relate it to the equally distressing use of firearms in situations like this or this.

vicksdogsIt’s depressing though that some well known black entertainers don’t share the same outrage against members of their own community displaying the same gateway behaviour. Comments from a few years ago made by such black luminaries as Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, around the time of the imprisonment of the former football star Michael Vick, have been re-surfacing lately as part of moral relativism argument about the treatment of black citizens.

Vick was jailed over dog fighting charges in 2007 after the Bad Newz Kennels investigation, where he was found to be behind an illegal dog fighting ring and closely involved with the animal abuse inherent in that pastime.

[Edit – I’ve since been informed that Vick was actually prosecuted for tax infringements surrounding his business activities – possibly relating to dogfighting – and not for operating the Bad Newz Kennels themselves]

During one charming video vignette referring to Vick’s imprisonment, Mr Rock suggested that raping his dog would be OK by him, while fellow stand-up Steve Harvey explained in some detail how he thought Vick’s treatment of dogs was somehow justified because of the police shooting of a Sean Bell a couple of years earlier.

In some ways I agree with Harvey. There is a huge disconnect if the abuse of animals is treated as more important than that of a human being, because it’s not. It’s equally as serious. Both abuses should have been treated in the same way and the perpetrators prosecuted.

Of course the comments made during his stage appearance were deliberately intended to shock. He was quite rightly angry and wanted to convey that to the audience. His shouts of “F*** them dogs!” certainly got him plenty of whoops and fist pumps, probably in same way some unreconstructed comedians would have got a standing ovation for an easy-win racist gag 40 years ago.

But the premise that some forms of violence and abuse are acceptable, or not serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, is just the same argument being tacitly forwarded by those defending the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

It’s a the familiar proposition of prejudice. You count for less because you’re the wrong colour, the wrong sex, the wrong religion, the wrong sexuality, are disabled, or have more than two legs and a penchant for lampposts. It’s a phenomenon known to animal rights campaigners as speciesism, and it’s every bit as pernicious as sexism and racism. There’s even a movie about it.

speciesism_sticker-p217264424060693690qjcl_400The right not to be victimised or belittled because of your race, sex, religion or physical form is something most civilised people have accepted as a given. That expectation of respect and the freedom to live your life in peace should not be determined by the colour of your skin any more than what genome you happen to belong to. Once you accept that the value of a life fits somewhere on a sliding scale, you leave your own life open to be placed on that slippery slope by someone who maybe doesn’t share your opinion of it’s worth.

Animal rights today are probably where civil rights were 150 years ago. Those treating the subjugation of animals as a joke now would do well to remember that. After all, as we’ve seen recently in the USA, as well as in many other parts of the world, de-humanisation and the suppression of empathy are the facilitators of intolerance and prejudice.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” I’d say that time was overdue.

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Has Israel Earned A Place Amongst History’s Most Oppressive Regimes?

gaza-articleLarge-v2As many people, including UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, suggest Israel may have committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip, there are a growing number of comments in the media comparing their actions to similar atrocities in recent history.

Philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Indeed Israel’s original establishment was supported by world powers, most prominently the UK, as a response to the historic maltreatment of the Jews. But, in the wake of the horrific events of the 1940s, it seems those same nations ignored the new historical narrative they were creating in the Middle East. As the state of Israel became the dominant force in Palestine, one group of refugees were effectively exchanged for another. Few would have believed then that the proto-socialist ideals of those original settlers would morph into the right wing radical government that we see today.

South Africa

An example being quoted with increasing frequency is the similarity of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to that of South African apartheid. It’s of course arguable that the systematic conquest and marginalisation of a group based on ethnicity, along with a repeated denial of their claims to their own land, would fit that profile. The two tier citizenship rights of Palestinians and Israelis also echoes the treatment of the non-white South Africans. As in the townships, the Palestinian population is being squeezed into smaller and smaller enclaves with radically restricted free movement.

apartheidAs a result of seven years of such subjugation, the inhabitants of Gaza have also given political support to what much of the world regards as a terrorist organisation, just as many black South Africans did. Let’s not forget that, just as Hamas is now, the ANC and it’s subsequently revered leader, Nelson Mandela, were once classified as criminals by those whom they opposed. They too engaged in violent resistance on occasion, and whilst most people didn’t support those more extreme activities, many understood the motivations. It’s also worth noting at this point that, at one time, two of Israel’s future prime ministers were classified as terrorists by the British Government.

WWII

There are also of course more blunt edged references being made to similarities with the behaviour of the Nazis in WWII. Whilst I’m nervous of such simplistic comparisons, there are commonalities that are difficult to ignore. August 1st saw the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising of 1944. A year before that there was the Jewish ghetto uprising. In both cases the resemblance between those brave insurgents and the behaviour of Palestinians in recent years is more than apparent.

In 1943 a demoralized population, forced into a narrow area within a community that they were once a part of, were being crushed under the might of a far superior military occupation force. They too dug tunnels under the barricades to try to circumvent the blockade and allow supplies in. After years of deprivation, and certain in the knowledge that their captors wanted nothing more than to see their ultimate destruction, they decided to fight back.

A year later, the city of Warsaw was largely destroyed by occupying forces as they made a desperate attempt to reclaim their independence amid hopes that advancing Russian and allied forces would provide support. Then as now, much of the world stood by and watched as the occupying army systematically obliterated the city and it’s population. Then as now, their pleas for help went largely unheeded.

Warschauer Aufstand, polnischer SoldatNow I know that Hamas fighters are not the Polish resistance army, far from it, and the details are open to some considerable debate. I’m certainly not suggesting that the Israelis are a reincarnation of the Nazis. But in a broad sense there is something of an analogy between the motivations of both parties in these conflicts.

In both cases the population knew that the meagre arms and manpower available to them would be no match for the resources at the disposal of the occupying army. They knew that they would be met with overwhelming force by a militaristic power that was fundamentally opposed to their existence. In Gaza as in Warsaw, a desperate population left with few other choices, chose defiance of that agenda. Even if it cost them their lives.

Justifications

It’s understandable that Israel would be incensed by such parallels. As the ethnic group who suffered the most at the hands of the Nazis, it’s a suggestion that seems particularly barbed. But it’s one that is being offered with increasing frequency now by respected Middle East commentators, including Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. And Norman should know – both his parents were involved in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

For these people and many others, Israel’s use of The Holocaust as a get-out-of-jail-free card for any treatment they feel justified in inflicting on others, has palled to a mawkish monologue of self-entitlement. In doing so they make their own historical enshrinement of the Holocaust an irrelevance. If the very people who suffered so appallingly during those terrible years don’t use that experience to inform their treatment of their own ethnic nemesis, what hope is there for any of us?

I don’t believe many of those who suffered in the concentration camps would have supported the IDF’s actions now, any more than the many humanitarian Israelis who protest in their own country against the actions of their government. Any more than my own Jewish friends who shake their heads in dismay at the killing of innocent civilians supposedly being carried out in their name.

The Hamas military wing may have it’s own agenda of hatred, but amid a tsunami of dogma and propaganda, something both sides in this conflict are very adept at, Israel seems unable to grasp the irony that it’s becoming the monster their forebears fought so hard to escape from. Indeed one expects Netanyahu to utter the words ‘final solution’ any day now.

The psychology of hatred

As a psychologist I see events in Gaza as evidence of a fundamental flaw in human nature. Even after being victims themselves, people can justify victimisation when their perspectives change. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario we’ve seen played out for centuries by almost every nation on the planet, including the US and the UK.

blindfold

‘Inmates’ and ‘warders’ during the Stanford prison experiment

Less than 20 years after the horrors of the Nazis were revealed, the now infamous 1963 Milgram Experiment showed how many of us are prepared to put aside human empathy when given the right motivation. Anti-racism activist Jane Elliott’s ‘blue eyes/green eyes’ experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment a few years later showed how easily we can de-humanise each other.

 

Events in Gaza demonstrate that in a similar set of circumstances, we can all very easily repeat a history that we’d vowed never to let happen again. Unless of course that only means it shouldn’t happen to us.

Conflations between Israel’s actions and those of past atrocities will no doubt continue to be drawn. Whilst this may not help to find a solution to the conflict, it does remind us, and it should remind those on both sides of the barricades, that such behaviour won’t be accepted by the rest of the world indefinitely. Regimes based on intolerance, violence and military force may come and go, but none of them last forever.

Although sadly, while the world ignores lessons from history, we’re all doomed to see them repeated for probably just as long.

If you think you’re right, you’re probably wrong

When I was 13 I became a fanatical Baptist.  It only lasted 6 months, but in that time  I went to a Baptist church, I was re-baptised, I waved my hands in the air, I praised the Lord,  I cried in rapture.  It was expected of me.  It changed my life, but not in the way that was intended.

This wasn’t born from some innate religious leaning, even though I had been packed off to Sunday school from the age of 5.  Admittedly that had been by parents who were less endowed with religious fervour than they were keen on a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon, but it did give me a grounding in the mysterious movements of The Lord.

No, as a pubescent teenager I had in fact been dragged into something akin to a cult.  It wasn’t quite up to the standard of The Moonies, we didn’t hoard weapons in a secluded desert hideout, that might at least have given me some street cred for this little confessional.  But it was all orchestrated by a single rather crazed individual.  A particularly unprincipled religious education teacher, who by today’s standards would’ve been sacked before making the front page of whatever lurid Sunday tabloid was in circulation at the time.

Looking back on it with the jaded gaze of a psychology graduate I can see how we fell for it all.  Impressionable youngsters in our formative years, looking for a group to belong to.  Peer pressure pushing just ahead of the tsunami of freshly brewed hormones.  Once one or two of my immediate contemporaries had joined the group the rest of us became eager to do the same.  It really wasn’t much more than a fan club, except with a celeb in the form of a 2000 year old deity, with escape from eternal damnation as his main USP.

Members of the club got to buy books such as The Living Bible.  Same as the regular tome but with the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ replaced by a slightly hipper English idiom.  In fact I’ve still got mine somewhere, emblazoned with stickers prosthelytizing  various bits of scripture in soundbite form.  I had posters to put on my bedroom wall, next to the one of Suzi Quatro.  Frankly it was all bordering on hippy philosophy.  After all it was the 70s and Jesus Christ Superstar was all the rage.  Not that we approved of that show you understand, it ended before the resurrection dontcha know?

If I’m honest I spent most of my time in the company of these zealots feeling very out of place.  I remember being consumed with self doubt that I hadn’t connected with God, something at the time that was referred to as your “personal relationship”.  I tried, but found it hard to relate to a metaphysical being whom I saw no real evidence for.  On the upside I’m told I became a model citizen during my tenure in la la land, and always handed in my homework on time.  That’s probably the one virtue I could have done with hanging on to into later life.

I can’t really condemn my teacher now for what she did.  She was convinced of the correctness of her actions whilst indoctrinating a group of us impressionable pupils into her private little fiefdom.  To be honest I can’t even remember her name, although I remember the church in South London that I think had better remain nameless.  It’s forever burned into my memory like a scene from The Exorcist, except with better music and not as much head spinning and puking.

Oddly enough, members of our congregation protested outside cinemas when that movie was released. It was seen as glamorising the whole possession myth.  Something that baptists believe in as something of a given.  Many of them at the time could be heard babbling away ‘in tongues’ at various points of intense prayer or during sermons.  It was very much frowned upon and I was told in no uncertain terms that if I ever felt the urge to break into a bit of ethereal multilingualism myself, I should probably put a sock in it.

Somewhat ironically, that period of my life coalesced later in my fuzzy memory as an experience roughly akin to The Exorcist storyline.  In fact the most vivid flashbacks I had of the events within those hallowed walls were inspired by a visit to a church in Mexico where the local indigenous religion had been mixed with Catholicism into a rather scary amalgam of effigies and poultry sacrifice.  I should say that inspired by all this hocus pocus my later ‘religious’ leanings moved into areas such as spiritualism and Satanism, but the less said about those brief dalliances the better.

In hindsight it’s like I was another person.  In fact at that time I probably was.  It was a formative experience that I far from regret, and something that in a twist of irony changed my attitude towards all religion and profoundly established a personal view on life that I have to this day.

Up until that point I, like so many people, never questioned the existence of God.  As I said, I went to Sunday school and church (I was in a local church choir), I folded my hands and I went through the motions just like I’d been taught to do from an early age.  I genuflected, I sang hymns in assembly and if you’d asked me what my religion was, I would have answered C of E without hesitation.  Not unlike a lot of people I still see now when I’m obliged to step into a house of worship at weddings and funerals.

The most valuable lesson I took away from my times with that church was a realisation that we are all hostage to our own beliefs.  Probably the defining point for me, and the reason I left it all behind, was when I asked during one of the frequent visits we had from missionaries, why our religion was any more valid than those of the ‘heathen’ societies they had been tasked to convert.

Conversion of non-believers was one of the highest goals we were all set at the time.  It was a bit like earning Nectar points, although it more often earned me a good kicking round the back of the sports hall for not having enough sense not to preach to those more given to head-buts than godhead.

If anything good came out of these futile farragos it’s probably that they set me up with many of the sales skills I came to rely on in adulthood.  After all, if you can nearly persuade someone of the existence of god, you can most likely sell them anything.

Questioning this stuff wasn’t actively encouraged, but then as now, I never did know when to shut the fuck up.  My subsequent ostracisation by the other less picky believers probably marked my slide from grace into the miserable infidel I am today.  My brief religious fervour was finally and ignominiously ended when I had to make a choice between going to church one Sunday or going to see the movie Westworld with my dad.  Westworld won.  I have to admit that Yul Brynner still has the look of Satan’s disciple about him.

It is though one of the few abiding fond memories I have of any kind of comradery with my father, being as I was at the time too young to see the movie without his company.  So if nothing else, if god really does exist, he or she gave me that.

But from my questioning of the status quo that had up until that point been drummed into me, I took away a philosophy that right and wrong pretty much depended on your perspective.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone else’s point of view, or even find it valid.  Just that I accept that we all see things from our own place in the world, and in those terms what we do, and in many cases don’t do,  is ‘right’ and could be described as such by others.  In that sense, there is no right and wrong.  Just whatever philosophy is regarded as acceptable at any given moment.  And that’s something that constantly shifts depending on social norms, shared values and political expediency.

It all sounds simple I know.  Something of a truism.  But ask yourself where any of the fundamental groundings you have for concepts you hold to be unshakeable truths have come from.  Try to imagine your life with a different set of beliefs, borne from an entirely alien culture.  Then try to visualise living your life by those values now.  How easy would you find it?  How much does your personal programming stop you from analysing issues on individual merit, rather than knee-jerk conditioning that probably started before you could walk?

I believe that relying on a universal acceptance of concepts such as good and evil are pointless and irrelevant.  In fact I don’t believe in the concept of evil, just that the consequences of misguided and in some cases psychologically irrational behaviour can be construed as being driven by some malevolent force.  It isn’t.  we’re all just animals motivated by wants, needs and beliefs, some of which aren’t very desirable in the social structures within which we live our lives and which are therefore sensible and expedient for us to condemn and outlaw.

It’s a philosophy that has earned me almost as many verbal kickings in adulthood as my days as a teenage mini-missionary.  Most people assume I’m playing devil’s advocate or simply fence sitting, whereas I see it as removing myself from dogma and an intellectualisation of basic drives.

I could of course be entirely wrong in this belief.  The irony hasn’t escaped me that it’s the very same construct that traps me in a logic loop of my own making.  But by standing outside of my humanity and the belief in the superiority of the human experience, I arrive at the same point as I did during those missionary presentations.  Just because you or I have an absolute conviction that our way of thinking is ‘right’ doesn’t mean that we might not be completely wrong.

Perhaps it’s fitting that an involvement with a religious group, something that is by it’s very nature rooted in a strong concept of belief in good and evil, eventually led to a dissipation of those forces in my own perception of the world.

Or maybe I’ve just always been a contrary bastard at heart. God alone knows.

And as we’re not on speaking terms any more, I’ll probably never find out.

My first blog post

Its been a long time coming and, some may say, probably not really worth waiting for.  But here it is.  My first Blog.

That sounds like it should be written in multi-coloured sans serif text with a picture of cartoon rabbit underneath it.  But as I don’t know how to upload images yet, let alone change font styles, you’ll have to visualise it stuck to the notice board in a dusty 1960s primary school form room with proud parents pointing and cooing at their offspring’s new found expressive skills in exactly the way that proud parents probably don’t do these days.

That’s not to say that parents aren’t still proud.  Indeed, judging by the plethora of reality TV shows and new found ways of self broadcast of even the most minor talents, I’d imagine you could probably run a small city off the heat generated by parental pride in modern Britain.  But I’d guess that proud parents in 2012 probably wouldn’t jab fingers at anything created by the beloved fruit of their loins unless it was on an LCD wide-screen, preferably viewed in 3D and probably wrapped in some piece of elegantly designed technology with an ‘i’ prefix.

Those more astute of you will probably glean most of the salient facts about me from the above paragraphs.  Born in the late 50’s (the last months actually), no children, a tendency to see everyday life in a slightly irreverent way, and working on my credentials as a full time curmudgeon, just as soon as I can find a flat cap and a catchphrase that suits me.

But I digress : I do a lot of that as you’ll probably find out if you ever bother to read anything else that I post up here, when and if I get around to it.

But just for clarity, and probably by way of setting out my admittedly muddled aims with this online tome, I’ll simply list the areas of human experience that I’m most interested in.  That way if none of these topics raise even the slightest glimmer of interest in you, you can feel free to click away and watch another episode of an infinitely more engaging snippet on YouTube, update your status on Facebook about what a bloody awful Blog you’ve just been reading, or simply switch the computer off and go and cuddle the cat or something.

My interests :

Psychology (I have 2 degrees in the subject but don’t let that worry you)

Music (I was a musician during the 1980s in several bands.  Never got anywhere myself but I played with a few people that did.  The bastards! I was also involved in the campaign to save BBC 6Music which everyone should really be listening to in the evenings at least)

Retail (I’ve worked in retail most of my life and currently write a column for Retail Week)

Ethics (something I’ve always found fascinating and always worthy of a good verbal punch-up)

Free speech (I’m devoted to it as you may be able to tell – but I also try to be just as devoted to other people’s right to it)

The environment (Quite a recent interest for me I must admit but somewhat informed by the next subject)

Veganism/Vegetarianism (Yes I’m a vegan or at least close to one, as I still sometimes eat eggs – if you prefer, I’m a vegetarian that doesn’t do dairy)

Diet and lifestyle (Again I’m a recent discoverer of the value of both, but don’t worry I still drink too much so I can’t be that evangelical)

Animal and Human rights (I include that as one subject because I don’t believe in discrimination on the grounds of the possession of a beak or more than two legs )

Our increasing reliance on technology and cheap energy (Yes I’m aware of the irony in writing that online)

So there you have it.  Still here?  Great!  Well I hope in that case we can have a lot of interesting exchanges about one or all of these subjects at some point in the journey.  I welcome comments from everyone.  I don’t censor (unless you’re really pushing your luck) and I’m open to most trains of thought.

If I have any one philosophy it’s that you should challenge everything, avoid dogma, and always try to see both sides of an argument.  Well actually that was three philosophies so I’ll add a fourth for good measure.

Always wear a hat.

Thanks for reading