At the beginning of the Enlightenment, the story of the world was pictured a bit like this: Homo sapiens standing at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, the pinnacle species. Although not all homo sapiens — just the white man distinguished by his capacity for reason. One giant step down the pyramid stood the white woman, and below her were her children. Another large step down the side of the pyramid stood all the other races and below them, at the bottom, resided animals, plants, and earth. Each step down marked a distance away from reason and a step closer to the emotions, until finally at the bottom, there were no thoughts or emotions at all, just the body, envisioned as a machine, filled with parts and empty space.
To assert this order of things, René Descartes once repeatedly kicked a dog, and claimed its cries were no different than the ticks of a clock. “Kick a dog, or vivisect a dog, and it yelped not out of pain but like the spring in a clock being struck.”
For Descartes, the dog confirmed the divine order of the world, and evidence of the human capacity for reason as the sine qua non of humanity as well as proof of human superiority. With hindsight, anthropologist Paul Radin saw through such barbarism, writing in The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology:
“viewed psychologically, it might be contended that the history of civilization is largely the account of the attempts of man to forget his transformation from an animal into a human being.”
With his ‘experiment,’ Descartes used the assumed hallmark of civilization — exalted human reason — to justify cruelty. In effect, he used being ‘civilized’ to make it okay to dismiss his responsibility to the needs, feelings, and dignity of others. But isn’t this practice what really makes one ‘primitive’ — that is, one is primitive when ignoring emotions, including ignoring the responsibility to feel empathy for others?
The shadow of civilization is not stirring, irrepressible feelings. Rather, the shadow is the capacity to turn our hearts stone cold, to project inferiority —if not evil — on others, and to fail to see ourselves in the hearts of all beings.
Although today the evolutionary pyramid is flattening (according to science, even the fruit fly now has the equivalent of “personalities”) the human capacity for ignoring the feelings of others continues, and we are capable of using all manners of justification to do so. In a world threatened by scarcity, the intergenerational transmission of trauma, and hierarchical thinking, ignoring the feelings of others, and the rootedness of all life in embodiment and the body, is the origin of many of our greatest evils.
© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).