Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

More sinned against than sinning

I’ve already written about the problem of creepiness and fear in another essay,  citing the 2016 study from Knox College in Illinois by the psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke (Can We Forget the Taste of Fear?) but there is another form of creepy that is less -what?- entertaining: when we judge people (usually men) as creepy. What I’m interested in is how that might make us (well, usually women) react. In other words, is it a useful judgement, or merely an impression garnered from the creepy person’s appearance, or social status? Does it help the judger survive, and prosper, or merely prejudice the object of their concerns –‘More sinned against than sinning’ as Shakespeare’s King Lear moans having been thrown out by his own daughters.

First reactions can be mistaken and even harmful, especially if they are misplaced. Not everybody conforms to our expectations of comportment; there are many we may encounter who, through no fault of their own, are dirty, or poorly dressed -people who are beset by mental challenges, or are themselves bereft of social skills.

I came across a helpful essay in Aeon by Heidi Matthews, an assistant professor of law at Osgoode Hall in York University, Toronto. https://aeon.co/ideas/what-is-to-be-done-about-the-problem-of-creepy-men

‘Disgust assists us in policing the line between inside and outside our bodies, but also to create and maintain interpersonal and social borders. Physical reactions – such as the shudder response, nausea, and exclamations of ‘ew’, ‘icky’ and ‘gross’ – can be important ways of producing and transmitting commitments to social norms. Signalling disgust helps society maintain the integrity of taboos around sexuality, including paedophilia and incest.’

‘Creepiness is different from disgust in that it refers to a feeling of unease in the face of social liminality… We become uncomfortable when events don’t easily fit our expectations or transgress social rules… Feeling ‘creeped out’ justifies our decision to shut down, rather than undertake the task of analysing ambiguously threatening situations. It is a form of cognitive paralysis indicating that we are unsure how to proceed… Judgments of creepiness, however, are not necessarily reliable. Conventional wisdom tells us to ‘trust our gut’, but researchers say that our gut is concerned more with regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.’

‘In a 2017 Canadian study, female undergraduates were shown images of Caucasian male faces from three groups: emotionally neutral faces taken from an image bank; images judged ‘creepy’ in a pilot study; and images of criminals from America’s Most Wanted. They were then asked to rate the faces according to creepiness, trustworthiness and attractiveness… Participants made their creepiness assessments in seconds, and reported high degrees of confidence in their judgments.’ Unfortunately they were often wildly mistaken in their judgments.

Judging someone as ‘creepy’ often is caused by social difference –‘otherness’. I mean, how could anybody reliably assess the risk posed, with only a glance at a face? Just ‘a feeling’ unsubstantiated by any other evidence? As Matthews suggests, ‘When we judge a situation or person creepy, we participate in shunning and social ostracism.’

She goes on to elaborate some of the unfortunate consequences of this faulty assessment, and then writes that ‘what most people intuit to be creepy aligns closely with the attributes of individuals and populations already on or beyond the boundaries of social acceptance. The mentally ill and disabled, the physically deformed, those with ticks or other abnormal movements or facial features, the impoverished and the homeless are all more likely to be judged creepy… [and] the homeless and mentally ill are far more vulnerable to acts of violence than they are threatening to the rest of us. In short, ‘we’ are far more likely to hurt the ‘creepy’ than they us.’

We have to be on our guard, to be sure, but mostly I think, to be open to ‘responding to the odd, the new or the peculiar with curiosity, interest and generosity of spirit.’ This can be hard indeed.

I was sitting on a park bench that, despite its view of the sea, was quite isolated. The solitude had attracted me, but its silence even more. It was almost hidden in a heavily treed area in Vancouver’s Stanley Park -well away from vehicle traffic, and yet perched on a hill overlooking English Bay. Only a single, narrow path led to the bench, so its very existence seemed odd. There were no signs advertising its location, nor any indication that the trail led anywhere but to the cliff edge. I’d discovered it largely by accident. Serendipity…

At any rate, I settled down on it determined to read the book I’d stuffed in my pocket, but I think I must have dozed off in the warmth of the slowly sinking sun. When I opened my eyes again, it was because I had the distinct sense of being observed. I jerked my head off my chest and glanced nervously around at the trees that, only a few minutes ago, had guaranteed me privacy. I thought there was movement somewhere inside the dense collection of trunks and evergreen needles, but the wind was picking up, and I couldn’t be sure. There are deer in Stanley Park, I told myself –and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The sun was close to setting and shadows were starting their slow stretch for the evening.

It’s hard to read when every sound, arouses suspicion, but I did manage a few pages until the sensation overwhelmed me and I turned around to examine the trees again. I nearly missed him -the shadow standing as still as the tree it was leaning against.

He was a tall, powerfully-built man, dressed in a dirty pair of brown, ill-fitting pants, scuffed dark boots with no laces, and a ragged black suit-jacket; he didn’t move when our eyes met. He only frowned -or scowled, it was hard to tell. His hair was messy, but it seemed he had made an effort to tame it with his hand, because it didn’t fly up in the wind.

Uncertain how to react, I smiled, but the gesture may have been misinterpreted because I could see his eyes narrow, and his hands tense where he was grasping the tree. For a while, it seemed a standoff for both of us. He was near enough to the trail that he could easily block my way if I decided to run.

My heart began to pound as I considered my options -I didn’t really have many… any, actually. So I did the only thing I could think of – I said hello.

It seemed to surprise him, because his expression softened and he made a tentative move away from the tree.

I’d heard of a community of men living somewhere in the middle of the park, so I asked him if he lived around here.

He nodded and took a step towards me, his eyes locked on mine, and I could see wariness in them -or was it fear?

He stopped a few feet from the bench and shrugged.

I could see his lips beginning to move, as if they were looking for the right words. “I…” He hesitated and then, as softly as the breeze rustling through the trees, he continued. “That’s where I usually sleep until it gets too cold,” I think I heard.

It was my turn to speak. “I… I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered, embarrassed that he’d had to confess his situation to me. “I didn’t realize…” I continued, awkwardly.

Suddenly he smiled. “You couldn’t know, mister,” he said, slowly, but still softly -as if he was unused to conversations.

He stepped aside as I stood up and headed for the trail. But then I stopped and turned around to face him. I reached in my pocket and found the twenty dollar bill I always carry for emergencies. “Here,” I said, handing him the bill and smiling at him. “In case you need to buy a blanket, or something…” I felt uneasy with my words, but I didn’t know what else to say.

But he accepted my unexpected gift with dignity, and when he touched the back of my hand in thanks, my discomfort vanished. Sometimes, we all need to reach out to one another…