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Excerpt from Dreams

Willful Subjects (p. 295)

From chapter "Proof"

Given that this culture is killing the planet, and given that the insanity of this culture is so deeply normalized, I don’t think that unexamined cultural norms form a good standard by which to choose who exists as a willful subject worthy of consideration and who does not.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, given that I believe that human women have subjective experience, and given that I will never experience sexuality (or peeing) from a woman’s perspective, it seems we cannot use whether or not some other’s experience is the same as ours as a basis for belief in the subjectivity of some other.

And this applies not only to women (or men). Just because I cannot put myself into the subjective experience of a bear does not mean the bear has no subjective experience: to think that’s the case is just a teensy bit narcissistic, arbitrary, and, well, demented. We can extend this farther and farther from our own experience, to horses, cows, pigs, sea lions, walruses, lingcod, Wilson’s warblers.

Why stop there?

Who is to say that the existence of a central nervous system is where we should draw the line?

I have seen insects, spiders, earthworms, caterpillars, and slugs make decisions (when earthworms, for example, have a limited amount of food, they will limit the number of babies they have, which is more than I can say for humans, who have grossly overshot the planet’s carrying capacity; and who is the more intelligent?). I have seen them manifest preference and will. Now, I can just hear human supremacists arguing, “Just because a slug chooses to eat one piece of shit over another doesn’t mean it’s really manifesting preference, certainly not like me choosing whether to eat at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, or whether to watch a film by Lars von Trier or Quentin Tarantino, or whether to read environmental books by Lester Brown or Paul Hawken.” That argument is the standard combination of arrogance and ignorance we’ve come to expect from members of this culture. It presumes that slugs’ food choices are somehow less significant or volitional than ours. Perhaps worse, it presumes that the only preferences slugs manifest are those we can perceive. A hallmark of this culture is the pretence that our inability or unwillingness to understand the languages of others means that these other languages do not exist. Recall that the word “barbarians” comes from what the civilized Greeks called the indigenous of the region, because when these indigenous people spoke, it sounded to the Greeks like “bah bah bah bah”—nonsense. And the Europeans thought it was okay to enslave Africans because, as Jean-Baptiste Tavernier put it, “When they speak they fart with their tongues in their mouths.” It’s the same arrogance (and ignorance) that somehow finds human superiority in the fact that chimpanzees who have been kidnapped and held in prison by scientists are able to learn only a certain number of American Sign Language symbols; these scientists insist that this means that humans are the only creatures who have language, and “that the chimpanzees are not using language, but rather simply using these signs as a means to an outcome, rather than to express meanings or ideas.” None of these scientists ever asks the question: if a bunch of chimpanzees kidnapped you, isolated you from your entire community, and started performing experiments on you, how long would it take you to learn chimpanzee? And more to the point, none of these genius scientists ever asks the question, “Between the kidnapped chimpanzees and the scientists, which of these creatures is bilingual?”

It’s actually much worse than this. Not only must we, when trying to comprehend the preferences of others, deal with the difficulty of speaking entirely different languages, and not only must we deal with the fact that the intelligences of these others are entirely foreign to us, but we also must deal with, as I’ve been discussing in this book, a several-thousand-year history of systematically deafening ourselves to the voices of these others in order to facilitate our exploitation or murder of them. So given all that, it’s extraordinary that I or any of us can routinely perceive the preferences of others at all.

It’s so much easier (and more flattering) to just pretend these others are not subjects, and in fact to build up entire religions, economies, philosophies, epistemologies, and so on that buttress this conceit.

Where do you draw the line, and why do you draw it?