Thursday, August 7, 2008

Holocaust Denialism

I’ve always been somewhat confused by the odd position that the Holocaust did not occur or was much less serious than is generally held – people died, but it wasn’t really as bad as the Jews want you to believe.

We will never know the name of each and every victim, but photographic evidence and first-hand stories make it clear that something extensive and quite barbaric occurred. And yet, apparently otherwise rational people deny it.

Maybe their blindness is psychosomatic; maybe it grows out of prejudice.

Many more people deny the animal holocaust. They just can’t see the suffering apparently, suffering on a magnitude that dwarfs the combined evils we have perpetrated on ourselves.
Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities: good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others' motives, imitating others, and being creative. Bit by bit, in ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these talents in other species, gradually chipping away at what we thought made human beings distinctive while offering a glimpse of where our own abilities came from. Minds of their Own. National Geographic. 2008.
Signs of higher mental ability in animals are cause for great alarm.

We hurt and kill billions of animals every year. Literally. Billions. To a growing number of people, particularly to those who understand that the fundamental idea behind human rights is that our similarities matter immeasurably more that our differences, it is these signs of higher mental ability, our similarities, which make the animals’ plight so immediately important.
[Irene] Pepperberg carried Alex [(1976 - 2007), an African grey parrot] on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex's eye.

“What's same?” she asked.

Without hesitation, Alex's beak opened: “Co-lor.”

“What's different?” Pepperberg asked.

“Shape,” Alex said. His voice had the digitized sound of a cartoon character. Since parrots lack lips (another reason it was difficult for Alex to pronounce some sounds, such as ba), the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.”Minds of their Own. National Geographic. 2008.
How can anyone deny the animal holocaust? Denial probably grows from three sources: mental deficit, ignorance, or bigotry. Maybe people really don’t notice that their dog is a someone. Maybe people really can’t imagine the pig behind the chop. Maybe people like feeling superior.
Like the rest of our physiology, intelligence must have evolved from simpler organisms, since all animals face the same general challenges of life. They need to find mates, food, and a path through the woods, sea, or sky—tasks that Darwin argued require problem-solving and categorizing abilities. Indeed, Darwin went so far as to suggest that earthworms are cognitive beings because, based on his close observations, they have to make judgments about the kinds of leafy matter they use to block their tunnels. He hadn't expected to find thinking invertebrates and remarked that the hint of earthworm intelligence “has surprised me more than anything else in regard to worms.”

To Darwin, the earthworm discovery demonstrated that degrees of intelligence could be found throughout the animal kingdom....

... A whole range of animal studies now suggest that the roots of cognition are deep, widespread, and highly malleable. Minds of their Own. National Geographic. 2008.
The animal holocaust must be main-stream science’s greatest failure and is likely to remain so unless we scorch the globe in a nuclear conflagration. Discoveries about the similarity between humans and other species have demolished all prior claims about animals being unfeeling brutes with little if any sense of self. These claims were used repeatedly as defenses against critics’ concerns. And yet, science has said little to alert the public to the ethical implications of these discoveries, and worse, justification for vivisection is often now based on precisely these similarities – an animal model of depression, for example, is valuable they claim, because our suffering is of a like kind.
People were surprised to discover that chimpanzees make tools," said Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist at Oxford University, referring to the straws and sticks chimpanzees shape to pull termites from their nests. "But people also thought, 'Well, they share our ancestry—of course they're smart.' Now we're finding these kinds of exceptional behaviors in some species of birds. But we don't have a recently shared ancestry with birds. Their evolutionary history is very different; our last common ancestor with all birds was a reptile that lived over 300 million years ago.

"This is not trivial," Kacelnik continued. "It means that evolution can invent similar forms of advanced intelligence more than once—that it's not something reserved only for primates or mammals."Minds of their Own. National Geographic. 2008.
How much like us do we need to discover animals to be before we are able to see the horrors that are occurring so vividly around us all the time?

And what are the implications for those who see the animal holocaust as it is? What is the proper response?

Should the response change over time?

At least 2500 years ago, people were arguing that the obvious similarities between us and other animals meant that eating them was immoral. Legislation providing some protection for animals has been passing in various countries since the late 1700s.

And yet, little substantive effect can be seen. What should someone do in the face of the animal holocaust in light of the long history of the failure to stop it?

One way to answer this question is to ask yourself what you think you might have done if you were living in Germany during the Holocaust or in the South prior to the civil war.

History tells us that most people who lived through such periods did nothing to help the victims. People simply didn’t see any victims; they saw only Jews and niggers. They denied that anything wrong was occurring.

There has been quite a bit of coverage lately surrounding the two incendiary devices ignited in California, allegedly by animal rights activists targeting vivisectors at UC-Santa Cruz. This seems like a government COINTELPRO sort of thing to me, but for the sake of this essay, I’ll assume that they were genuine.

I don’t see how anyone who sees the animal holocaust for what it is could reasonably argue that the bombs, as the media has called them, were unjustified, over the line, uncalled for, or disproportionate.

Critics come in at least two flavors; there are those who are appalled because they deny that anything wrong is being done in the first place. They don’t see victims; they see only animals. To this group, no similarity between another animal and a human can ever make their suffering as significant as ours, or even measurably significant when compared with ours.

Another group declares that they too see the holocaust, but that the appropriate response is to work peacefully for change, to decry any and all violence, to turn the other cheek. They argue that violence will turn public opinion against the animal rights movement, will stall progress, or that the harm to animals will be greater somehow.

Neither group makes a compelling argument. The animal holocaust is real, and neither 2500 years of brilliant discourse on the subject nor 200 years of incremental legislative progress have had much effect.

More of the same seems like telling the victim to keep turning the other cheek. It defies common sense to believe that more of the same is the answer.

The likelihood of increasing violence seems high to me. As I’ve written before, this is a social problem of growing intensity that we all have a responsibility to address. If we can’t invent ways to deal with this problem, the future is dark indeed. Looking out over the landscape of enterprises associated with the issue, it seems to me that academia, particularly public universities, have a strong responsibility in this regard. They have the power and resources to provide a public venue for sustained and in-depth discussion of this matter.

Maybe my belief in the power of education is naïve, but given the chance, with the facts before them, I believe that enough people would choose a drastic alteration in public policy regarding our relationship with other animals. And whether they would or not, open public discussion could vent much pent-up frustration.

My belief in this likelihood is the driving force behind our efforts to establish the National Primate Research Exhibition Hall adjacent to the University of Wisconsin’s primate vivisection labs. I believe that talking and a willingness to change can solve just about any problem. But talk is such a dangerous idea to those who are vested in the system that the university has been fighting to quash this potentially national venue for three years. Their legal costs to-date must be around half a million dollars.

And this isn’t an anomaly.

When I first got involved, more than a decade ago, I asked the Oregon Primate Center to convene a public forum and to invite the public to a discussion about their use of monkeys. They refused. So did every other university that I approached. It turned out that I was far from being the first to call for public discussion. Animal enterprises’ response to criticism has uniformly been a hunkering down.

Hunkering down and passing stricter laws to curtail criticism do not seem to me to be creative ways to deal with this escalating problem. I don’t see how anyone could pin much hope on them. Complicating the problem, no one is likely to stop hurting animals without being forced to do so. This makes it unlikely that those doing the hurting and killing will give serious consideration to actual discussion about what they do.

I fear that increasing violence is inevitable given the history of industry’s obfuscation, denial, and economic interest in harming animals. There is slim chance that any genuine discussion is likely or will be allowed to take place.

Responsibility for every violent act past and future intended to stem the animal holocaust is borne by everyone: the vivisectors and the butchers; activists; denialists; media; government; everyone.

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