Friday, March 8, 2013

The Numbers Game

An on-line article from the International Edition of the New York Times caught my eye as I skimmed the news today. The article, "Amid Suffering, Animal Welfare Legislation Still Far Off in China" draws attention to the widespread very public cruelty heaped upon animals in Asia. One is tempted I think to imagine that Asians are even more cruel than Americans.

But the article, which I think points to a very horrible situation, is itself part of the common phenomena of measuring the evil or ugliness of an atrocity by counting the victims. History counts the Holocaust as more serious than the World Trade Center bombing because millions of people were killed by the Nazis while only thousands were killed by... well, that particular question is still open.

Nevertheless, we tend to rank some instances of cruelty by how many were harmed and killed. But I think this misses the reality of suffering, by a very wide mark.

Suffering isn't experienced by a population, a species, or a class. Suffering is always personal.

It hardly matters that billions of chickens are killed in the US every year. What matters, to me, is the experience of the individual chicken.

When vivisectors claim (wildly) that tormenting only twenty baby monkeys will lead to incalculable benefit, the simple fact of each individual monkey's suffering remains. It is him, whose name, whose serial number is never mentioned by the vivisectors for fear of putting too intimate a face on him, who suffers. It is his personal fear, longing to be held; it is his nightmares and pain that matters.

It is a numbers game, but the number that matters is simply the one we know who is being hurt.

Postscript: One might infer from this that working to end broad scale suffering isn't the right course; but we don't pass laws to protect Jane, Rover, or rhesus 24917-A2. We pass laws that protect wide swaths of individuals. I guess what I'm saying is that we must work to pass laws and regulations to protect ever larger classes, but all the while keep in mind that it is the individual who is actually suffering. It's sort of the Yin to the Yang of thinking globally but acting locally.

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