Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why ethnic labels matter

One time as I was waiting in the hall for a class, I began a conversation with a woman sitting nearby, and when she asked me what I was taking, I said, "Hebrew." She then inquired, without a hint of irony, "Why do you need to take Hebrew if you are a Hebrew?"

I was struck dumb. It wasn't just her ignorance of the fact that most American Jews are less than fluent in the Hebrew language, it was her referring to me as a "Hebrew." I hadn't encountered that nomenclature before, and if I'd ever expected to, it would have been from a small-town dweller in Alabama or some such place, not from a fellow student at U. of Maryland!

Was I offended? Not really. While I'm suspicious about the sorts of ideas that might accompany her terminological illiteracy, this use of the word "Hebrew" was once considered perfectly respectable--like, oh, back in the nineteenth century. As British historian Paul Johnson notes:
From about the second century BC, when it was so used by Ben Sira, 'Hebrew' was applied to the language of the Bible, and to all subsequent works written in this language. As such it gradually lost its pejorative overtone, so that both to Jews themselves and to sympathetic gentiles, it sometimes seemed preferable to 'Jew' as a racial term. In the nineteenth century, for example, it was much used by the Reform movement in the United States, so that we get such institutions as the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
A quick search on Google News, which has a mammoth historical archive of newspaper articles, turns up numerous instances of this usage between 1875 and 1915. For example, one 1913 article from The New York Times reports, "More than 500 Hebrews crowded Clinton Hall last night and took part in an enthusiastic honor of Nahum Sokelew, the Zionist, and editor of the best-known Jewish newspaper in Russia." To this day there are statutes on the book that refer to things like "Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements." But in the common language this sort of phraseology sounds ignorant, if not anti-Semitic, to most people. That it once was standard usage has been all but forgotten.

If you keep up with current events, you may already have suspected where this post was leading. Two apparently coincidental news items recently have sparked a debate in the media and blogosphere about the use of outdated racial/ethnic terminology. In one, the census forms for 2010 included "Negro" as an option for racial identification, because some older blacks still prefer the term. In another, a 2008 quote by Sen. Harry Reid was uncovered in which he had stated that the country was ready for a black president, especially one who was "light-skinned" and spoke "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

If Reid had said "black" instead of "Negro," would his statement still be objectionable? Depends who you ask. (I personally think no.) But most commentators agree that there's something exceedingly strange about hearing the word "Negro" used in earnest, and not in a historical context, by the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

Unlike "Hebrew," which few if any individuals alive today remember as an accepted term for a Jewish person, "Negro" fell out of fashion only about 40 years ago. Martin Luther King used the word several times in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and Bobby Kennedy used it when he suggested--with considerable foresight, as it turns out--that the U.S. would elect a black president in the next 40 years. People of Reid's generation (b. 1939) had to expunge the word from their vocabulary when they were well into adulthood. Can younger people like me (b. 1977) understand what that's like? Why, yes we can. That's exactly what happened with the word "Oriental" when I was growing up.

Anyone should be able to understand why terms like these persist in the margins of society for decades after having been purged from mainstream discourse. Apart from the fact that old speech habits die hard, the changes usually seem a little arbitrary on the surface. Why is "Hebrew" more demeaning than "Jew"? Why is the Spanish word for "black" worse than the English word? Partly it may be their closeness to a slur ("Hebe," "nigger," etc.), but the real reason is probably that it is just a way of marking a shift in public attitude. Therefore, any person who continues using a linguistic casualty of this type gives the impression of not having fully absorbed the social developments that left it behind.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

I molt therefore I am

"They administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them and see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation."
-- Nicolas Fontaine, 1650

I once visited an oceanarium hoping I'd get the chance to hold a live lobster in my hands. It turned out the place wouldn't let us--something about contaminating them, I think. I did get to hold a horseshoe crab, a starfish, and a sea cucumber, all alive. The lobsters, however, we could only observe in their enclosures, snapping their claws, waving their antennae.

Our guide was eager to debunk the popular notion that lobsters scream when they are cooked alive. That is impossible, he told us, first because lobsters have no vocal cords, and second because they have no brains.

That didn't sound right to me. First of all, of course lobsters don't have vocal cords, but then neither do birds, and birds certainly emit a shrill noise when in extreme distress. I suppose he meant lobsters don't vocalize, period. Fair enough. Then what is the high-pitched sound heard when a lobster is placed in a boiling pot? He didn't say, but later I found out that many sources explain it as steam escaping from the animal's carapace.

A much bigger stretch was his second claim. I knew that not all animals have brains. We even got to see a confrontation between two such creatures. Someone placed a starfish into a tank with a mussel, an animal that looked sort of like a three-dimensional Pac-Man. As soon as the starfish hit the water, the previously sedentary mussel rocketed toward the other end of the tank, its shell bobbing open and closed with each stroke. We were told it was trying to escape because the starfish is a natural predator. It wasn't "afraid" of the starfish. As a type of clam, a mussel has no brain and therefore can have no emotion. But it did nonetheless possess survival reflexes.

The problem was that everything I knew about lobsters, insects, and other arthropods suggested they did have some sort of brain. I had done several reports in college on honeybees, who have the most complex system of communication in the animal world, involving a "dance" that conveys the location of nectar to other members of the hive. They know the dance instinctively, but it seems unlikely that any brainless creature could process that level of information.

It wasn't until a while later that I found the decisive refutation for what our guide had said. I was in my university's library when I wandered into the biology section and decided, on a whim, to check a book on crustacean anatomy. The book unhesitatingly described these animals as possessing a brain. In fact, the brain of arthropods is fairly advanced for invertebrates, surpassed only by that of cephalopod mollusks--squids and octopuses, the only invertebrates that appear to possess intelligence.

As noted zoologist Donald Griffin stated, "Experimenters have demonstrated that the central nervous systems of crustaceans, insects, and cephalopods organize and modulate information in ways that are quite comparable in complexity and precision to those of vertebrate brains" (qtd. in George Page's Inside the Animal Mind, p. 167).

Okay, so they have brains. Or at least something we can call a brain. But that leaves open a more crucial question: Do they have any consciousness? When injured, do they experience pain? Remarkably, many scientists insist the answer is no. A 2005 study funded by the Norwegian government received wide publicity, which claimed it merely bolstered an existing scientific consensus that these animals feel no pain:
[A]nimals with simple nervous systems, like lobsters, snails and worms, do not have the ability to process emotional information and therefore do not experience suffering, say most researchers.... "When you drop a lobster in boiling water, or put a fishhook through a worm, those stimuli cause those muscles to contract," Stevens said. "We describe that as pain because of the motor response, which is nothing more than neurons that have been stimulated."
Or, in the words of the Terminator, "The data could be called pain."

I guess that settles it, huh? Not quite. A more recent investigation paints a rather different picture:
[Robert] Elwood, along with Stuart Barr and Lynsey Patterson, outline seven reasons, with supportive findings, they believe crustaceans suffer.

For one thing, they argue, crustaceans possess "a suitable central nervous system and receptors." They learn to avoid a negative stimulus after a potentially painful experience. They also engage in protective reactions, such as limping and rubbing, after being hurt.
Other scientists remain unconvinced. As one puts it, "You could argue the shrimp is simply trying to clean the antenna rather than showing a pain response."

Well, of course you could argue. An alien scientist studying humans could argue that humans do not experience pain. They cry, scream, and sweat when they're injured simply because those are adaptive behaviors for getting help or scaring away predators (or whatever). If you're intent on denying an organism's inner experience, you can explain away any behavior you see. Much of what drives this skepticism, however, is scientists' unwillingness to expand their idea of what an invertebrate nervous system can do.

Proving that lobsters suffer when boiled would probably have legal consequences. They would be subject to laws prohibiting cruelty to animals (they already are in some places), and chefs might be required to kill them or stun them before boiling them. (There is even now an electrocution device for that purpose called CrustaStun.) Since there's a big worldwide seafood industry and many people consider lobsters incredibly tasty, it's no wonder discussions of this nature tend to provoke angry, knee-jerk reactions.

What do religious Jews, who don't eat lobster, think about this issue? Most don't get involved at all. We already have our own problems dealing with groups that seek to ban kosher slaughter. But the teachings of our religion do shed light on this topic. While allowing the killing of animals for food and other human-related purposes, Judaism places great value on their proper treatment. There are a range of laws about taking good care of one's livestock or pets, including feeding them on time and not overburdening them. Many rabbis prohibit hunting for sport, and none encourage it. The ritual slaughter of mammals and birds attempts to make their death quick and painless.

These rules have given Judaism a better record on animal welfare than Christianity, but they have important limitations. They allow a Jew to harm an animal for a legitimate human purpose (for example, ridding a rat infestation), and some Jews have interpreted this stipulation broadly enough to justify some pretty brutal practices. The ugliest example in recent memory concerned the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant (later shut down after the fallout from another controversy, involving mistreatment of employees). Undercover videos released by PETA showed cows apparently walking around for several minutes after their necks had been cut. Defenders insisted the animals were like chickens with their head cut off, acting on reflex but feeling no pain.

Kosher supervisors finally agreed to change the plant's practices, and later it received a positive review from an inspection by leading animal-welfare expert Dr. Temple Grandin. But one of their controversial practices that remained in effect was turning animals upside-down before killing them, which is authorized by Israeli rabbis but not practiced by any other kosher slaughterhouses in America.

Judaism teaches that non-Jews should observe the Noachide commandments, which include an injunction not to eat an animal while it is still alive, usually interpreted as a general statement against cruelty to animals. But the obligation is narrower than it is for Jews, and might not apply to a marine invertebrate anyway.

The important point in all this, however, is that Judaism always intended the principle of compassion for animals to go beyond the letter of the law. As Rabbi Natan Slifkin explains in his book Man and Beast:
Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was once approached by a calf fleeing in terror from the butcher. But Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi did not take pity on it. He said, "Go; for this is what you were made for!" As a result of this he suffered pain for many years. His atonement came when his maid discovered a rat's nest in the house and was about to sweep it away; Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi told her to leave it alone.

Now it is undeniably true that the calf's purpose in life was indeed to be eaten. That was what it was bred for. This is neither wrong nor cruel; on the contrary, it assures the success of the species (cows will never become extinct) and the elevation of this animal. Yet nevertheless it was this event that brought punishment to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. For treatment of animals is not meant to be determined on a purely legal level. The purpose of the mitzvah of kindness to animals is to inculcate one in the trait of compassion. That cows are destined to be eaten is irrelevant. When faced with a dewy-eyed, bleating, tender calf, one's mercies should be aroused. Likewise, although there is every reason to dispose of rats, it is admirable if one feels sympathy for the poor little things and cannot bring oneself to do so.

There are other limitations in one's actions toward animals. Although a human need justifies causing pain to animals, it only justifies it insofar as it is required. Where different options are available, one should choose the less painful option. (pp. 194-5)
The prime consideration in Judaism is not what the animal is experiencing but what type of person you become in the way you treat it. People who are unaffected by seeing an animal suffer are likely to lack empathy in general. So even if the lobster's nervous system is too simple for the creature to experience pain, just the appearance that it does ought to give us pause. Whether the practice of boiling lobsters alive continues or not, there's something seriously wrong when people have desensitized themselves to the point they consider the process as casual as chopping fruit.