Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cruelty and Empathy

There are these public service announcements on cable television that I hate--because they prey on my conscience and tug at my heart. Most of you have probably seen these--they feature dogs and cats who have been abused or abandoned. They look up into the camera with scarred faces and look out from cages in which they sit waiting for release--through either adoption or euthenasia. A celebrity's voice implores people to give voice to the voiceless and to adopt or give money or speak out against animal cruelty. There's usually background music that swells and adds to the pathos of the animals' suffering.

And it hurts my heart to look at these images because the thought of being cruel to a dog or cat is unfathomable to me. And because I've adopted shelter dogs for the last few years--my current dog "B" was found wandering on the side of a highway -- they believe he was abandoned by owners after discovering he had heartworm because the shelter said that he looked cared for (he was not malnourished or mangy) but he did test positive for heartworm, and apparently some owners will abandon their dogs to the elements rather than treat them or seek other owners for them. So when I look at "B" and try to imagine what he had to go through wandering around in the woods, let alone what he may have faced in his home environment, it hurts my heart.

Yet I am also reminded of the fact that suffering and cruelty towards humans has gone on and happens every minute of every day somewhere around the world. And perhaps if I saw pictures of abused children and abandoned orphans my heart would be tugged in the same way. But I'm not sure. I don't want to sound like a monster, but I think I have become numb to that kind of pain or willfully choose to ignore the kind of suffering that I KNOW must happen every minute of every day. I don't even have to go very far to imagine this--in our own neighborhoods there are more than likely abused children and malnourished people.

I suppose I bring all of this up because I recall reading in The New York Times a story about a man who threw a puppy off his apartment building's roof. The pupppy sustained major injuries but survived and folks wrote into the comment section OUTRAGED (as well they should) and calling for this guy to be thrown off the roof of a building and really decrying animal cruelty. And someone commented on the fact that while this is awful--what happened to the puppy--all these people were feeling outraged on behalf of a dog when there were kids facing similar types of abuse and neglect, some dying as a result, in the various boroughs of New York City and why aren't we getting outraged by that?

I don't have an answer. But I think it has something to do with the nature of empathy--that for dog owners/cat owners or animal people, the idea of animal cruelty and the empathy they have with animals--who are voiceless and without agency--runs deep. And yet, I think children are placed in very similar situations--of being vulnerable, voiceless, and without agency.

A bit off the topic of what I normally write I suppose, but I have been thinking about my own sense of empathy and wondering why tears can appear in my eyes when I see these images of animal abuse but I don't feel this same pain knowing that there are children undergoing similar horrors at this very moment.


Kjen said...

I don't really care for that argument, which essentially is that "there are more important things to think about."

1. Because the article wasn't about kids. it was about pets. but when there are articles about such cruel abuse regarding children the comments are generally the same i.e. "the perpetrator doesn't deserve to live and or should be sterilized"

2. these type of arguments tend to feel like a way for the commenter to shut down another person's conversation. I know that you don't particularly care for this topic, but trying to stop other people who obviously do care about it from having this conversation isn't a viable solution.

3. it never works. telling people that there are more important not an effective way to change the course of the conversation other than to get a few commentators to make snarky remarks about you. I'm just saying. If you really want to change the conversation it doesn't work. Be prepared to list some specific examples of what you want to talk about, preferably after connecting it to the current situation so it doesn't appear so blatant that you want to talk about something else.

Jennifer said...

Hi Kjen,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a clearly impassioned response to my post.

I must admit that I read your comment and then re-read my post, and to be honest, I'm confused. You seem to have a bit of an aggressive/hostile tone in response to what I wrote. And I didn't think I was writing anything that contained an argument or that I was trying to change the conversation. I think I was trying to think about the nature of empathy and my own human response to issues of cruelty, be they in animals or in children--and the ways in which I feel I have become desensitized to certain subjects, which I don't think is a good thing. And perhaps wondering aloud whether others agree.

I take it from your response that you don't agree, but I must confess that I'm not exactly sure of the nature of your disagreement with what I wrote since I'm not advocating for any single position or point-of-view but merely sharing my own thoughts about the larger topic of the blog post, cruelty and empathy.

If you'd like to elaborate, I'd be happy to engage in a conversation with you, although I think I'd be more receptive to your points if I didn't feel like I was coming under attack.


Kjen said...

After reading your response and thinking about it, I feel that I owe you two apologies.

First because I did not mean to make you feel attacked or to upset you and I'm sorry that I did so.

Secondly, because the nature of my stance is that I felt that the initial article's comment (where a commenter wondered would people be so upset if the story had been about humans) was essentially trying to change the topic to something which they feel is more important, thereby implying that those the original topic about the abuse of animals was unimportant (There are humans suffering, who are being abused yes? But there are also animals suffering as well. Should we ignore the animals until all human suffering has been eradicated.)
However, looking back, I realized that your post's topic was actually about suffering and human's capacity for compassion, but since my response was so off topic it was in a sense as if I was trying to change the topic as well and I'm sorry for that.
Finally, to actually give you a response to YOUR post:
I don't think ignoring the suffering of others is a question of having become numb but focus. People's emotions are rarely moved by numbers alone. Often a specific example is necessary. So while you know that kids are probably/more than likely malnourished in your neighborhood, right now its still speculative theory until you see for yourself their suffering.

Anyway, I enjoy your blog and will take the time to read a post more carefully before I respond.

Jennifer said...

Sorry for the lapse in responding to your last comment--I read it while I was in CA and I did appreciate the clarification. Reading your initial comment in light of what you explained in your second made a lot more sense! I'm sorry if I was defensive--I try not to be, but it's also hard, sometimes, especially when I re-read my own post and really couldn't figure out how it was connecting with your comments.

Anyway, thanks for the clarification and thanks for being a reader/commenter--I really value the conversation!