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Urban Academy is a small high school in New York with a unique teaching philosophy that foregrounds critical thinking and does away with standardized tests. Earlier this month, they invited me to come and speak to the school about animal rights and brought in an animal researcher to give the opposite point of view. Then we played "hard-hitting questions." It was all kind of intense and awesome. This is the talk I gave:
My name is Jack Shepherd, and up until recently, I worked as the chief blogger for an animal rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (or PETA). While I was at PETA, I helped to create various campaigns that were designed to encourage people to think in a different way about animals, their rights, and our own responsibilities towards them.
One example of the campaigns that I worked on for PETA was a website that encouraged people to stop calling fish fish and start calling them Sea Kittens, with the idea that nobody would ever want to be cruel to a Sea Kitten. As incredibly stupid as this idea was, it got picked up by a lot of major TV networks and talk shows, which meant that we had a week or so when the entire news media was having a discussion about the ethics of eating animals, which was a big victory for us.
Now the actual issue that we were trying to get people to think about with Sea Kittens and other similar campaigns is kind of a complicated one, so I'll stop here and go over a few of the finer points. The first and most important question I want to ask is about rights. What are rights, and how would it be possible for an animal to have them? I would imagine that most of us here are agreed about some basic human rights that we enjoy in this country - that we have a right to speak freely about issues that are important to us; that we have a right to practice a religion, or no religion; that we have a right to vote for those people we want to represent us in government.
And I think we can probably also agree that it would be pretty ridiculous for anyone to try and extend those kinds of rights to animals. If I tried to give my cat the right to vote, she wouldn't even know how to vote for, like, a cat president. The whole thing would be an embarrassing disaster for everyone involved.
What we mean when we talk about "animal rights" is actually a very basic right that touches on something that every person - regardless of their mental abilities or social status or any number of other factors - shares with every animal: We are all capable of suffering - and we all, I believe, have a fundamental right to be free from avoidable suffering. We have a right not to be tortured, or mutilated in medical experiments, or kept confined in cages and prodded with sticks.
Which is all very nice for us. But the flipside of that right is a responsibility: We have a responsibility not to do those things to others. And I feel very strongly that those others - because they have the same capacity to suffer and experience pain that we do - include cats and dogs, and mice and rabbits, and cows and pigs, and a long list of other animals who are way less cuddly and cute but who have a basic right to be left alone to slither around in a hole, or whatever it is that they do for fun on the weekends.
Unfortunately, up to this point, we've been enjoying the right and totally shirking the responsibility.
The cows we raise for beef have their throats slit and their skin removed while they're still fully conscious; egg-laying chickens are kept confined for their entire lives in cages so small they have no room even to spread a wing. To prevent them from pecking each other to death in these conditions, their beaks are sliced off with a hot blade when they are less than 10 days old. Mother pigs are forcibly impregnated and crammed into cages called "gestation crates," which are so small that they are unable to stand up or even turn around for their whole lives.
I really do believe that in a few generations, we're going to look back on all this and wonder how we ever thought it was a better idea than, like … not doing that to animals and maybe eating veggie burgers instead.
Part of the problem, I think, is that it's just what we're used to. It's hard to get people to change what they're doing when everyone else around them seems to be totally cool with it. But the consequences of this sort-of "everyone else is doing it so it must be OK" attitude can be pretty drastic, and I want to just finish up very quickly by looking at how this attitude plays out in the field of animal experimentation, which, next to the meat industry, is the area where the largest number of animals suffer the most.
Every year, more than 100 million animals are killed in U.S. laboratories for chemical, drug, food, and cosmetics testing, as well as plain curiosity-driven research. Mice, rats, cats, dogs, rabbits, and monkeys are subjected to experiments that blind them, give them seizures, bore holes through their skin with corrosive chemicals, and any number of terrifying and usually fatal procedures that range from research on disease to developing lipstick.
Now there are two standard arguments that people like me tend to use against animal experimentation: The first is that it's not effective. Animals are not like humans – and what could be harmless to an animal might be fatal in humans, and vice versa. This is why so many animal-tested drugs have to be taken off the market when they fail human trials.
The second argument, and the one that I'll finish up on, is much more simple: It's wrong, regardless of the outcome. It's wrong for the same reason that it's wrong to experiment on the poor, the mentally disabled, on the institutionalized.
I've talked a bit about the rights we do have, but there are also some rights we don't have: I believe that we don't have the right to torment and terrorize others simply because they are smaller, weaker, or less intelligent than we are. This goes for children; it goes for our pets; and it goes for the hundreds of millions of animals confined in laboratories who we have to speak up for, because they have no ability to speak up for themselves.
B: A balmy day for it, and the animals all in their furs and finery as we prepare for what promises to be an entertaining and enlightening display of nature at her glorious best.
A: We are at the zoo.
B: Indeed we are, John, and, on the sidelines as we may be, we have a part to play in this age-old ritual of man confronting his ancient past and, who knows – maybe his future – through the iron bars of a cage. And here they go! The baboons are in powerful form today as they begin their morning ablutions.
A: The monkeys are playing in the water. I knew a guy once who had a monkey. It was kind of like, some kind of pet monkey.
B: Quite. And now we must bring our own pet notions to bear on this exciting spectacle. It looks as if the male baboon, awoken from his righteous slumber, has cast a wary eye upon the swollen rump of his rutting young bride. That kind of focused attention can only mean one thing - the play is about to begin.
A: He's hurting her!
B: Yes, John, I suppose he is. But like all pleasures and pains, this one has been fleeting. His interest has waned, and with it I fear, ours must go as well. Shall we make our way to the lofty arbors of the Orangutans?
A: Are they monkeys? I knew a guy once who had a monkey. Like, a real one. He kept it as a pet. I like monkeys.
B: I know you do, John. I know you do.
In order to ensure that I do not miss important engagements, I set all the clocks in my house forward by 10 minutes.
To safeguard against my becoming inured to this timekeeping method and mentally recalibrating to the actual time after a while, I set all the clocks in my house forward an additional 10 minutes each day. So on Monday, 9:00 is 9:10, on Tuesday, 9:20, on Wednesday, 9:30, and so forth.
The flaw in this system is that after a few weeks, I become wary of the information that I am receiving from my various timepieces and begin to rely instead on my internal clock, which cannot be so easily fooled. My solution to this problem comes in the form of a custom-made calendar, which has the days offset on an incremental scale that is analogous to my clock system, so that Monday, January 1, is Tuesday, January 2, while Tuesday, January 2, becomes Thursday, January 4, and Wednesday, January 3, becomes Saturday, January 6 (See Fig. 1).
I find that the calendar system, combined with a more-or-less random regulation of the lighting in my apartment to disrupt the (for my purposes) dangerously predictable succession of day and night, is sufficient to keep my internal clock off balance and allow my external clocks to do their jobs properly.
Lest all this hard work be spoiled by a public occurrence such as a newscast or a sporting event, I have reprogrammed my DVR to record the nightly news, the weather channel, and the NFL, and to play random 5-minute selections from a pool of 3 months' worth of these recordings on a continuous loop in my living room.
The Holiday problem has not escaped me. To combat this particular difficulty I have bribed various acquaintances to call me with seasons' greetings at intervals based on contemporary events that I have incomplete access to due to my aforementioned DVR-news-gathering system. So, for instance, if the San Francisco 49ers clinch a playoff berth, someone will call up to wish me a Happy Birthday, and if the President makes a public address to the nation, I will receive Christmas cards in the mail the next week. I do not take any calls or letters from close friends or family.
Although this might occasionally give me sufficient information to guess certain calendar dates with a reasonable degree of accuracy – e.g., if the Niners win their division on the same day as the President's Thanksgiving Proclamation – I have found that the erratic sleep schedule which is occasioned by the random lighting in my apartment and the constant barrage of conflicting sports-, weather-, and current-events-related information coming from my television leaves my brain generally too addled to perform the intricate calculations necessary to make sense of these coincidences.
As a final precaution, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (which occur consecutively most weeks), I dose my morning coffee with a strong hallucinogenic substance (usually mescaline or dipropyltryptamine), which practice has proven of inestimable value in distorting my sense of temporality in general. Consequently, I do not, at present, believe that time passes at all – a worldview which has helped me come to terms with some genuinely surprising phenomena such as the fact that I have not had a birthday since 2002.
Obviously, this entire system obliges me to drastically limit any contact with other human beings ("Spoilers," as I call them), but apart from the occasional interruption, I have not found this requirement to be much of an imposition.
If Jack Shepherd's legacy is to be defined primarily by his work in the field of cat videos, it must at least be bolstered by his prodigious output in a wildly different (and too often overlooked) medium: The e-mail.
The Collected E-Mail Correspondence of Jack A. Shepherd: 2006-2008 (Faber & Faber, 2009) ends with a short note – deeply characteristic of Shepherd's laconic, no-nonsense style – that sheds as much light on the fundamental questions that informed his illustrious literary career as any of the dozens of critical tomes that have been dedicated to the subject in the past decade:
Students of Shepherd's work will immediately recognize the juxtaposition of cats and cleaning apparatuses as a central obsession of his literary endeavors, and they will doubtless appreciate this enlightening collection for the many e-mails like this one which help to elucidate Shepherd's often enigmatic contributions to the world of letters. But the real value of The Collected E-Mails is the surprisingly complete picture it paints of the innermost workings – both the frustrations and the aspirations – of a once-in-a-generation literary mind. Take this passage from an August 2008 e-mail exchange between Shepherd and one of his New York acquaintances:
What's striking about this e-mail (apart from that characteristic colon-parenthesis coda by the self-styled "Master of the Emoticon") is the almost joyful flippancy that he brings to the undeniably serious subject of intimacy with friends and the relations between the sexes.
This playfulness is not a characteristic that fans of such works as "Pixel Princesses: The Ten Hottest Videogame Babes" will recognize, but it is a helpful clue in unraveling the more difficult outpourings of the often inscrutable Shepherd and a timely reminder that behind even the grittiest of his writings is a sense of humor – of joy – that can illuminate many of the darker passages that have obsessed the literary world since he burst onto the scene with "Cats and Cleavage: Two Things I Like."
As useful as The Collected E-Mails may be to a critic of Shepherd's work, it is also a surprisingly tender document of a life lived to its fullest, with all the attendant heartbreaks and triumphs. As Shepherd himself blithely puts it in an e-mail to a colleague found near the end of the collection:
These are the words of a man who knew himself all too well, and – along with the rest of this captivating volume – they are words that help us to get to know him just a little bit better, as we come to grips with his life and works. If The Collected E-Mails is anything to go by, the release next year of Jack A. Shepherd's Complete IMs, Texts, and G-Chats may well be the literary event of the decade.
The following just occurred to me:
If (1) there is such a thing as eternal torment; it is (2) likely that it will be constructed in such a way as to ensure the maximum possible torment for each individual.
(3) It is far more painful to endure suffering when one is certain that it (a) could have easily been avoided (e.g., by not sinning quite so much) and (b) was directly one's own fault.
If (3) and (2) are true, then it is also true that (4) whoever is in charge of the whole post-mortal tormenting biz would instill each tormented soul with a certainty that the whole thing was his own fault regardless of whether it was in fact his fault or not.
Therefore, if it falls to us to be eternally tormented, we may take solace in the fact that our certainty that we could have avoided this torment (by e.g., being slightly better people) may in fact be a false certainty. And the presence of even this admittedly minor comfort would be enough to ensure that we could not at any point be experiencing the absolute maximum possible torment. So, no matter what happens: it could be worse.
I had kind of a shitty day today, but this really cheered me the fuck up.