Thursday, January 17, 2008

... So Angry I could Whack a Kangaroo

Compare this Reuters video clip with this BBC report. Note that Reuters tells the story from an exclusively Australian perspective, while BBC is evenhanded. Reuters has edited the video in a way that leaves the impression that the Japanese side has not refuted the Sea Shepherd’s claims. The Australian media, if news reports are correct, basically toe the Labor government line. Or is it the other way around? It all seems to make sense, when you remember that BBC has hitched a ride on the Greenpeace boat. And Greenpeace does not see eye to eye with the Sea Shepherd.

If you look past the cultural and racial undertones of the Anglo-Saxon drumbeat, though, whaling does raise an important existential question; namely: How do we define humanity*? If you think that the word “humanity” is confusingly metaphorical, let me put it this way: Where do “we” end and “they” begin? We grapple with this question in many ways, on many levels, in many different situations. Sometimes, little more than a nod, a handshake is at stake. In other cases, it’s literally a matter of life and death. In that sense, whaling is in the same category as genocide, eugenics, abortion, stem cell research, and all the way out to wholesale carnivorism**.

Having said that, it raises my hackles when I see Australia use its unilateral territorial claims over Antarctica to pull off a legal stunt like this. I’m somewhat sympathetic to whales - it’s not an easy call when you think about it - so it doesn’t make me want to kill one just to spite them. But I just might go over there and whack a kangaroo. That should make the Australians upset, shouldn’t it?

* This recent piece by Steven Pinker does not address the issue directly but illuminates the ways in which we deal with the questions as well as their consequences.

** Some definitions of “us” can cause communities to reject carnivorism. Jainism requires its followers to be vegetarian. The Japanese became a substantially vegetarian nation as they became Buddhists. The concurrent fall in the average height of the Japanese population is arguably attributed to the switch to a largely vegetarian diet.


Sophie said...

Australians do whack kangaroos and eat them. Only the proliferating, non-threatened species. You could also whack any number of cane toads if you wish.

I am sorry that I've been studying Japanese for 3 years and when I read about Taiji and whaling I feel like stopping. I certainly have lost my strong wish to travel to Japan...

Killing threatened species for food is a no-no. I support Sea Shepherd, the Japanese whaling fleet seems a yakuza operation to me.
I think it is used to attract media attention on whaling while Japan empties the sea of other threatened species like fat tuna. Soon there will be no ōtōro available... and one of the most efficient fishes at sea will have disappeared.
Japan is doing to tuna what China is doing to sharks, and display, as all the other countries do, most common traits of humanity : greed and inability to plan for the future.

As for the Antarctic claim, it is ludicrous, but it's seized as a way to do something when there's no international rule to refer to. Japan and other fishing and commercial shipping countries have prevented any strong international rule to govern international waters, it's a free-for-all where any claim will do.

Jun Okumura said...


Good to hear from you again. I believe that there are four major arguments against killing animals: the ecological (scarcity), aesthetic (magnificence), communal (sociability), and moral (sentience).

You make the ecological argument with regard to the Antarctic whales. I think the Japanese side has the best of that case, but it is something that can be worked out among scientists. I agree with you that the blue-fin tuna is in danger. Commercial blue-fin tuna fishing will come to an abrupt halt in not too many years, barring the development of sustainable commercial mariculture. It’s a race against time. We are also the main culprits in the rapid decline of Atlantic eel population, but strict controls were imposed last year. Let’s hope it works. Please note, though, that mismanagement of the oceanic commons is not a uniquely Japanese trait. To give one recent example, Europeans and Americans have fished the common cod to near extinction. Looking to the future, the emerging economies will put even greater pressure on global food supply. The outlook is not good. I believe that things will get much worse before they get better.

Going to the other three arguments, many mammals score highly on one or more of the others. Dogs and pigs are more or less on the same level where numbers two and four are concerned. But dogs have insinuated themselves into our social lives in ways that no other species can match; thus, argument three spares the dog and condemns the pig. Whales score high on arguments two through four, higher than most other group of mammals except humans and possibly some other primates. That is no doubt why I, like many other humans, am somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the individual whale.

But I cannot bring myself to blur the line between humans and other mammals, “us” and “them”. To do so would clear the way to evaluating human life in the same way that we evaluate life itself. Such line of thought leads at one end to Jainism and the other to eugenics, with neither of which I find myself compatible. That uncomfortable middle ground is where I find myself now.

There is a subsidiary argument that covers the means of killing (brutality). We modern urbanites prefer death to be swift, clean and, perhaps most important, unseen. That is why you are so upset with Taiji. It is brutal, bloody and, by virtue of telecommunications, highly visible. I have a completely different take on this. I believe that the remote and sterile assembly-line executions in the contemporary slaughterhouse are far more ignoble than the intimate violence dealt by the Taiji hunters.

Finally, Sophie, you have my apologies. I did not mean to be taken seriously when I said that I wanted to whack a kangaroo. I knew very well that Australians regularly slaughter them. People who know me will tell you that I am prone to saying such things for effect.

Sophie said...

A correction : the book I was pointing to is 'The uplift war', from David Brin. Elevation is the French title... sorry.

Jun Okumura said...

I remember liking his work enough to read a couple of titles in that series but not so much as to finish it off. He's a good hard science fiction writer, but not as good as, say, Greg Bear.

For the exploration of the meaning of "us", I never came across anything that surpassed Octavia Butler's Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Not only was the science fiction premise outrageously inventive, the characters forced themselves on you with the kind of vividness and emotional (and moral) depth that many mainstream novelists struggle to match. I've stopped reading science fiction (or most fiction for that matter), but if I ever go back, I would look up the rest of her work that I haven't read. As novels, pure and simple, I think that her Parables series appears to be even better.