by Aaron Gardiner, guest blogger
Introduction: There is a story that, on being asked about gay rights, an official spokesman for North Korea replied, "There is no homosexuality in North Korea. It is a disease of the Bourgeoisie."
Actually I just heard this story from Aaron Gardiner, whom I have the pleasure of introducing you to today. Born in Australia, Aaron has lived in China, mostly Beijing, and has also spent times in other parts of Asia. Though we have never met in person, I have gotten to know Aaron in cyberspace, and asked him if he could share something on the cultural differences he perceives between Asia and the West (or whatever collective euphemism includes both the United States and Australia). The topic he chose, animal rights, will likely raise some disagreement among readers, and I would love to hear your views. Please feel free to chime in with a comment. – Xujun
Should we treat animals with dignity and respect? Not just yet.
Despite having lived in China for 5 years, I've retained a "Western" perspective on most issues—with one exception. On this one point, my compatriots and other foreigners regularly lock horns, making me feel, for want of a better phrase, partly Sinocized. Is it geopolitics, perhaps, or poverty reduction? No, the source of so many pained dinner conversations, nasty looks, and canceled second dates is rather more mundane: Animal rights.
Western folk, to a greater or lesser degree, believe animals have rights. They are rarely specific about what these rights are, but they are sure animals have them. Few of the Australians, Americans, or Europeans I went to college with think it is okay to kill gorillas for sport. A sizable minority of them would not think it permissible to kill a gorilla to provide food for people. They empathize with animals. They value animals as contributing something to our environment greater than their immediate utility to humans.
I don't. I feel the same way about gorillas as most Westerners feel about chickens. Dolphins? Yum. Dogs? Can't eat my fill. And don't even get me started on minke whales, the cockroaches of the ocean.
Feminist theorists talk about the "unconscious aspects of privilege". I think this is very much what has happened to Westerners with animals. I can recall being a young boy, loving animals, and believing it was okay to shoot rabbits for food (we have lots of rabbits in Australia) but evil for Americans to shoot black bears for food (so noble, so anthropomorphic). I think this was as aspect of privilege. After I had lived in Hanoi for a year or so, I had become thoroughly alienated from the idea of animals being anything other than property or food - because there was far too much human suffering going on for me to give up any of my concern or empathy for animals.
In Australia, there are, with the exception of Aboriginal folk who live far, far away, no poor people. But when I moved to Hanoi , there were many. People who lived on others' garbage. People who lived in others' garbage. People who didn't live, because they died from medieval diseases that no longer exist in the Western world. These poor people had, and have, no rights. They didn't have property rights; the police would smash and steal whatever vegetables or fruit they tried to sell by the side of the road. They didn't have a right to education; schools cost money and they had none. They most certainly didn't have a right to pride or self-worth; if they could, they sold their children into prostitution for a pittance. So would I, were I hungry enough, and so, very probably, would you.
Having seen all this, and knowing that many parts of the world are far worse places to live than either China or Vietnam , I now get angry that Western people spend so much time and effort trying to improve the lot of animals. It strikes me as profoundly unbalanced. That an enormously wealthy, educated man like Peter Singer would chose to devote himself to raising up the prospects of pigs inflames me with contempt. Who cares about cattle when real people, human beings, are dying like cattle?
You might say: Why can't we have both? But each person has a set amount of time, and a limited amount of energy and money. The opportunity cost of writing a letter denouncing cosmetics companies is not writing a letter to support refugees; doing one is making a conscious decision not to do the other.
Things are changing in China. As people get richer, and the choke hold of the state loosens, my younger Chinese friends have expressed their desire to see animals treated better. One even signed a petition asking the Beijing Zoo to treat its captive animals better - a significant commitment in a country where petitions signing is potentially illegal. But my friends are all Beijingers, and compared to most Chinese people, they are rich.
Gordon Gecko says to Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street, "One thing to remember about WASPs, kid: They love animals; they hate people." If Western people want non-Westerners to be nicer to animals, they should support things that create and spread wealth—for example, free trade and globalization. More global trade equals higher worldwide incomes, which in turn equals greater concern for animals. If it is true, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Krystof says in a recent op-ed piece, that "the tide of history is moving toward the protection of animal rights," it is only because global capitalism and free trade have lifted millions from poverty and enriched people in parts of the world that hitherto had known limited wealth. Once China's per-capita GDP gets high enough, Chinese, like WASPS, may love animals, too.