Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Tea and empathy


Yet another pit bull story in the newspaper this morning. A pit bull cross-breed bit off a woman's lower lip.

What else to expect? Pit bulls were bred for violence. Even when raised with kindness and affection, the genome has its own agenda. For dogs. For humans.

I read the pit bull story just after reading the following passage from Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (translated from the French), a musing of one of the two protagonists, a 54-year-old, self-educated female concierge in a Paris luxury apartment building.
At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this: hold your rank, or die.
Oh dear, is it really as bad as that? Are we all pit bulls under the skin, a skein of primitive hominoid instincts iced over with a fragile skin of culture, a growl of loosely-restrained genes poised to bite your lip off if you get in the way?

Easy enough to believe, I suppose, if one reads the newspapers.

Still, one hangs on to one's optimism. Human history can be seen as a struggle between genes honed in a struggle to survive and cultural conventions arrived at by societal negotiation. I once heard Margaret Mead define civilization as the ever-widening circle of those who we do not kill. The optimists among us want to believe with Steven Pinker that the better angels of our nature are in the ascendency.

And what does Renée, our sardonic concierge, have to offer?
Thus, to withdraw as far as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appendages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea.