Letter to the Editor re Douglas County Lamb Show & Barbecue

Letter to the Editor re Douglas County Lamb Show & Barbecue
Date submitted: May 30, 2013
News outlet: The News-Review

Sigmund Freud wrote that “Children show no trace of the arrogance which urges adult civilized men to draw a hard-and-fast line between their own nature and that of all other animals.”

Freud’s observation is confirmed by the friendships that children readily make with animals.  Unfortunately, the process of turning caring children into “civilized men” (and women) often involves terminating these friendships and mocking their significance.

The annual Douglas County Lamb Show & Barbecue serves this function of hardening hearts.  Children who have cared for animals are expected to put their friends on the auction block and eventually under the knife.  Amongst the civilized it is deemed a sign of maturity to willingly exchange the lives of loved ones for money.

74th Annual Douglas County Lamb Show & Barbecue Program [PDF]

Luddites on the Internet?


There are a significant number of people who receive the vast bulk of their information from the internet—accessed with computer or smartphone. Indeed, such information outlets often crowd out other channels of information. This means that if people are to come across a critique of technology it will likely come to them by means of a technology that is within the scope of the critique. If it is a contemporary critique, the person reading it may dismiss the author as a hypocrite for employing a technology that he or she has expressed concerns about.

By sealing themselves into the virtual, many have created a scenario where they can divide people neatly into allies or hypocrites. There is seemingly no room for legitimate criticism because simply by entering the space one has purportedly discredited themselves and is not to be taken seriously.

But critics of technology, if they are to reach those who do not already share their views need to get their message into the virtual so that such critiques can be found by people who almost exclusively get their information there. It is a genuine dilemma for critics of technology and there is seemingly no perfect way to resolve it but to dismiss such critics as hypocrites because their arguments are not delivered exclusively via stone tablets, cave paintings, scrolls of parchment, or orally is unwarranted and disingenuous. It is, more often than not, a glib way to refuse to engage with critics rather than to substantively answer their charges.

To exacerbate the situation, critics of technology are confronted with a wide range of circumstances beyond their control. Indeed, it is very often the perceived lack of meaningful options that fuels the harshest criticism; the idea is that technologies are initially introduced as products that consumers may freely use or ignore but very quickly become almost obligatory. James Howard Kunstler has characterized a driver’s license as being almost a requisite for full citizenship that is to say that it has become essential to fully participate in society (but perhaps that is waning). In a very strict sense one has the freedom to refuse to drive a car but it is not a free choice because of the penalty imposed for declining. This is how many technologies become so invasive; tracing a trajectory from voluntary to obligatory.

Additional examples could be piled to the sky. Not having a Facebook page is now sufficient to be characterized as “suspicious” behavior; columnists at Slate have suggested that “if you are going out with someone and they don’t have a Facebook profile, you should be suspicious.” Not having a Facebook page should be a “red flag”. There have been reports that lacking a Facebook page is also a red flag for employers and thus may compromise one’s search for employment.

And that is simply Facebook. Consider the social cost for forgoing email or the internet altogether. Again, people can and do make such decisions but it is at a great social cost. It could potentially be argued that critics of technology should bear those costs for the sake of their values but that argument needs to be made rather than assumed. Abstaining creates a chasm between such critics and the people they are trying to reach and thus may actually be counterproductive. Abstaining from a particular technology is a strategy but it is one strategy amongst many, it need not be the default position. In many cases, the freedom to abstain is itself a privilege that is not equally available.

Finally, critics of technology are generally not born with such a worldview. It’s a minority viewpoint that many people may not arrive at until well into adult life. Their upbringing and formal education has made them dependent on an environment permeated with technological apparatus. To use myself as an example, I may be able to write a fairly witty letter to the editor, a decent blog post, and use email but I struggle to grow food, recognize the plants and animals who live alongside me, or build anything more complex than a paper airplane (assuming that I am provided with the paper and a flat surface). Simon Fairlie explains similar circumstances in his excellent article “Growing Up Dystechnic”:

Throughout my childhood I lived under the uneasy suspicion that in order to maintain the English class system, I was being deprived of contact with the more robust aspects of the material world, and on leaving school I realized that my suspicions were entirely correct. I was utterly ill-equipped to do anything except write academic essays and bowl leg-breaks; the only thing I was qualified to do was to sink back into the academic system from which I had only just emerged.

I am struggling to learn skills that in a different time and place would have been mastered as a child, skills that now must be learned in a discursive manner, often from books, and with the clunky brain of an adult rather than breathed in with the air of childhood.

It is absurd to suggest someone is a hypocrite because their options are severely constrained and what they have to choose from is contrary to their values or desires.

Curious “Creatures”

crea·turecreature walks among us

an animal, especially a nonhuman: the creatures of the woods and fields; a creature from outer space.
2. anything created, whether animate or inanimate.
3. person; human being: She is a charming creature. The driver of a bus is sometimes an irritable creature.
4. an animate being.

I avoid using the word “creature” to refer to the beings whom we share the planet with because it implies creation and hence creationism.   And creationism, in addition to being intellectually bankrupt, is also a rather unsatisfying story when compared with the story currently being told by Darwinian evolution.

But there is another interesting question to ask about the term “creatures” and that is: who is included?

In my experience, “creatures” tends to be used so as to include only animals but plant species are no less a part of creation (if that is the story we are working with).  Why then do dandelions have less of a claim to the label than do Dalmatians?  Perhaps when we speak of our fellow creatures we should include those who, quite literally, are rooted in the soil.  Such a change may make us more open to learning from them.

Yet even limiting “creatures” to members of the biotic community—the community of life—may be too narrow.  Creation includes everything and so every individual (no less difficult a term) is a creature.  Plants are creatures but planets are presumably also creatures.  Leopards and lemurs are creatures but maybe landscapes are too?  Rivers no less than ravens.

Pushing further still, creatures may not need to have resulted from an original act of Creation but perhaps could be the result of more mundane creative acts.  Billiard balls may be said to be unique creatures traversing across terrains of green felt.  The second definition listed above suggests that “creature” can be applied to “anything created, whether animate or inanimate” and so by this standard billiard balls are indeed appropriately described as creatures.  In fact, if we discard creationism, billiard balls may have a better claim to being described as creatures than human being s do.

The objection may be advanced that by employing such an expansive or inclusive definition of the term “creature” that it ceases to be of any practical value for communicating.  If a term applies to everything—rather than picking out particular objects or individuals amongst a larger field—then arguably it isn’t very helpful.  But perhaps the value in such an all-embracing term is rather in calling our attention to the similarities that are found even amongst such a brilliant diversity.  It provokes questions that might not otherwise arise such as how we respectfully engage with other creatures whatever form they might take.  It may draw our attention to the fact that the stuff of billiard balls is no less part of a living earth than the stuff that makes up our own bodies.  There is a significance to that which is unlikely to be discovered if we cannot fathom a single commonality.

A second objection—or more accurately—curiosity might be why someone such as myself who admittedly avoids the word “creature” and will probably continue  to do so would trouble oneself with such questions.

The only answer that I can currently muster in response to this would be that I am hopeful that there are other terms that offer the advantages of the term “creature” without implying creationism.  I would like a term that reinforces our kinship with others and is equally all-embracing (including human others, nonhuman others, and perhaps even inanimate others).  Perhaps that term is “beings” which I tend to use but, in my opinion, is deficient is some way that I cannot quite name.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a way to save rather than surrender the term “creature” that is not currently clear to me.  In defending his use of the word “spiritual,” prominent atheist Sam Harris insists that “we must reclaim good words and put them to use.”  Harris explains that his fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens “believed that “spiritual” was a term we could not do without, and he repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism.”

Is “creature” a good word that needs to be reclaimed?  Or is it something we can do without?