Law, Animals, and Professors

TAGORE - WIN_20131209_213438

Tagore Trajano

In early September, I arrived in the U.S again with a new goal, “… pass through the bridge between being a student and being an international Professor”.

At a good teaching university, a professor is expected to be formal, and faraway from his students. However, I had learned that being a good University Professor is to be ready to share the opportunities, and show for his students that all of them have a great path in their lives.

This is one of the lessons that you can pick from David Cassuto’s Law Classes Continue reading

On Blogs, Blogging, and Animals

As a newbie to the blogosphere, I have spent a good deal of time recently, wondering what value this blawg brings to the ether and, more importantly, to the urgent and ongoing struggle to resituate animals within society.  This led me to ruminate on blogs as literary expression and as a forum for information exchange.

I have taught writing for many years, first to undergraduates and more recently to law students.  To all of them I preach that they should never show anything they write to anyone – not even their mothers – until they have rewritten it at least five times.  Then, they should rewrite it another half-dozen times before deciding whether it merits sharing with anyone else.  Good writing, I maintain, requires great care.  One of the best compliments a reader can offer is to say that an author writes like she speaks – that her prose seems conversational, approachable and easy to digest.  However, the key to an easy-flowing style lies in multiple drafts, careful parsing, and unstinting attention to detail.  This methodology bears no resemblance to common discourse and thus the paradox (and concomitant student resentment).

Furthermore, as an academic, my stock and trade involves laboriously composed scholarly treatises.  Some run long and some short, but all are heavily sourced and often refereed.  Because this form of writing consumes so much time and labor and because there is so seldom money involved (and so little money when there is), I must believe that my work in some way adds value to society or my motivation evaporates.  In this sense, I adapt Johnson’s timeless adage that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” to the reality of academia and the marketplace of ideas.

All of this made me resistant to blogging, an endeavor requiring real or near real-time publishing of one’s virtually unedited thoughts (also for no money).  In short, blogging demands jettisoning many of my most cherished ideals about the nature of the written word.  Also, because I care so passionately about animal issues and because I believe them so philosophically and legally complex, I felt and still feel hesitant to throw thoughts out there unsourced and ungrounded.

Then I read this thoughtful piece in the Atlantic on blogging by Andrew Sullivan, a writer I admire very much, even when I don’t agree with him (he blogs here).  Sullivan quotes Matt Drudge (who I admire much less but whose cultural influence both in and out of the blogosphere lies beyond cavil) that a blog is a broadcast not a publication.  Its immediacy propels ideas straight into the discursive realm rather than leaving them to germinate for months or years in obscurity.  This got me to thinking about my unhealthy addiction to footnotes and to revisit the wisdom of Noel Coward, who once compared reading footnotes to “having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” He’s so right; notes are a buzz-killer and should be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.

The value of my scribblings -assuming they have any – lies in the discussion they generate.  It is far less important that I be authoritative than that I be interesting and that animal issues be taken up and discussed by as wide an audience as possible.  Public intellectuals like Peter Singer, Cass Sunstein, Gary Francione, as well as many lesser known but no less thoughtful folks (some of whom populate our growing blogroll while a small sampling of the myriad others can be found here, here, and here), realized this long before I.  Sullivan notes that the medium’s true blogfathers are writers like Pascal and Montaigne, whose meandering styles, willingness to share fragmentary thoughts, and (in Montaigne’s case) to publicly revise and republish, pointed readers’ attention away from the authors and toward their ideas.  (Fine essay about Montaigne here, although you may have to pay for access)

Upshot: The goal – smelting a new set of norms and laws that unhook human society from its exploitive relationship to nonhumans – is collaborative and the individual role within it minuscule.  Hubris is addictive and as dangerous to good writing as careless prose.  One must embrace both the medium and the message.  The cause is urgent and the consequences dire.  Nothing but full-throated blogging will do.  With apologies to the Bard, I say: Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of prose.

David Cassuto

Human Superiority and Other Educational Tropes

In my son’s 4th grade classroom – which I happened to visit yesterday – the chalkboard had written upon it the following explanation of the difference between humans and animals:

Birds build nests.  Humans build houses.

Birds can fly.  Humans build airplanes.

There was more but I don’t remember it all.  The point seemed to be that animals’ skills are both narrow and limited while human skills are unbounded, as is their potential.

As an initial matter, the opposition is flawed.  For the comparison to work, all humans must be able to build houses and airplanes just as all birds (or the vast majority, anyway) can build nests and fly.  Of course, this is simply not so.  The majority of humans can build neither a house nor a nest.  And most of us certainly couldn’t build an airplane, much less fly one.

So, the comparison should say:

Birds build nests and can fly.  Some humans can do some of the following: build houses and build and fly airplanes.  Precious few can do all three.

Phrased thus, the human side of the equation appears much less majestic.  It rather highlights the fact that most of us lack basic survival and building skills that birds (and other animals) possess in abundance.  We compensate for our individual shortcomings by relying on a select few people who possess the skills necessary to create an environment in which the rest of us can survive (as I write this, a contractor is at work on my house, insulating a portion of the house too cold for my family to inhabit).

One wonders, therefore, why we aggrandize humanity.  One further wonders why we feel entitled to take credit for the achievements and abilities of others while simultaneously derogating other beings who are individually far more skilled and better adapted for survival than we.

This hubris has cascading consequences.  Because we classify nonhumans as “lesser creatures,” they fall beneath our normative notice.  Thus, industrial farming, canned hunting, pseudo-scientific experimentation, and other horrific wrongs are routinely perpetrated upon them because they allegedly lack the necessary qualities for membership in the moral community.  Our laws memorialize this normative vision, which then gets perpetuated in (among other places) my son’s classroom.

I want to talk to him about all this. But I don’t know what to say.

David Cassuto