Let It Be a Dance

I didn’t expect that the topic, “Wicked,” would take me into these issues about the ways we conceive our relation to other animals, but it turns out that this is a central point of Greg Maguire’s novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In the world of the novel, many animals talk and think as abstractly as any human could, and do research, and lecture classrooms of human students. At school, the green-skinned Elphaba’s mentor is professor Dillamond, a talking goat.

Yet the Wizard of Oz, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, is on a campaign to oppress the animals, to return them all to an unthinking state in servitude to the desires and whims of the humans and more human-like inhabitants of Oz (Munchkins, Winkies, Gillikans, etc.) Elphaba earns the enmity of the wizard, and his campaign against her is what brands her as a wicked witch. She earns his enmity by taking up the cause of all animals, and working for the liberation of all beings.

In 14 years of dialog with my spouse, the veterinarian and minister LoraKim Joyner, on the subject of humans and nonhumans, I have seen my conception of the gap decidedly narrow. Some of that narrowing has come from learning more about the amazing capabilities for problem-solving and self-awareness exhibited by apes, monkeys, dolphins, magpies. All the vertebrates, really, are more complex and adaptable than I had tended to imagine. But much of the narrowing of the gap has come from the other direction: from the mounting evidence of how little we humans are actually governed by the rationality that we imagine separates us from nonhumans. Yes, I’ve been impressed to learn how rational various other species are. I’ve been even more impressed to learn more about how irrational humans are.
"We know that people can be induced to buy more cans of soup if you put a “Limit: 12 per customer” sign on the display. We know that if you ask people what movie they want to see next week, they’re likely to mention a classy art film. But, if you ask them what movie they want to see tonight, they’re more likely to mention a mindless blockbuster." (David Brooks, "The Nudge Debate")
Even more radical than that, ever since Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the mid-1980s, we have known that the motor signal is headed to the muscle several milliseconds before we become conscious of it. We are already begun in the action before the apparatus of conscious decision-making comes on line. For most of day-to-day life, consciousness isn’t deciding what to do – it’s coming along after the fact and making up a story about how what we’re doing, yeah, that’s what we meant to do. All day long, it’s going: "I meant to do that. Oh, yeah, I meant to do that, too." But the meaning-to-do-it trails the beginning of doing it.

We so love to believe that we are rational – we’re so committed to the story we make up of how we meant to do what we’re doing. We’re afraid of irrationality, and, to some extent, have projected the irrationality we don’t like about ourselves upon other animals, creating that line of separation.

Yes, certainly, there are lots of things humans can do that no other animal can. There are lots of things bats can do that no other animal can. There are lots of things that dolphins can do that no other animal can. Indeed, there are things cockroaches can do that no other animal can do. The trap is to think our distinguishing qualities -- more so than the distinguishing qualities of other species -- make us, somehow, "better," or "preferable from the universe’s viewpoint," or "a greater achievement of evolution."

I belong to all of these concentric categories: "middleclass, postindustrial, educated, white guy," "human," "primate," "mammal," "warm-blooded," "vertebrate," "animal." In my quest for self-understanding, I have come to see that it's a mistake to pick out just one of those categories, "human," and put all the emphasis on understanding that category. "What does it mean to be human?" is no more a compelling question than, "What does it mean to be primate?" Or, "What does it mean to be animal?" Or, in the other direction, "What does it mean to be in the socioeconomic class that I'm in?" Self-understanding is a project of appreciating what I have in common with the other beings in all those categories. It is less a matter of knowing what separates humans from other animals and more a matter of understanding what all us animals share.

Everything that is wonderful and everything that is wicked is in every ape heart. And almost everything that is wonderful and wicked -- and a few more things we don't know how to categorize -- is in every mammal heart. Wholeness becomes possible when we don’t separate out the parts we don't like and exile a part of ourselves, but when we let our parts join in a dance with each other. Through the good times and the bad times, too – both our good parts and our bad parts, too: let it be a dance.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Wicked."
Previous: Part 3: "Moral Judgment and Some Lessons of Evolution"
Beginning: Part 1: "Wonderful Wizards and Wicked Witches"

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