Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Trouble with Storytelling


Back when I worked at a large animal shelter, the first job I was had was in customer service, which was kind of a poor fit for someone with a history of receiving multiple detentions and traffic tickets as well as having had at least one judge berate me for being physically unable to resist rolling my eyes in the face of stupidity. (I think in the case of the judge, I was actually sighing dramatically but you get the point.) While my career in customer service was short-lived, a boon for both the sake of my mental health and the institution, the time I logged there is something that will always stick with me. One of the first tasks I was trained in was answering the switchboard, the front line between the shelter and the larger community. Something that I came to anticipate and dread in equal measure was working the switchboard whenever there was a news story about an animal who was at our shelter, like a dog rescued from a piece of ice floating on Lake Michigan or a stray cat and her kittens who’d been rescued from a fire at a shuttered factory. The shelter would be flooded with calls from people who wanted to adopt that specific animal and only that specific animal.

“I saw that dog on Channel 7 and I have to adopt him. It’s destiny.”

“I want to adopt one of the kittens that was in the Tribune story. I have to have one. Could you place a hold for me?”

This happened predictably enough that the customer service manager trained all of us on the correct protocol for that kind of call and warned us whenever we had a new animal up for adoption like this that we should expect to be inundated with calls on that specific case. We were trained to tell the callers that we aren’t able to place holds over the phone; animals up for adoption needed a visit, an application and an interview. I would take it further and tell the callers that we had many other beautiful dogs and gorgeous cats who weren’t in the news but were every bit as perfect and charming and in need of a forever home but I could hear them turn cold over the phone. Many just hung up on me. They weren’t interested in just any dog or cat. They wanted the special ones, the ones they felt a bond with despite having never met, the ones who were in the news. They wanted the ones with a story.

This phenomenon is nothing new or unique to the shelter I worked at all those years ago. Animal advocates are very familiar with what happens when a pig or a cow pre-determined to become meat on a menu or in a grocery case beats incredibly narrow odds to escape the kill floor, evade captors and find sanctuary: he is celebrated as a hero, she is heralded in the news, we cheer for them. They did it!  These once-nameless and unknown cogs in our massive food machine have gotten the fugitive-turned-hero re-write and thus been transformed in how we see them, which is no longer as food. It makes us feel good to offer the occasional stay of execution. We also can’t help but identify with and cheer on those who have lucked into a hero’s arc. In the impulse to celebrate those who have survived the nearly impervious chamber of horrors we have constructed as animal agribusiness, we can face our own ambivalence with killing if we are willing to recognize it.

We are a species that resonates with storytelling. The blessing and the curse of being a human is that we love our stories. It is a blessing because storytelling is such a transformative act, a chance to leave our own experience, to gain wisdom and insight, to travel to places we’ve never been, to plug into a universal connection. It is a curse because along with our predisposition toward storytelling, and maybe because of it, we also have a tendency toward self-deception and avoiding the truth that is right in front of us.

We also are hardwired for connection and we strive to live lives of meaning, even when we don’t realize it. The people calling the shelter didn’t want to identify with what they thought of as the nameless, shapeless others in cages, the ones thought of as sad, moping masses without special stories. These other dogs and cats in the news were special, they had stories, they were survivors, they overcame something. Who can blame the callers for emotionally connecting with them? From the earliest stories we are told as children, we develop an affinity for the David vs. Goliath narrative arcs in our books, fables, films and so on. We want to be different. We want to be courageous. We want to be remarkable. We want to celebrate those qualities when (we think) we recognize them. Stories help us to see who is worthy of our admiration and empathy.

We can see this phenomenon in the outrage around Harambe, the gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo recently. People cannot connect the dots to the many nameless Others with qualities we don’t recognize as strong, or courageous or even tragic. There are too many of them; they are too common for us, too. They are not special. They are not unique. People can connect with Harambe. He was a victim in this. He was special and unique. Right?

The challenge for vegans is how make the other animals matter to the public as much as Harambe or the other animals in the news. How do we turn public sentiment against the injustice of something as numbingly, cruelly mundane as turning living beings into food? How do we personalize the billions of animals who have been mutilated, crammed into cages, forcibly impregnated, had their babies stolen, survived horrific environments, perished in them? The beings pulled from the sea, not just the more valued so-called “by-catch” but the billions of intended-catch? How do we tell the story of all the other animals on display, the nameless flamingos in Chicago, the unknown gazelles in Topeka, the squirrel monkeys behind the glass in San Francisco? How about the millions of mice in vivisection labs, the beagles who didn’t get out, the rabbits and rats who will never see sunlight, much less be featured on the news?  

What if their lives were so constrained and hemmed in that they don’t have unique stories to tell or winning personality traits waiting for us to be charmed by? What if their lives were so full of suffering, so tedious and so void of pleasure they don’t possess individual characteristics that differentiate them from the masses of others like them? I am thinking of the dogs at the shelter who lived in backyards and never knew kindness or comfort, how spiritless and dull-eyed they often seemed. I am thinking of rescued chickens who want to dust bathe and lie in the sun but don’t necessarily care about winning us over with their personalities. I am thinking of the mice who lived and died unnoticed in a vivisection lab, thrown out with the trash. Do their lives matter less if they don’t have story that is meaningful to us?

They have their own stories but we are not entitled to one for their lives to have mattered. They don’t owe us a heroic or heartwarming story arc. I believe that our need for a story in order to open our hearts reveals our own shortcoming rather than theirs.

We need to be compassionate without any strings attached.

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