Thursday, January 13, 2011

Leaver or Taker?

Some years ago I read a book that disturbed me. Well, what it disturbed (in retrospect) was some of the soporific cultural lies we are given to spread over the astonishingly destructive ways of thinking and living we call the "American Way".

Now the book itself was sort of a pain to read due to the style of writing (at least is was for me) but I stuck with it and if you haven't read the book I think you might be rewarded if you will tough it out and read it through. There is a possibility that the experience will move you into some different ways of thinking.....ways that are quite interesting. The book is titled Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.
...."There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.".....(from a quote included in the wikipedia article re Ishmael)
Here is another excerpt from Ishmael:
You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the way they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost – something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.” (Ishmael, p. 249)
Now at the time I read the book I hadn't awakened to the imperative of ethical veganism, I wasn't too far away but I wasn't there yet. The book itself isn't written from a vegan perspective but it definitely is written from a viewpoint that argues against the European notion (taken to the logical extreme by us folk that call ourselves Americans) that human animals are above, outside of or exempt from our planet, from nature and from the environment and that we can do anything we damn well please....with impunity....and we should do anything we damn well please and anybody that says different is either a fool, a traitor or a terrorist.

Now Mr. Quinn has written a number of other books, you can see a full bibliography over on the website associated with him. He has also posted online some of his essays and lectures. For instance this passage is from one of them.
"When the gods made the universe, they made it in such a way that all who have eyes to see can read the Law of Life in it. They wrote it in things, not in words, so that not only man but the snail and the mosquito and the rabbit could read it. This is why no man will ever succeed in framing the Law in words: it is too simple for words. Should you meet some skeptic who says to you, 'Where is this Law? I see no Law,' tell him to watch the wolf and the deer and the jackal and live as they do. These creatures see the Law and are following it, and there are no criminals among them. . . ..If you ask me on my last day, as I close my eyes for the last time, whether I know the Law of Life, I'll tell you: 'I'm beginning to know it.' If any man tells you he knows the whole of the Law of Life or that he can encompass it in words, that man is a fool or a liar, because the Law of Life is written in the universe and no man can know the whole of it. If ever you're in doubt about the Law, consult the caterpillar or the gull or the jackal; no man will ever know it better or follow it more steadfastly than they.""
One last quote from Quinn's writings:
As we go about our business of running the world, we have no doubt that we're doing as good a job as God, if not better. Obviously God put a lot of creatures in the world that are quite superfluous and even pernicious, and we're quite at liberty to get rid of them. We know where the rivers should run, where the swamps should be drained, where the forests should be razed, where the mountains should be leveled, where the plains should be scoured, where the rain should fall. To us, it's perfectly obvious that we have this knowledge.
If you aren't familiar with the writing of Daniel Quinn, you might want to become so. His writing served me well as I struggled toward being able to apprehend Donald Watson's message about ethical veganism. Living vegan isn't just about compassion (although that may be the most significant component), it also (for me) has to do with our (our including all living things) place in the world.  Not that I know or anything.....but Ishmael certainly gave me a kick in the butt in terms of opening up my thinking about such questions.

By the way, Leaver and Taker are names Mr. Quinn applies to the basic premise(s) that underlay different cultures:
The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'
Give Daniel Quinn's writing a might discover some treasure(s) there.


Krissa said...

I've heard about this book before. I probably should read it, but whoa - you aren't kidding about struggling to get through it. Until I clicked on the link and read that he grew up in Omaha, I thought maybe English wasn't his first language. ... When you wrote about the European notion about humans' attitude toward other animals, I have to say that having lived on both continents, I feel an underlying sense that here (at least in Germany) humans do actually de-personalize and objectify other animals more so than in North America. In North America it feels more like indifference and just a lack of caring. But here, there is definitely a sense that other creatures are almost not even living beings. Hmm, I'm not describing it very well. One thing, for example, is that in Germany the language does not allow for a non-human animal to be "he" or "she" in the sense we know. They are "it". They will identify gender as far as "woman-like" or "man-like" in situations where gender has to be identified. There are also different verbs used for if a human eats something and a non-human eats. German and English do not translate directly so it's difficult to explain (for me) and I have my fair share of trouble with the language, but I do know quite a bit. And it really bugs me about the "it" thing and I refuse to do that. I'm sure folks just think I don't know any better when I use "he" or "she" when talking about a dog or cat or other Natural animal. But it is intentional and defiant - not out of ignorance. I think it is horribly dangerous and the results inevitably devastating that a human language would go so far as to have different verbs for other animals and call them "it". And now I've rambled enough.

veganelder said...

Thanks for your comment and excellent observations Krissa.

The linguistic convention (in many languages) of using different words when talking about human animal vs non-human animal is fairly widespread. As in the German language (Essen, Fressen) formal English usage would indicate that the term "feed" to be used for a non-human and "eat" to be used for a human. Usage of the pronoun "it" versus he or she is also widely practiced in English.

"Formal" English usage has been in a near deathspiral for a long time (ask any English teacher) hence there is not currently as much emphasis on actor distinctions when describing activities. But...correct usage would invoke those distinctive words. It may be that German speakers simply use their language more "correctly" than do English speakers....especially American English speakers...who tend to pride themselves on speaking informally.

I ran across a video recently that I will likely post soon. The video pointed out how we denigrate and minimize animals and gave the example of calling the notion of caring for children "maternal instinct" when evinced by a non-human animal and "maternal love or caring" when referencing a human animal.

Institutional and cultural oppression is supported in myriad ways and language is a very significant modality of oppression and "difference" maintenance.

Your "rambling" as you call it...contains much of great import. Thanks again.

Krissa said...

Thanks for the info about linguistics outside of what my experience has been. That "fressen" sure messed me up at the shelter many times before I finally learned that there are different verbs for other animals than for us! That concept could actually give me a headache if I thought about it too hard. It certainly gives me a heartache because the results are so clear - and clear all around the world. ... Good point about the fact that we humans also take the emotions of other animals and call them something else, too (simply instinct vs. loving care). I'll be interested to see the video you mentioned.

Laloofah said...

Well, I sure didn't lose any money on my bet that you've probably read Ishmael! ;-)

I first read it so long ago that I can't remember my initial reaction, but I'm pretty sure it was mostly, "RIGHT ON!" I've never, ever bought into the notion that humans are in any way superior (I usually think quite the opposite), in part perhaps because I was raised in an areligious home. Ishmael/Quinn articulated well what I often thought and felt. This was one of my favorite paragraphs from the book (I've have it on my Care2 profile page for years)..

The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just as Hitler's mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe. But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness...

Quinn's pithy summary of the basic difference between the Leaver and Taker relationships with the world, which you shared at the end of your wonderful post, is also spot-on.

Krissa's insights were very interesting - distressing, but interesting. I too think that language is powerful and so revealing, not only in the way we use it but in its ability to shape and reinforce (almost always below our consciousness radar) how we view the world and our fellow beings in it. I've had Animal Equality: Language and Liberation by Joan Dunayer on my "to read" list for some time. Have you read it?

And have you ever seen the films in the "Koyaanisqatsi" series?

veganelder said...

Thank you Laloofah for commenting. I didn't have the relief of growing up in an areligious home, quite the contrary I was assailed 24/7 by parents who were devout, relentless southern baptists.

Recovering from that took many years and maybe surviving would be a better term, I don't know if recovery is quite accurate...that sort of serious brainwashing leaves tracks that are indescribable.

The Dunayer is good, it didn't impact me quite like it most folks. I spent my professional career as a psychotherapist and language use etc was an everyday tool for me so much of what she said was familiar...still worth the read though.

Koyaanisquatsi! Amazing, Phillip Glass and astonishing might enjoy my other blog that I named after this movie. (

I haven't posted there as often but will likely start up again soon. BTW you might enjoy Animal Rights/Human Rights by David Nibert.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a vegan or even vegetarian, but I should mention that Japanese is far worse. Not only does it have completely different verbs for animals vs. humans (just like German), but it goes one step further and often ends words for animals with "mono", which means "thing" or "object" (example: doubutsu is the word for animal and literally means 'moving thing'). This is never done with any words referring to people *except for ONE, but I think that's an example of sarcasm*.

Laloofah said...

I feel for you, and can only imagine how difficult that must be to overcome. I have several friends who are "recovering (ex)Catholics" who say much the same thing. I know how lucky I am to have been allowed to explore spirituality (or not!) without any pre-conceived ideas/beliefs that were drummed into me from the start. (My mom was a non-practicing Catholic, my dad an agnostic). It sounds like you've taken yourself on quite a journey of metamorphosis and growth, and that takes a lot more courage and fortitude than most people ever realize. I applaud you!

I've long been fascinated with language and psychology and took various classes in both, including Spanish (my minor), Russian, linguistics, and a fantastic psych course that was one of my very favorite college classes. Oh, and I was a communications major! :-) But it's only been in more recent years that I've become much more sensitive to how I and others use certain words and terms, and the depth of meaning and impact behind them. I have a feeling I'd be one of the people who would really enjoy and experience a lot of aha moments with Joan's book, but can see where it would be going over very familiar ground for someone with your background.

Do we have a Vulcan Mind-Meld thing going here, or what? LOL I must check out your Koyaanisqatsi blog! As well as the Nibert book you mentioned (thanks!) I've never read any of Prof. Francione's books either, (though of course I read his blog and articles all the time), and they too are on my "to read" list. If I live long enough to read all the books I want to read, even if no one ever wrote another one, I'd have to very nearly live forever. LOL

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Anonymous. Language is interesting stuff. I am almost fully ignorant about the Japanese language but have no doubt that language exercises some measure of influence over what we perceive and think.

You make note that you are currently not living as an ethical vegan. I do hope you are investigating the possibility that the reason you are not is because you have operating under the influence of the cultural trance that supports the exploitation of our fellow sentient beings (and subsequently the slow motion destruction of planet Earth). I wish you well on your journey.

veganelder said...

Thanks for commenting Laloofah. Vulcan mind-meld? Cool!

I know what you mean about reading all you want to read...

Linguistics...communication major...excellent...good stuff.

People tend to forget that the whole hippy 60s thingee was an attempt to throw off the cultural trance...drugs, communes, etc. were all approaches (whether effective or not) to attempting to see the world more clearly and live with compassion and non-violence.

It is time for another broad attempt at "growing-up" for the human species and my notion is that ethical veganism is the perfect vehicle for some real maturation to occur...with positive benefits for every living entity.

Bea Elliott said...

That notion of growing up and throwing off the cultural trappings... Little did we all know (back in March '11) that the Occupy Movement would have been created.

As one the original old hippies - Of course I have immense hope this thing will help lead us back (into the garden)... But what I've seen in these decades sort of makes that hope a wish for utopia. The mob people are much more resistant than I ever thought... And the corruption more sinister than I could ever dread.

But who knows - Maybe there are a lot of younger folks (the second wind of the movement) that have enough of the "naive" vision to actually make it so? Any ground work we can provide to make the dream possible is worth the effort. ;)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Bea. I agree that the Occupy Movement is a hopeful sign...but...we'll see. This is something for the youngsters to accomplish and if they are only griping because they don't get enough money...well.

Let's keep our fingers crossed. :-)