by Sheridan Boyle and Gabriel Setright
Sulak Sivaraksa, the Buddhist activist that came to campus two semesters ago, told our class that real friends are the ones that tell you what you don’t want to hear. Constructive criticism has always been difficult. How can we articulate our dislike and disapproval toward the things that we care the most about? We criticize because we care. We criticize the things we love the most, because they are important for us. Pointing out the negatives aspects of a culture or institution is absolutely necessary when concerned about the progress and direction where they might be going. We would want to see more constructive criticism of the Warren Wilson institution and of the Warren Wilson student body. Criticism is the first step toward building a better future. We must critique present institutional structures in order to build model ones for the future. But how do we ensure that we are doing this in a productive way and not just mindlessly critiquing each other for no reason?
The following is an attempt to criticize the student body on a very delicate subject, and provide the path towards a constructive conversation that may lead to the development of a collective solution.
We both attended the Student Caucus meeting in which we discussed the proposal of a pet dorm, and we were glad to see so much student concern about animal welfare. This is an excellent proposal that will add another kind of diversity to our campus that, in theory, will expand our commitment to the environment by respecting animals as our equals. But, incorporating animals deemed “pets” into our campus is tricky—many things have the potential to go wrong and the basic care for these animals is difficult to ensure. Yet, after speaking with the proposal’s creator, we understood the opportunity this dorm presents to our community and, if done properly, see the potential growth in consciousness and mental health it could bring about.
The conversation during Caucus was mainly about the pros and cons of having a pet dorm. The comments supporting this proposal were generally that small animals, like cats and dogs, are beneficial for the student’s mental health, because they create a playful and relaxing environment where students can further explore themselves and their relationship to other animals. We were surprised by the fact that so many students were concerned about the welfare of animals, and how they wanted animals to have a safe and healthy environment to roam and coexist with other students and animals. This overall commitment to animal welfare is also exemplified in how we have an “all Vegetarian and Vegan” cafeteria, where students can eat a meal that does not harm other animals.
Unfortunately, half way into the discussion, there was a clear disconnect between animals that serve as pets and animals that serve as edible commodities. Here is where it becomes ironic to discuss animal welfare while at the same time most students in Caucus were consuming the products from Gladfelter Cafeteria which are not environmentally friendly. This frustrating contradiction reflects on the fact that we are either not aware of the violence of the food industry, or that we are not pushing our arguments of animal welfare far enough.
Why is there such a disconnect between pets (cats and dogs), and products (cows, pig and chickens)? We care about cats and dogs and how beneficial they can be for our mental health, but why can’t cows and chickens be seen through similar lenses? Why do we see only certain animals as deserving our affection while others we see with disgust and indifference? There is an implicit hierarchy when it comes to animals. Our bias is seen in how dogs and cats are considered, quoting from the Caucus meeting “just like humans,” and others like pigs, chickens and cows are lower down the human-constructed animal hierarchy. And of course the animals that are the lowest on this hierarchy are the ones that we want to kill as soon as we see them, for example, cockroaches and spiders.
We are all used to the divide between that which is “human” and that which is “animal” within our society. However, there is also an intermediate division that consists of “pets.” Consciously or not, humans elevate dogs beyond being simply animals and entered into a more human-like realm, as noted by the Caucus discussion. By doing so, they are allotted more concern and care, more sentience and intrinsic value than all other non-human forms of life.
This hierarchy is unjustified, for what makes some animals better than others? It is extremely important if we want to further the conversation of having a “pet dorm” on campus, there must be a parallel conversation that focuses on the unhealthy practices that Sodexo uses every day, namely the factory slaughtering of animals to satisfy our carnivorous desires.
If we are a truly environmental campus why do we support the systematic exploitation of animals like pigs, cows and chickens? By strengthening our relationship to other animals we become more compassionate toward animal suffering, and gain a better understanding of animal exploitation. By forming stronger attachments to animals like chickens, cows and pigs, we can also begin to question our own dietary habits, and possibly realize that the suffering and death of animals is not required for our survival. The animal industry is destroying the environment and destroying our relationship with each other. We can protect the environment by enhancing our relationship to animals and by seeing them as equal living beings, and not as products or machines to be exploited for human needs.
Having non-human companions present in campus dorms may allow student to be more embracing of a non-anthropomorphic understanding of life. Our society is built up on domination, placing humans (mainly white males) on the top of the hierarchy. This social hierarchy of the world leads to the destruction of our shared environment and to the oppression of all beings that are deemed below the label of humans.
The way we face the critical interconnectivity of these issues is by creating more pockets of opportunities for open criticism beginning with the campus and its students. Constructive criticism and critical thinking must be encouraged, and every institution must be analyzed, including our own. We must do this in a productive and respectful way, but at the same time expose all the oppressive contradictions that exist within our Warren Wilson culture.
To conclude, we would like us all to be aware of the hierarchy we have created. In regards to animal welfare, we would like to question why we spend hours talking about cats being played with and dogs being taken outside while we do not consider the animals slaughtered and served to us in Gladfelter. If the pet dorm proposal is approved by the institution I think it would function as a path towards a more environmentally aware campus. Perhaps by strengthening our relationship to these domesticated animals, we will realize that animal suffering extends to all creatures, from the food we consume every day, to the products we use in our everyday life.