Shame There

Does seeing cruelty make us more or less likely to engage in it? Catalunya has just banned bullfights. But I saw one in Colombia nearly 20 years ago and felt I could see the nobility in it which Hemingway describes in ‘Death in the afternoon’.

Montaigne though thinks cruelty to animals does desensitise us:

Those natures that are sanguinary towards beasts discover a natural proneness to cruelty. After they had accustomed themselves at Rome to spectacles of the slaughter of animals, they proceeded to those of the slaughter of men, of gladiators.

He also points out Karma was alive and kicking in Roman France:

The religion of our ancient Gauls maintained that souls, being eternal, never ceased to remove and shift their places from one body to another; mixing moreover with this fancy some consideration of divine justice, they said that God assigned it another body to inhabit, more or less painful, and proper for its condition:

If it had been valiant, he lodged it in the body of a lion; if voluptuous, in that of a hog; if timorous, in that of a hart or hare; if malicious, in that of a fox, and so of the rest, till having purified it by this chastisement, it again entered into the body of some other man.

But if we think animals deserve our humanity, only, to keep in check our brutality to each other, the story of Koko the Gorilla suggests they are well able to judge us too.

Koko, a 40 year old female Gorilla has mastered the American Sign Language for 2000 words. But like the Border Collie which has learnt the name of 4000 stuffed toys, it’s easy to dismiss this as trial and error ‘behaviourism’ – action for reward with nothing ‘thought’ in between.

The story told by the scientist who oversees Koko suggests differently:

“It happened by accident – someone sent a DVD about primates and I didn’t really look at it, but it was playing when I looked and saw Koko watching a graphic bushmeat scene. I hadn’t previewed it like I should have. The next day Koko picked up an insert from a newspaper and it was a supermarket ad. She held up a section full of pictures of meat and signed “Shame there.”

So simple, but so powerful as a summary of what we’re capable of. As Aristotle said we are the best and worst of animals.

London’s Burning

As a red London bus burns a few hundred yards from our house, it’s one of those moments when you stop and think, ‘Did I get this very wrong?’

We have always taken the view that the ‘cheek by jowl’ nature of urban London was worth the aggro. It’s vivid, lively, mixed – at times a bit edgy but alive. And nice ‘people like us’ live dotted all around.

But people who are not like us live all around too. And when it all goes up in smoke and dead eyed teenagers smash up your high street, it makes you think.

In Aristotle’s day another city state or a neighbouring tyrant could violently disturb your contemplation. In Montaigne’s, frequent bouts of plague and civil war.

A few boarded up shop fronts and burnt out buildings is hardly a siege and sacking or a street by street pogrom. But still. It feels bad. I’ve been anxious today. For my kids, for my other half, our house and our safety. We are always but a few authority figures away from mindless violence, a few laws from anarchy.

Ordinary decent people are feeling it too. I’ve seen several almost exaggerated acts of courtesy and consideration between people of all colours and classes on my way to and from work. Pausing to let each other pass, small acknowledgements and hesitant smiles. In these acts people are trying to say “It’s ok, we’re ok.” Post it notes on a boarded up shop eulogise our area and criticise the yobs. A volunteer army came out armed only with brooms to clean up.


It’s finely poised in London today. As Aristotle said man is both the best and worst of animals.