Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dog Meat With a Side of White Savior Complex

Could you imagine eating a dog or cat for dinner? I couldn't. I couldn't imagine eating any living creature. For personal reasons, I've been a vegetarian for the past 20 years.

Even among people who do eat meat, I'm hard pressed to think of someone who would eat a dog or a cat. I suspect in a country where we have many different sorts of people, there is likely one or two in modern America who would enjoy dining on a grilled dog fillet. Those people, however, are way outside the norm. As a society, we've largely decided on some animals as a source of food (cows, chickens, hogs) and other animals as pets (dogs, cats).

I know this hasn't always been the case. In her book Being with Animals, Barbara J. King wrote extensively about how early humans would eat dogs. It was likely our making meals of dogs that helped domesticate them into the furry companions many of us now enjoy. The most aggressive dogs, King wrote, would be the first to be bashed in the head and cooked for dinner. Those who were cutest, sweetest, and most affectionate were allowed to live, follow us around, reproduce, and become part of our communities.

Dogs are no longer regularly consumed as food in the Western world (though they are consumed as subjects of animal research). In other parts of the world, eating dogs has been part of traditional cuisines and indigenous medical practices throughout history. There are many regions in which dogs are still consumed for food or health.

While most Americans would look askance at people eating dogs, there are those people who do eat odd food in our society. Maybe a rural southerner who eats squirrel, an African American family that eats hog jowls or chitterlings, or perhaps a recent Chinese immigrant who eats chicken feet. We all know that those people is code for people who aren't White or otherwise fail to fit in with the middle class upwardly mobile depiction of what America is.

Maybe we don't all know that.

There is some minor tolerance in our culture for White middle class Americans to eat food that falls outside the norm--food those people eat. White folks can safely venture into an ethnic restaurant and have a culinary adventure. An exotic evening eating that strange food that those people eat.

Our judgements about what people eat for food are an interesting phenomena to explore. Whether it be moussaka or dog, what we consider acceptable and unacceptable foods reveal a complex set of social, cultural, and societal values and preferences.

A few days ago I came across a tweet that caught my eye about dog meat. It was a call to send a post card to President Park Geun-hye of South Korea. There is a long history of eating dog meat for nourishment and health in some segments of Korean society (see here for an excellent article about dog meat trade in another Asian country).

Puppies and kittens are adorable creatures. Why wouldn't I want to immediately send off a postcard to President Park Geun-hye? She should ban this practice immediately because--well, why? Because I am a white man that thinks dogs are pets and not food? Does she--or anyone in South Korea for that matter care what I think? Why would my viewpoints on what appropriate foods are matter?

We freely sign petitions, fire off emails and tweets, post angry Facebook statuses, and otherwise express our White Western displeasure with how the rest of the world conducts their business. We swoop in to save people (and animals) without really spending much time pondering whether anyone asked to be saved, whether anyone actually needs to be saved, and what our motives are for wanting to play the role of savior. We don't think about the larger constellation that exists in another country--traditions, cultures, values, economics, religions, and every other factor that goes into any given situation.
  • Who decides what needs to be changed? 
  • Who decides what is right or wrong in this world? 
  • What set of values, morals, and assumptions are these decisions based on?
I've wrestled with these questions ever since I was challenged during my dissertation defense by my  chair, Susan Hawes. In the course of questioning me about my research, she commented that what I suggested spoke to moral relativism. We were discussing homonegativity when Susan asked me how I determined what was right or wrong. I felt uncomfortable making a global statement that something was wrong when my judgement was based on my own personal values. I didn't have an answer for Susan then. I still don't.

Eating dogs isn't right for me. It breaks my heart to think of the trusting lovable dogs that are used for food. However, who am I to say that this is any more wrong that eating cows, ducks, or hogs? Are my values and mores superior to those of someone else? How would I begin to decide what was better?
  • Are there absolute rights and wrongs in this world? 
  • Who determines what those things are? 
  • Who gets to decide?
  • How do they decide?
On a practical level, I grapple with this issue daily in my work as a psychologist. I'm not sure it's my role to make determinations about what is right or wrong for a person in my role as a psychologist--except where I am required by law.
  • Should I stay with my girlfriend?
  • Do you think I should look for a new job?
  • Why can't I cut my arms and legs if it makes me feel better?
  • Is it worth being alive when I'm in so much pain?
  • My boyfriend beats me and I kind of like it. Is that wrong?
  • Why is god punishing me?
  • How can I feel better?
  • Why am I gay?
So many questions for which I have no answers. I often drive my patients crazy because of my refusal to answer with anything but more questions. On the other hand, I often also drive my patients crazy when I'm directive and hold too firmly to an idea about how I think they should be in this world.
I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
--Indigo Girls
On a legal level, I am charged with protecting my patients from suicide, intervening if my clients are planning a homicide, and notifying authorities about children, elders, and people with disabilities who are being physically or sexually abused. The field has developed taxonomies of behaviors that are considered abnormal or aberrant. Protocol based therapies exist to ameliorate a variety of unwanted symptoms ranging for negative self worth, to erectile dysfunction, to vaginismus, to test taking anxiety.

Without thought, I can impose my viewpoint on how a person ought to function or behave through the theories and interventions of my profession. Is that moral? Is that right? 

Do any of us have the moral authority to sit in judgement of another culture or an individual? We inflict so much damage upon other people when we use our own values to judge another from culture that has a different set of values.

Do we have the right to demand a culture act in a way that suits our wishes and desires? Is it useful for us to send postcards and sign petitions asking Korean people who eat dog meat, and have done so for centuries, to stop? Did they ask for our opinion or help?

What makes us think we are any more right than they are?

Are we helping them or our we helping ourselves?

In sending a postcard have we built capacity for the people of South Korea to build their own animal rights movement? Does sending a postcard to the president of South Korea give us the sense we've done something so we can feel a release of energy and pat ourselves on the back? Do we save the animals even if it means we destroy a culture and tradition?

  • Are we that important that we can make those sorts of decisions?
  • Do we best help people by making them change?
  • Do we help by sharing the tools, resources, and experiences of our world so cultures and societies can build their own change movements?
  • Are there some moral outrages that are so outrageous that intervention is required? 
  • How do we decide what outrages merit this level of intervention? 
  • Have these interventions ever worked? 
  • Are their other options? 
Questions, and more questions, and questions as yet unformulated.
No answers please.
--Martha Crawford
After the page break are highlights from Twitter.


  1. I 'torture' myself with the sort of questions you ask here so it's great to know other people think about them as well (although I hope they don't 'torture' themselves)

    1. In general, I think questions are great. Too many of us are taught to accept things as true because we are told they are true. The world because so much more diverse, complex, and interesting when we lead with questioning why things are supposed to be a particular way.

      Torture, I hope, is optional.