I’ve been writing with increasing frequency about how our language and culture are saturated with speciesism. There are examples everywhere, but once in a while one jumps out at me for its sheer refusal to try to cover its self-congratulation with even the thinnest veil of argumentation or intellectual rigor.
Such was the case with an article a few days ago in The Atlantic, “How Reading Makes Us More Human.” The subheading reads, “A debate has erupted over whether reading fiction makes human beings more moral. But what if its real value consists in something even more fundamental?” The writer of the piece, Karen Swallow Prior, is intervening, as the subheading suggests, in a “battle” in some corporate media outlets over the question of whether reading (not just reading, but reading fiction, and more specifically Great Literature) makes people more moral.
This seems a rather silly and self-serving debate to begin with – select an activity enjoyed by members of your class, remove its context and content, and flatter yourselves by talking about how it in particular contributes to making people better in some way (bonus narcissism points for using yourself as an illustration or for implying that this pursuit is a necessary or exclusive means of improvement).1
Prior’s would be just another tired intervention in another such pointless discussion if she didn’t go beyond its terms – or, possibly, make them more explicit! – by writing an article with almost no content other than speciesism. What does “more human” even mean? How could it have any meaning at all?
It’s not only the emphasis on trying to be human, or “more human,” that reveals the article’s speciesism, but the repeated and explicit contrast of The Human with The Animal. Of course, there’s the obligatory reference to the fact that only humans read:
Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted, and Paul too mentions in her piece, reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual -- however one understands that word -- about the human ability, and impulse, to read.2This is perfectly condensed speciesist rhetoric: this activity sets us apart from other animals (our deep connections to other animals are ignored, as is the fact that the basic capacities that enable us to read are evolved), it isn’t “natural,” it transcends the merely and meaninglessly biological, and humanness is to be defined – and really only defined – in contrast to alleged animal qualities. The line “Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom” is highlighted in bold alongside the text for emphasis. The reader evidently isn’t supposed to question how this point about distinctiveness contributes to an intervention in a debate about the relationship between reading and morality. We’re expected to understand: reading defines us as human and that’s what’s important.3
It goes further. While she suggests that reading is somehow spiritual (“however one understands that word”) by virtue of being distinctively human, Prior also refers to the supposedly crucial distinction made by Frank Kermode and echoed by Annie Murphy Paul, one of the participants in the Great Literature-Morality Debate of 2013, between “carnal reading” (“the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet”) and “spiritual reading” ( “reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth”):
It is "spiritual reading" -- not merely decoding -- that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read.So not only is reading itself a pursuit exclusively of humans, but a certain kind of human reading – evidently having little to do with our bodies, though it would seem to be difficult without our carnal brains - is required for true connection and enlightenment.
And there’s more. Not just any lowlife can practice spiritual reading. Learning to transcend our carnal, material, animal – read: immoral - nature requires time and study. “Our” superiority is also an achievement – to be better we have to work and to submit.4 This is an achievement of the few.5
In the end,
The power of "spiritual reading" is its ability to transcend the immediacy of the material, the moment, or even the moral choice at hand…. [S]uch reading doesn't make us better so much as it makes us human.It’s all about being human. Human even trumps better, despite the fact that it has and can have no meaning whatsoever. The “real value” of reading lies in its humanness, which is “even more fundamental” than morality, including concrete moral choices. The fact that “spiritual” and “soul” and “human” have no meaning in the piece and that “more human” makes no sense is necessary to these sorts of articles. “Human/spiritual” works the same way as – and is in fact at the foundation of – “masculine/manly” or “civilized.” It’s a celebration of the dominant category and its (alleged) capacities. Human is simply understood to be something wonderfully special to be, an identity that in itself confers greatness. It’s not necessary to elaborate on any practical effects; since the value is inherent in the category, its spirit magically suffuses all associated activities and capabilities.
Here we’ve moved far from any useful discussion of morality, especially in the context of evolution, or of the complexity of human capacities and activities in contributing to or obstructing moral choice. There’s no sense of the ambiguous moral effects of our capacity to create and respond to abstract and symbolic works, or of the other forms of “reading” that are foreclosed or diminished when that capacity is developed or emphasized. There’s no serious questioning of the nature of practical ethics – of better or worse actions - in an indifferent and uncertain universe. Morality is simply defined in terms of certain inherent and realizable capacities of our kind.
Of course, the Human can't justify itself. Our humanness enables us to be more human, which is human and therefore good – this would just go around in circles. The Human needs external, superior validation. As the references to the “spiritual” scattered throughout the article show, Prior’s image of human superiority rests not on itself but on a connection to God: “What good literature can do and does do -- far greater than any importation of morality -- is touch the human soul.” Prior is, I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn, a professor at Liberty University and a faithhead. Reading is valuable in her view because “more human” means for her more godly. She explicitly compares “spiritual reading” to religious observation: “In fact, reading good literature won't make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.”
The unabashed starkness of Prior’s speciesism makes the article a useful tool for recognizing some important features of speciesist thought. Serving as almost an ideal type, it alerts us to the characteristics of speciesism found elsewhere in less blatantly self-aggrandizing forms. In arguments shaped by speciesism,
• what is argued to be Human is presented as, or simply assumed to be, inherently valuable, with a correspondent devaluing of what is presented as Animal;
• qualities or activities alleged to be characteristic of or exclusive to humans are in turn circularly seen to raise the value of humanness;
• it’s assumed implicitly or explicitly that “human” is not a designation but a direction of movement or a stage in development: human isn’t just something better, but a movement toward something higher – God or some equivalent transcendence.
These features, including an implicit assumption of a higher, more godlike state, are preserved in many secular humanist writings, including many which don’t use religious terminology. Without some form of the element of godliness, in fact, the assumptions about inherent human superiority and transcendence would be revealed as nonsensical. It would be an interesting exercise to remove all of the elements based on these assumptions from humanistic writings, religious and secular, and see what’s left. In this extreme case, there’s nothing. Nothing but a fearful and vapid species pride.
1 This also works for race, sex, sexual orientation, and so on. It’s especially effective if subordinate groups aren’t able to engage in the activity through forcible exclusion or force of circumstance.
2 The claim that there’s a human impulse to read is questionable, to say the least.
3 This contrast is one the last few that can be expressed plainly in Good Liberal circles. You won’t read articles in these publications contrasting some exclusively Christian pursuit with Jewish materialism or carnality, for example. You’ll occasionally read one contrasting some “Western” activity with “primitive” material existence. But you’ll often see the unquestioned assumption that what is human (regardless of whether the specific capacity really is exclusively human, although in the case of reading books it is6) is therefore defining and valuable and unquestionably good. “They don’t do it so doing it must make us better” is relatively unquestioned when “they” are nonhuman animals and “we” are human animals. (Actually, the only other contrast that seems to be acceptable to make in this context, and it builds on the human/animal contrast, is between religious people and atheists.)
4 Earlier, I discussed this tension between what we supposedly are and what we’re supposed to strive to be.
5 This carries the implication, naturally, that cultures that practice writing and reading are “more human” than, and therefore superior to, those that don’t.
6 Although Prior runs into trouble when she argues that
In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to "read" means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of "interpreting" in the sense of "reading" a person or situation.“Reading” a person or a situation in this sense, as she admits, doesn’t require symbols – much less Great Literature - and is arguably a capacity of many nonhuman animals. So her claim that “To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities” falls apart.