Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blackfish: Love, oppression, and science

I’ve made no secret of my thoughts about SeaWorld and other marine parks, and was happy a couple of months ago to learn of a new documentary, Blackfish, about the experiences of orcas and human trainers and their interactions at SeaWorld. I saw it recently, and was impressed. Via Ecorazzi, a few clips:

The movie is kind of a chronicle of a death foretold, focusing on the history of encounters between human workers and orcas at SeaWorld to help the audience better comprehend the fatal attack on trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010.

It’s the focus on this one whale and on the experiences of the human workers, many of whom worked closely with Tilikum, that gives the film much of its power. The movie shows the workers' initial enthusiasm and increasing disillusionment as they came to appreciate the whales’ reality. Their stories are relatable: countless young people who love animals and the ocean visit these theme parks and dream of becoming “trainers.” (Many imagine that the position requires a high level of education about the animals rather than, as it turns out, attractiveness, athleticism, and performance abilities.)

The former trainers interviewed are thoughtful and compassionate to a one, impossible to dismiss as disgruntled former employees. They went into the work with an image of themselves, an image encouraged by SeaWorld, as “partners” with and caretakers of the orcas. As they came to recognize the real physical and psychological condition of the orcas and their own role in perpetuating the animals’ oppression and distress, intense embarrassment and guilt set in. This is really a tale of scientific awakening, even though it doesn’t superficially look to be about science. It’s a story of their growing recognition that their understanding of reality had been limited and highly distorted by the situation.

This failure to understand was direct. As one of the former “trainers” describes, she had believed when she worked at SeaWorld that she was knowledgeable about orcas, but over time came to realize that she actually knew very little about them. The workers came to recognize the partiality and inaccuracy of the information about the whales (such as about their typical life span in the wild vs. in captivity) that they were being fed by the company and then passing on to the public.1

But the nature of the relationship between humans – all humans - and orcas at SeaWorld interferes with understanding in much more fundamental ways. That former trainer’s comment about the false sense of knowledge reminded me of Erich Fromm’s discussion of the nature of love, which I’ve argued is inseparable from an understanding of science.

As I’ve discussed, Fromm argued that love was characterized by care (“the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love”), responsibility (“my response to the needs, expressed and unexpressed, of another human being”), respect (“the ability to see a person as he is”), and knowledge. Fromm emphasizes the incompatibility of love with relations of domination and exploitation. These relations, which encourage narcissistic distortions, aren’t conducive to respect or to the development of objective knowledge about others. He argues for the importance of combating narcissism in forming knowledge: “I must try to see the difference between my picture of a person and his behavior, as it is narcissistically distorted, and the person’s reality as it exists regardless of my interests, needs and fears.” (111-12)

Fromm expands on this argument in Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud

in which he makes a case for the essential “connection between ‘thought’ and ‘concern’,” the “interrelation between concern and knowledge.” He contends that, in the human sciences at least, the advance of knowledge depends on caring for, being engaged with and sympathetic to, those we’re studying. He explains:
Both psychology and sociology have as their object man. I can get to know a great deal about man by observing him like any other object. I – the observer – stand against my ‘ob-ject’ (‘ob-ject’ and ‘objection’ have the same root; in German, Gegenstand=‘counterstand’) to observe it, describe it, measure it, weigh it – yet I do not understand that which is alive if it remains an ‘object’. I understand man only in the situation of being related to him, when he ceases to be a split-off object and becomes part of me or, to be still more correct, when he becomes ‘me’, yet remains also ‘not-me’. If I remain a distant observer I see only manifest behavior, and if this is all I want to know, I can be satisfied with being an observer. But in this position the whole of the other person, his full reality, escapes me.
The sort of concern needed for science requires a recognition of shared experience:
I need to be myself in order to see the other. How could I understand his fear, his sadness, his aloneness, his hope. His love – unless I felt my own fear, sadness, aloneness, hope, or love? If I cannot mobilize my own human experience, mobilize it and engage myself with my fellow man, I might come to know a great deal about him, but I shall never know him.
The most promising approach to knowledge of human beings is the most caring - concerned, “therapeutically oriented knowledge” inspired by questions like “how can man be free, how can he be fully human [sic], how can he become what he could be?” Fromm offers the paradigmatic example of medicine: “How many medical discoveries,” he asks, “would have been made without the wish to heal?”

He insists on the importance of this active concern to fruitful discovery. “[R]andom and uninterested observation,” in contrast, “rarely leads to significant knowledge.” Countering the common argument that an active interest and concern interfere with objectivity, he contends that “[t]his interest, far from being opposed to knowledge, is its very condition, provided it is blended with reason, that is, with the capacity to see things as they are, ‘to let them be’.”2

So, in Fromm’s view, not only is objective knowledge an essential element of love, but the reverse is true. In fact, the two are inseparable. The foundation of good science is not cold detachment but an approach guided by care, concern, responsibility, and a therapeutic intent. Rather than a futile attempt to transcend or achieve distance from the objects of study, Fromm advises cultivating respect: attempting to overcome the narcissistic inclination to view others through the lens of our perceived interests in order to see them (and by extension ourselves) as they/we really are. Although Fromm is talking about relations among humans and the human sciences, his insights can be, and need to be, expanded to include our relationships with and attempts to understand other animals as well.

Considered from this perspective, the various ways in which relations and systems of oppression obstruct the advance of science become more apparent. Everything in these systems militates against the respect and active concern necessary to objectivity and the formation of real knowledge. Theme parks like SeaWorld are a good example. Billed as sites where humans can encounter and learn about orcas, in fact they’re a microcosm of the system of domination and exploitation in which they operate. This makes them useful in illustrating the sorts of epistemic distortions that all such systems necessarily produce.

Our role in orcas' exploitation, for example, encourages a sort of active indifference to rather than an active interest in their experience. It leads people to block out consideration of the orcas’ real subjective experiences and psychological states. This includes a reluctance to investigate their psychological-emotional capacities, both those we share and those we might not.3 It also encourages apathy toward their interests and needs, both species-specific and individual.

We don’t want to look behind the stage set, or learn the truth about how the whales came to be performing in the parks. In fact, we shrink from recognizing the artificiality of the orcas’ treatment in the parks and its stark contrast with their lives in the wild. This motivated inattention shades into active denial. We’re inclined to believe the stories told by the corporation about the whales’ experiences and motivations, and even to embellish them with our own details. We eagerly accept assertions of the orcas’ stimulus-response simplicity and cognitive limitations. Just as the effects of poverty on human children are often taken as evidence of their genetic limitations, the effects of the orcas’ conditions of deprivation and their responses to these conditions are viewed as evidence of their relatively simple animal brains.

The position in which these parks situate humans in relation to the orcas - as accessories to their oppression and exploitation - leads to the muting of empathy. Rather than marshalling our own emotional experience to try to appreciate theirs, we actively deny that orcas have emotional capacities that conflict with the role they’ve been forced into. We convince ourselves that they enjoy the performances and their lives at the park.4 At least, we’re easily led to believe, they don’t mind their situation; in some sense, maybe they’ve even chosen it. We’re motivated to regard anything short of open distress or rebellion as cheerful acquiescence and cooperation.

When we encounter evidence of physical harm, we’re inclined to look away and to accept the explanations offered – the photos and videos don’t show what they purport to show, the injuries are superficial, orcas harming other orcas are engaging in natural behaviors, and so on. When we’re confronted with evidence of distress, we tend to deprive it of meaning or reframe it in ways that make it more palatable. We display a similar willful cluelessness toward acts of rebellion or resistance, including displays of aggression toward or attacks on humans. We tend to accept the explanations offered: these incidents were due to human mistakes, the whales were playing and didn’t understand what they were doing,…

The system leads to a similar distortion of our self-image, in which our role in the orcas’ oppression and exploitation is hidden or disguised as beneficial. While adopting more or less unconsciously the corporate perspective, which sees the orcas as objects valued for their usefulness, we like to see ourselves as part of a system of protection and caretaking centered in the parks. Rather than appreciating the epistemic and psychological distortions caused by our role in the system of oppression and exploitation, we actually believe we’re being enriched and educated while contributing to the well-being of orcas.

The marine park experience is very distant from Fromm’s therapeutic approach, which would try to understand the whales in terms of their real needs and capacities and promote conditions in which these are fulfilled. In fact, the system feeds narcissism and objectification, which are contrary to scientific understanding. As the film argues, if our understanding of the orcas’ reality weren’t thwarted by our position in a system of oppression and exploitation, we would have predicted the violence we’ve seen.

The awakening of the SeaWorld workers is instructive. In a sense, they were pulled toward both extremes, the system-serving and the scientific. On the one hand, their position in the system and their need to go on with their work and feel good about what they were doing virtually required the epistemic contortions described above – willful ignorance, denial, system-serving interpretation, accepting comforting myths, and so on. Despite their years of working closely with the orcas, the oppressive system in which they worked required bad faith. By way of contrast, scientists like Ingrid Visser and Lori Marino, also interviewed for the film, work in conditions that facilitate knowledge rather than systemically distorting and obstructing understanding.

On the other hand, the trainers’ proximity to the whales combined with the genuine love for the animals enabled them to see behind the veil – to witness firsthand the real conditions of the orcas' lives and their distress. Even though most seem to have had limited knowledge at the time of the orcas’ lives in the wild and their real capacities and abilities, the beliefs they were encouraged to hold due to their role in the system became increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of the evidence. They moved in several stages away from the systemic perspective and toward Fromm’s respectful, therapeutic orientation: from seeing themselves as the whales’ “partners” in a beneficent system, to understanding their role as that of the orcas’ protectors within and in some sense from the system, to realizing that the system itself is rotten and advocating for its end. Their descriptions of moments in this transformation are poignant: one interviewee describes being ridiculed by other workers for expressing her own pain at witnessing the suffering of orcas being separated from their families, while another explains how he remained at his job for a while to protect “Tilly.” More thoughts from a former trainer interviewed for the film:

The trainers’ experiences illustrate how easy it is to distort our understanding when we’re in oppressive and unequal systems that require a distorted understanding. But they also point the way forward. Examining how these theme parks interfere with the formation of knowledge of reality – of other animals and of ourselves - provides an opportunity to look critically at how our positions within systems of oppression and exploitation, including our seemingly innocent roles as tourists and visitors, work against not just the wellbeing of those most oppressed by those systems (and of the oppressors as well) but against understanding, against knowledge, and to find ways to move in a new direction.

1 The film shows a current employee being asked a question about how long the orcas generally live in the wild and giving the canned, incorrect corporate response. In an earlier post, I discussed Susan G. Davis’ work describing the problems with SeaWorld’s so-called educational programs, including the downplaying of evolution in order to cater to creationists.

2 As the quotation that opens one of my recent posts describes, this orientation is the foundation of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, to which Fromm was (uneasily) linked, and really of all critical social science.

3 Some of the experts interviewed for the film discuss orcas’ lifelong close family relationships and speculate that these patterns might have led to emotions and emotional bonds that we don’t experience. It’s hard for humans, accustomed as we are to seeing other animals as precursors to or lesser, incomplete versions of ourselves, to even conceive of other animals having cognitive or emotional capacities that we don’t. The systems of oppression in which we typically meet make it even less likely that this recognition will emerge.

4 We fail even to consider that the orcas might be performing emotional labor, encouraged, as we are when faced with human emotional labor, to take expressions of emotion at face value.

No comments:

Post a Comment