Archive for February, 2010

Is Sea World a Prison?

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=atlantic+spotted+dolphin&iid=87878″ src=”0084/6eef4009-ed70-4cd3-90b0-68b3aaf24074.jpg?adImageId=10782880&imageId=87878″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]When I was younger, I wanted to be a marine biologist – I think a lot of adolescent girls have a similar fascination with the ocean and mammals that reside therein (apparently there were a lot of vet wannabes, too). Once I picked up on the fact that studying a biological science meant anatomy, which meant dissection (or even, yet more horribly, vivisection), I started to rethink my career plan, involving something less icky and upsetting.

However, I maintained, and still have, a real interest in dolphins and whales (and sharks, to a lesser extent, because I think they’re so misrepresented to the general public), always keen to check out Sea World or other animal parks where people got to frolic with these seemingly friendly, puppyish animals. I even got to swim with dolphins one summer in Hawaii – complete with a photo op of me kissing a dolphin’s nose.

All of this makes the recent news about whales and dolphins in captivity so distressing. A recent tragic story of a trainer being dragged into the pool and killed by the orca appeared at the same time as news that the full extent of dolphin’s intelligence and self-awareness makes it highly unethical to keep them in captivity, not to mention forcing them to perform for food.

Thomas White, a philosopher at Loyola Marymount University in Redondo Beach, California, made the argument that dolphins aren’t merely like people—they may actually be people, or at least, “nonhuman persons,” as he described them. Defining exactly what it means to be a person is difficult, White said, but dolphins seem to fit the checklist many philosophers agree on: They’re alive, aware of their environment, and have emotions—those ones are easy. But they also seem to have personalities, exhibit self-controlled behavior, and treat others appropriately, even ethically. That combination of traits is harder to come by in the animal world. When it comes to what defines a person, said White, “dolphins fit the bill.”

The article makes a point of stating that the above conclusion is still pretty speculative, given that the science of where brain structure results in intelligence (in humans or animals) is based on limited research.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=whale&iid=7703355″ src=”d/d/4/4/Orca_Whale_Johnstone_e75d.jpg?adImageId=10782819&imageId=7703355″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]Whether or not we’re anthropomorphizing, and whether or not whales are as intelligent as dolphins, the idea of restricting the movement of wild animals to the extent that is done in places like Sea World is severely troubling when scrutinized to the slightest extent.

Emory University Neuroscientist and Behavioral Biologist Lori Marino has a piece at the Big Think about just how detrimental captivity is. She notes that because they keep a certain number for performances and not all thrive in captivity, “six or seven other dolphins have died for you to see that one [that’s performing].” That’s a pretty chilling image.

An article at coloradodaily.com written by PETA campaigner Jennifer O’Connor further notes that not only are these creatures given a vastly reduced space to live in, with no privacy or self-determination, but that the theme parks “support the slaughter of dolphins in the wild. Every year, thousands of dolphins are killed in bloody “drive fisheries” in Japan. While most end up as meat in Japanese supermarkets, each year, approximately two dozen captured dolphins are sold to marine parks and “swim-with” programs around the world.”

It’s horrible to think that my enthusiasm for marine life caused me to support such a questionable industry. Dolphins and whales are wild animals, accustomed to miles and miles and fathoms and fathoms of space, not meant to be kept in a fishbowl or surrounded by staring, screaming crowds.

I do think it’s important to maintain some kind of educational resource, because seeing animals up close is part of what keeps people engaged and interested in supporting the habitats and survival of animals in the wild. Perhaps this could be done via rescue operations, where human care is shown to be beneficial, but intended to be limited.

Ultimately, our science and entertainment industries should respect the fact that they are predatory carnivores and simply wild animals, not domesticated cats.

It Doesn’t Really Beg the Question

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=teacher&iid=279672″ src=”0276/5a1aecee-402a-4715-9b3e-8382f1e6b544.jpg?adImageId=10623038&imageId=279672″ width=”319″ height=”480″ /]

The painfully prevalent misuse of the phrase ‘begs the question’ is a pet peeve of mine. It often appears in op-eds and blogs in place of the phrase ‘raises the question’; I suspect because it sounds more intellectual.

Begging the question means assuming the initial point, in mathematical terms, a=a. For example, the towel is soaked because it is wet.

People often argue that such strict adherence to grammatical precedent is pointless if the appropriate meaning is conveyed regardless (not, as another mangler of English might say, irregardless). As long as the reader, however aggravated, understands what the writer means to say, why does it matter?

Because of professionalism – I expect people to manhandle English in everyday speech because most conversation is off the cuff, following a meandering train of thought. A writer, paid to write articles for websites (say, salon.com) should have a superior grasp of the language and its various rules and definitions, than the average layman. Part of their job description is accurate use of language to convey information and ideas. Resorting to phrases and vocabulary that they don’t understand undermines both the medium in which the article appears and the reading experience.

Complicity in Un Prophète

image from BFI


Jaques Audiard’s film Un Prophète has already received rave reviews, high accolades, comparisons to the Godfather, and the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Although there are warnings of some gruesome content, what gives the films its strength, and stomach-churning discomfort, is the complicity that Audiard forces upon the audience.

We see Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) first as he enters the grim prison, and throughout the film, although he begins to go outside, there is only one reference to his pre-criminal life, in a brief reference to childhood neglect.

What this means for the audience, then, is that we are immediately placed within a world without the moral code that applies to normal life. Audiard emphasizes the outsider status of prisoners as well as immigrants in France, but this perspective also forces the viewer, as part of the implicit compassion created by filming from Malik’s point of view, to root for the violent and cruel actions that ensure his survival.

By placing the audience in an amoral context, with an anti-hero who must, as we learn at the beginning of the film, kill or be killed, Audiard forces us to think about our role in a society that creates space for this necessary violence, which is naturally self-perpetuating, and our own instinctive reaction to his actions – we want the bursts of violence to be over quickly, but we must also squirm in acknowledging that without such behavior, death is the only possible alternative.

We are forced into the psychological reality of someone who, as a result of a small handful of misfortunes that could happen to anyone, is forced to live by a different set of rules if he would live at all.

Audiard’s genius here is to make us complicit in a fictional situation, which in turn reveals our true complicity in a society where there is, by virtue of its existence and moral structure, creates and maintains an amoral shadow.


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