Promoting understanding
and compassion for animals

Jul

20

Book excerpt 6

Posted in: From the book1 Comment

This excerpt continues to explore  factors which I believe foster the development of compassion in people…

2. Media
I believe that exposure to violence, particularly in a child’s formative years has an enormous impact on the development of their compassion and compassion for animals.
Children are not equipped to deal with fictional violence as they have very little concept of the difference between fantasy and reality. Violence on television or films can have a number of different effects on children.

  • They can become desensitised to pain and suffering.
  • They may start to copy and act out the violence that they see

When children watch people acting in a violent way towards others on television, they rarely see the consequences of these actions – the fear or terror of the victim, the effect on people close to the victim or the punishment of the perpetrator. In many cases the aggressor is actually the hero of the story and while their violence may be justifiable in some cases – vengeance or self defense, little children do not have the capacity to understand these motives. All they see is the star of the movie, killing and hurting people or animals and ultimately walking away unpunished.

As the level of violence that children are exposed to increases, so does their level of tolerance and ultimately, they become quite blasé even about death. Unfortunately it is not only fictitious violence that children are exposed to. Every day on the evening news we are bombarded with stories of murders, suicide bombings and missile attacks. These real life events are often broadcast in the worst form of sensationalism with the reporter quoting “at least seventy five people dead with the death toll expected to reach two hundred”. This is then followed up with the local sports results.

How can children be expected to value life when it is presented to them in such a disposable manner? And how can they be expected to develop compassion when they see so little of it around them? Finally if they have become desensitised to the pain and suffering of their own species, how can they be expected to extend sensitivity to other non-human animals?

It has been estimated that by the age of 18, the average young adult will have witnessed approximately 200 000 acts of violence on television. Many of these will have taken place in action movies and drama series and because they are not considered gratuitous violence, they are aired in prime time viewing slots. While some parents realise the potentially damaging effect that violence on television has on young children, and attempt to restrict their viewing habits, few realise that many of the so called children’s programs, usually cartoons contain just as much, if not more violence as prime time drama.

Studies have shown that watching violence on television leads to an immediate increase in levels of aggression and antisocial behaviour in children. This can partly be attributed to the fact that children love to role-play what they see. Positive role-playing can be a healthy learning experience and an integral part of their emotional development. However negative role-playing such as acting out the violence that they see on TV is damaging and dangerous. This can serve as a model of behaviour, especially when things do not go as the child wishes. Just like in the movies, it is okay to hit out and to forcefully take what you want. And it is okay to inflict punishment on whoever stands in your way.

I realise that we all live in a real world. A world in which violence plays an inevitable role, but I wonder why we need to indoctrinate our children into its clutches so early. Why do we rob them of their precious innocence and tranquility? Maybe if we gave them some more time we could develop their compassion instead of their insensitivity.

3. Religion
My initial reaction, upon deciding that religion was an influential factor in the development of compassion, was to say that while most religions advocated compassion on a human scale, the level of compassion afforded to non-human animals varied considerably.

However I’m not sure that I still agree with this statement. You see the more I thought about the issue, the less convinced I became that some religions advocate compassion in any form. From a lay perspective, I have always found it hard to understand how a compassionate god could commit an honest, generous and kind atheist to burn in hell for eternity yet welcome a deceitful, spiteful and cruel Christian into heaven.

I found it even harder to reconcile compassion with religion when I considered the millions of people that are killed each year because of their beliefs by people of other faiths. Or the millions of women that are brutalised, dominated and discriminated against because they are unfortunate enough to be born into a male dominated faith. Perhaps the most alarming factor is the contempt shown by religious leaders for the most vulnerable and innocent members of their congregations – the children. It seems that almost every day there are fresh allegations of abuse and molestation levelled at individuals within religious orders. This culture of aggression, force, fear and power does not promote compassion or tolerance. It does not even promote the value of human life. Therefore to expect religion to endorse a compassionate approach to animal welfare is probably unrealistic.

Many of the Christians I meet proudly tell me that they do care for animals and that they regard themselves in a stewardship or custodial role over nature. However this still promotes a notion of human superiority. It also presumes that nature needs to be ‘taken care of’ and that human beings are the best candidates for the job.

However, not all religions are so humanistic. In some eastern religions such as Buddhism, compassion for all forms of life is mandatory. This is because Buddhists believe that a soul passes through many lifetimes before it attains Nirvana – the Buddhist equivalent of heaven. During that time it may inhabit plant, animal or even mineral forms. Thus all forms of life on earth possess a life spirit and should be treated with reverence, respect and compassion.

Another encouraging trend is the dramatic increase in the number of new age, spiritual groups. I believe these groups are proliferating because of the general consensus among young people that organised religion is too prescriptive and basically irrelevant to our way of life. While these groups vary greatly in their tenets and doctrines, the most common underlying thread is that each individual is accountable for their actions and that what you give out to the world will come back to you in a form of karmic retribution. Most of the people who subscribe to a new age philosophy see great value in all living things. They also appreciate that complex interrelationships exist between species and understand the systemic nature of the environment.

I really do believe that the development of compassion for animals is heavily influenced by a person’s religious exposure. If a child grows up believing that animals are of lesser value than mankind, that they are devoid of a soul and purpose and that they have been created expressively for our use, then they are hardly likely to offer them compassion. If a child grows up in a culture where their mother or sister is stoned to death for adultery, then the extension of compassion to non-human animals will probably seem quite farcical. And if a child grows up in a home where all living things are valued and respected, then the child is likely to act compassionately towards human and non-human animals alike.

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  1. Indemnity Health Insurance said on 20/07/2011 at 4:36 am

    Hello! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic job!

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