On Saturday morning I saw some big cats at the Conservators’ Center near Mebane, NC, where I got a tour with a group from the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association. We got wonderfully close to lions, tigers, leopards, caracals, servals, and binturongs, as well as wolves, dingos, and coyotes. We were allowed to poke our lenses through holes in the fences, on the condition that we had to be ready to move back quickly when directed, which we were and did. A couple of times we heard several of the big cats roar together, which was a deep, rich sound. The friendly staff seemed devoted to these beautiful animals. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that their lives are unnaturally circumscribed, which made me kind of wistful.
I got cheered up that evening by the Carolina Ballet’s last program of the season, with Robert Weiss’s Water Music and George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Water Music, with Handel’s iconic score, was at once regal and playful, danced with wonderful elegance by leads Margaret Severin-Hansen, Richard Krusch, and Alicia Fabry. Balanchine’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s shimmering music, was gorgeous and funny. Pablo Javier Perez threatened to steal the show as an exotic Puck, and Ashley Hathaway, Lindsay Purrington, Adam Schiffer, and Oliver Beres had extended romantic complications. The children who played fireflies and ladybugs were delightful.
With so much beauty and creativity in North Carolina, it’s particularly unfortunate that our Republican politicians continue to embarrass us on an industrial scale. We’re now known nationally and internationally for our anti-leadership in the area of transgender rights. This week they sued the Justice Department in federal court over their beloved HB 2, a/k/a the bathroom bill. I read the complaint, and I think I now understand how they can view themselves as non-discriminatory.
In a nutshell, these so-called conservatives do not believe transgender people actually exist. There are, for them, only two possible sexes, defined according to a look at the genitals of a just-emerged newborn. Any person whose behavior does not align with gender stereotypes – say, a person with a penis who likes wearing dresses – is by definition a fake and a fraud, and up to no good. We need to protect the children from them.
This binary categorization system is similar to that once widely used to marginalize and dehumanize blacks as inferior and gays as defective perverts. It is ignorant and mean. But, as I’ve noted, it is good that this prejudice is now out in the open where it can be debated and changed. The conservatives’ exclusion of gays from the joys and privileges of marriage got thrown on the ash heap of history more quickly than expected, and the view that trans people are not real people entitled to respect could change quickly, too.
This week I finished reading Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. It’s about how our thinking processes often lead us astray because they were developed to serve hunter-gatherers living in small groups and facing many dangers (tigers, snakes, other hominoids). These thinking processes do not always work well in the modern world. For example, we’re strongly biased, when in doubt, to prioritize and react quickly to possible threats, and so overreact to some things that are not actually threats.
Shenkman, a historian, draws ideas from Kahneman and others, and applies them to illuminate various political and historical puzzles. He demonstrates that our powers of self-deception are amazing and almost limitless. I found particularly interesting his discussion of the evolutionary roots of empathy. He proposes that it was an evolutionary advantage to empathize and support our close kin, while regarding unrelated humans with indifference. By supporting and protecting kin who share more genes, our ancestors maximized the chances that their genes would be passed on, but doing the same for unrelated persons was wasted energy from the genes’ perspective.
It’s both helpful and disturbing that think that our most natural way of thinking is far from altruistic. It certainly could explain some of our puzzling indifference to war crimes not committed against ourselves and to large-scale humanitarian disasters, like the current refugee crisis. But we also know that it’s possible to acquire moral vision and empathy that extend beyond our close kin. This is one of the challenging lessons of Christianity (“love thy neighbor as thy self”) and other religions. We may be naturally selfish and brutish, but we can become better.