Monday, April 11, 2016

What racism is and what it isn't

Racism is a prejudice referring to a racial group. It is a tendency to attribute to members of a particular group certain characteristics, often extreme ones, rather than viewing them as individuals. It is an extreme form of group-thinking, of "us" versus "them", and of simplifying our complex human reality into labels.

All groups, whether racial, religious, linguistic, or any other type, contain a wide variety of individuals. The majority of individuals are around average on any characteristic, while there are a few at the extremes at either end of the bell curve. To judge an individual on the basis of a prejudice against a group he or she belongs to is a form of bigotry, and shows a tendency to over-simplified thinking. Bias against groups is intellectually lazy, because it is easier to identify people using broad labels than to get to know each person as an individual with different characteristics. In fact, individuals exist in an overlapping Venn diagram of different identities and groups, or an "intersection", as it is currently called.

Historically, racism and group-thinking have led to wars, slavery, persecution, discrimination, and genocide. Therefore, people who consider themselves liberal and tolerant have an aversion to being considered racist or biased. In some cases, though, this has been taken to an equally inaccurate and unhelpful extreme.

Sometimes, people who strive to be tolerant adopt an ideology that all groups are equally good, and that the "privileged" groups have no right to criticise groups that have historically been "oppressed". They insist on the equality of all groups, or sometimes even glorify those groups that tend to be the targets of racism or bigotry.

One logical fallacy people fall into is when they want to think that a particular group is positive, so when they see an individual from that group not conforming to their positive image, they say that individual does not belong to the group. This happens, for example, when people think that a religion is good, so any person who behaves in an immoral or criminal way cannot belong to that religion, no matter what this person believes or practices.

There is a difference between belonging to a group and representing it. To say that a group contains a few negative individuals does not mean that the group is defined by these individuals, only that the group is internally diverse. To exclude negative individuals or sub-groups from their group because it's "not nice" to have any criticism of the group is just as irrational and ideologically-motivated as to consider all members of the group as being as negative as a few of the members.

An unfortunate example of this at the moment is people's simplistic attitudes to Islam at this time of terrorism by sub-groups and individuals in the name of Islam. While anti-Moslem "racism" or bias, is, of course, an unwelcome form of hatred that only exacerbates the violence, I find some people's denial that the terrorism has anything to do with Islam to be equally unrealistic and unhelpful.

Like it or not, there are Moslem individuals and sub-groups that interpret Islam in such a way that leads them to perpetrate atrocities in the name of their religion. Some of them might be cynical psychopaths exploiting the religion as a pretext for carrying out their perversions, but many of them are probably sincere, if deeply misguided, believers. When a person like this carries out an attack in the name of his religion, and an observer shouts out "You ain't no Moslem, bro!", this is factually untrue. It would be true to say "Not all Moslems are like you", but that should be self-evident and obvious to anyone who does not partake of group-thinking.

Just as we shouldn't judge a person by a negative prejudice toward a group, we shouldn't deny a person's group identity because of an ideological positive bias toward the group, in the name of not being biased.

In order to deal with the current reality, and as a matter of principle, the way individuals and groups self-identify must be taken seriously, especially when they act explicitly in the name of their professed beliefs. To acknowledge that bad things can be done in the name of a group identity is the first step in understanding the motivations behind such behaviour and trying to prevent it.

This is not "racism" or bias or "Islamophobia". A prejudice against Islam would be to say "All Moslems are terrorists", which unfortunately some politicians and members of the public believe. But saying "No terrorists can be Moslems" is a denial of reality and of the deep-seated beliefs and motivations of some terrorists. A realist has to admit that there are, unfortunately, some Moslems, at the extreme end of the bell curve, who are terrorists and who consider their actions to be required by their interpretation of Islam.

Thinking people have to learn to live with the complexity of human life. We have to be able to accept that groups are not uniform, and to say that someone belongs to a certain group is not necessarily very informative, since there is a lot of variation within each group.

Also, groups and individuals can be both victims and persecutors, as is often the case with people who were abused as children and later become abusers. So just because a certain group was or is oppressed does not mean that all its members are blameless for the rest of time.

Individuals and groups can and should be judged on the morality of their actions, and when a sub-group acts consistently in a negative manner, this should be acknowledged rather than denied in the interests of preventing bias against a larger group.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Painful decisions

Lily, photo by Sarah Lillard, from Facebook
When people say a decision is difficult, this can mean two things: either it's difficult to decide, or it's relatively easy to decide, but the situation itself is difficult. I prefer to call the second type of decision "painful" rather than "difficult". This week I saw an example of this type of painful decision.

Sarah is a foster mother in Los Angeles who broadcasts her experiences of fostering cats and kittens on Livestream. A friendly pregnant cat called Lily was rescued and given to Sarah's care. Sarah was happy to have a pregnant foster for the first time, and looked forward to broadcasting the birth of the kittens.

When Lily went to the vet for her first check-up, the first test they did showed that she was FeLV (feline leukemia) positive, though she has not shown any symptoms. As is the usual practice, they did another, different, test, to confirm or overturn this diagnosis.

The second test came back negative, much to Sarah's relief, and that of her viewers. However, after a few days it transpired that this negative result belonged to another cat and was given by mistake, and Lily's result was actually positive. This was a terrible shock, and forced Sarah to make a painful decision about whether to continue Lily's pregnancy.

When a decision is difficult, there are two (or more) options with advantages and disadvantages that need to be weighed against each other. In this case, the advantages were mostly or entirely on the side of ending the pregnancy, while continuing it had overwhelming disadvantages. In this respect, the decision was obvious. However, because it was a painful decision, Sarah deliberated and agonized for days, consulting with other fosters, the Director of Kitten Rescue (her rescue organization), and her vet.

Everyone agreed that letting Lily continue the pregnancy and give birth would put her at risk. FeLV often breaks out and becomes dangerous when a cat is under stress, and giving birth would be precisely the sort of stressful event that could trigger the disease. So this was a clear case of the mother's life being at risk, which is a widely accepted justification for abortion.

Secondly, the ultrasound performed during Lily's first vet visit showed that the kittens were underdeveloped. Two of them were much smaller and seemed to have no heartbeat, while  another larger one did have a heartbeat. When there are abnormalities in the kittens, the delivery is often complicated. It might have been necessary to perform a Caesarean, which is risky in cats. And the kittens might not have survived anyway.

Even if any kittens had been born alive, it would have been necessary to remove them from Lily immediately and not to allow her to wash or nurse them at all. This is because they could catch FeLV from her saliva and milk. This would mean that the kittens would be denied the benefits of the first few days of nursing on colostrum, which in healthy mothers contains special antibodies and nutrients that are very important to newborns. The mother-kitten connection would never be formed, and the kittens would have to be bottle fed from birth like orphans. This would not be ideal even for healthy kittens, and would not be ideal for Lily, who would be denied the comforts of nursing her babies.

Of course, it was very likely that the kittens would either be stillborn or would be born infected with FeLV and be unlikely to survive very long. This being the case, the dream of healthy kittens seemed unrealistic, and aborting them started to seem more merciful than trying to save them against all odds, for what might be at best a short life of suffering.

So Sarah had to take the very painful decision to take Lily to the vet for an abortion and spay. This would give Lily the best chance for a good life, until the disease takes over, and would avoid the risk that delivery would pose to her life, and the suffering of her kittens, even if any survived.

When the vet performed the procedure, two seriously underdeveloped fetuses and two less underdeveloped ones were removed. It did seem that these babies would have caused birth complications and been unlikely to survive. While this is very sad, it does support the decision that Sarah had to take.

Lily is now recovering, and will later go and live with a foster care provider specializing in FeLV positive cats. We hope she will have as many healthy and happy years as possible. We also hope that Sarah will soon be able to foster another pregnant cat who will have an easy delivery and delightful kittens!

The kitten cams I watch show reality as it is. Sometimes it is hard to watch and learn about the terrible diseases cats can have. It is also hard to see the fosters, like Sarah, have to make such painful decisions when they are already emotionally attached to their foster cats. Their sensitivity is what makes them good fosters, but it also forces them to become stronger when things don't go as they would have wished.

The only way to reduce the prevalence of diseases like FeLV is if more cats are spayed and neutered to prevent unwanted kittens, and more cats are adopted into caring homes where they are given proper veterinary care, including vaccinations.

Watch Lily on Sarah's Kitten Cuddle Room.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Rusty 2010-2016

Rusty was a semi-feral cat born in 2010. She was always more friendly than most of the feral cats around here. Our neighbours started feeding her and adopted her as an outdoor cat and took her to be spayed. I'm not sure if they took her to the vet for annual vaccinations. She grew to be larger than most female cats, and was definitely the alpha-cat in the area.

We gave her the name Rusty because of her high-pitched meow that sounded like a rusty door hinge. The neighbours called her Leelo, but we kept our own name for her. She lived in our garden and was fed regularly by her adopters and sometimes by us and other neighbours. She liked to greet everyone who came through the garden, sometimes with leg-rubs, sometimes with mews. She would accept a bit of stroking, but would tell you when she'd had enough. She often sat on the posts of the garden fence, or in a tree in the next garden. Her territory included our garden and bits of the neighbouring gardens. I often used to see her sitting on a ledge underneath an air conditioning unit next door. I would always look out for her when I was hanging up washing or looking out from out balcony. Once or twice when I was waiting at the roadside for people to come and give me something she would stay with me, winding and rubbing around my legs.

Over the years, she chased tom cats out of the garden, but often tolerated female cats and their kittens. I think she protected the mothers and kittens from tom cats, and they stayed for several weeks before moving on. Sadly, most of the feral mothers and kittens we've had in the garden have disappeared. I know there is TNR in our city, but it doesn't catch them all.

Last week we noticed something was wrong with Rusty, and this week the neighbours told us that she had died. They took her to the vet and she was given subcutaneous fluids for dehydration, which was her most obvious symptom, but she died. I don't know if they did tests to see what her problem was, so it could have been any illness that could cause dehydration or just prevent her from searching for water.

She had a happy and healthy life, right up to the end. She never had to go through the stress of mating, pregnancy, and raising kittens in the wild. She was well-fed, so she only hunted for pleasure or out of instinct. But still, I think an indoor life would have been better for her (and probably longer) and I'm sad my neighbours didn't try taking her in from an early age.

Rusty was not "my" cat, but she was part of my life and I will miss her.