A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bite The Hand That Frees You

I am always in search of certain special sorts of metaphor, those with immediately perceived explanatory power and that have a true veridical relationship with the metaphor referents. I recently ran headlong into such a one.

One of my daughters has a dog.  She raised him from a wee pup and he is now a young full grown adult well past the natural inclinations of puppyhood.  He is large, over a hundred pounds, mixed breed with several remarkably compatible features producing an animal of considerable beauty and intelligence.  Rosco, we’ll call him Rosco, has a sweet, even thoughtful, disposition.  He knows me well and seems to suspect that my superior knowledge of anatomy was accumulated just for his sensual pleasure.  By way of appearance he is red brown, short hair; very broad of shoulder with a massive head and a lively smiling countenance.  But, if there was reason to fear him, he would be considerably intimidating.

I was taking care of him for the day while my daughter was taking finals. My plan, soon come to fruition, was to take him and myself for a walk on the desert plains.  He had jumped excitedly from the car and started up the trail out of the valley – me excitedly coming along behind – when I heard him, just out of sight up and around a turn, scream; not bark, cry out, whine, yelp or any other expected dog sound.

I ran up the trail and saw him, above me, trying to pull himself free from a large animal leg trap; when I got to him he was in great pain and full terror.  I bent to try the springs that were holding the jaws closed on his foot.  It was too strong for a simple one hand squeeze.  I spoke to Rosco as reassuringly as possible, bent again to try with both hands and he bit me, hard, on the hand.  In that moment it seemed to him the natural thing to do.

It was immediately clear to me that he was going to bite me as I tried to free him from the trap…and that the freeing was not going to happen without some figuring out how to properly press the springs with hands and feet – the figuring out was going to be accompanied by a terrorized animal biting at the torment.

I talked to him, yelled at him, held him briefly; I’m sure that he was pulling his punches.  The conclusion was that in what could only have been less than a minute he was free and I was bitten on the face, left arm and both hands.

His foot had been caught with the metacarpals arrayed flat in the jaws of the trap, and thus his foot spared; had it been turned to the side the crushing force would have been enough to break the bones.  Just the luck of the draw.

Comparative psychology, ethology and related studies have been showing us for sometime that humans are animals with language and that the monkeys, apes and big carnivores are very similar animals without language.  In other words, we can expect humans to act like the animals that we are with the addition of complications created by language.  Language does not make us anew, but is added to the mix.

Rosco has been a quasi-language creature in his life with humans.  He responds to spoken information either by sensitivity to the structures in the sounds and/or a keen ear for emotion and intonation.  While the greatest part of the detail is lost to him, he extracts the general flow of things relevant to his life with considerable clarity from human sounds and actions.  But when pressed he reacts in the ways hard-wired in him.  Being caught in a steel trap from which there is no escape, having hard metal jaws snap shut on a foot by powerful spring action, having a completely incomprehensible power descend over you without options or means of “appropriate” response; these are the details of terror.

Rosco’s response to that terror was to bite at it; I was just the ‘meat’ that was in the way.  And so we arrive at our metaphor.  Just as I could not, especially in the short time I had to get Rosco out of the trap before he hurt himself with his own flailing, explain to him the “realities” of the situation: “Now Rosco, I know that your foot hurts and that you are terrified, but if you will just hold nice and still, I’ll figure this out and you’ll be free.”  Just as I couldn’t explain to him, there are real limits on what can be explained to humans when they are caught in traps, when they have incomprehensible powers descend over them without options or means of response.

If I had been out with my son’s dog, Duke, it would have been different.  Duke, about 80 pounds, would not have tried to pull his bites.  Duke’s terror and pain would have gone straight to anger and attack.  It is likely that I could not have gotten him out of the trap, at least, before he hurt himself and me badly.  And so the dogs are different, both treated with considerable human kindness in their normal lives.  Duke, who recognizes the sound of my car or motorcycle from a quarter mile away and begins the melancholy howl of his welcoming note, my son says only for me; Duke, who approaches me with the special deference afforded an alpha; this same Duke would be unable to distinguish my meat from any other in the face of his terror.

And so humans are different.  It is a difference that is best to be realized before we spring our traps, before we put our fellows under the incomprehensible powers that terrorize them without recourse.  It is best if we set our traps carefully and only when they are truly needed; if they are ever truly needed.

If the ignorant son of a bitch (I intend no aspersion to any animal – just my Tourette’s like response to anger, my own biting if you will) had not set the spring trap on the trail, Rosco wouldn’t have been caught, I would not have been bitten and I wouldn’t be typing this with swollen aching hands.  I would still know that Rosco was different from Duke and that I am different from a terrorized bigot.  But at least I got a fine metaphor out of it.

I leave it to you to fill out the rest of the possibilities.  If you are not in a trap, it should be easy. But, if you are, it just might be impossible anyway.


john said...

Case in point.

James Keye said...

With your addition, John, this essay just gets around by another route to "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."