Last week’s No. 1 moral outrage was caused by a woman who, after stroking and petting a cat that was sitting outside its house for a bit, suddenly picked it up and dropped it in a big litter bin. The incident was caught on film, the woman was identified – and received death threats within the hour. The BBC’s Susanna Reid, in response to this occurrence, asked yesterday morning ‘Are we too obsessed with animals?’ Coincidentally, Kate Fox in Watching the English had a lot to say about how the majority of Brits (i.e. the English) relate to their pets. I realise her there are problems with her interpretation of English behaviour, so I’m not repeating her thoughts on the topic here because I think she has the final word on all things English. I am repeating them because I am curious to see what you think about her approach to the British obsession with animals. So here we go:
In the chapter on ‘Play Rules’ which discusses how the English spend their leisure time, Fox takes a long and hard look at pet rules and what she calls ‘petiquette’. This section kicks off superbly and in a way that directly pertains to the problem of cats in litter bins (or rather of people putting them there):
Keeping pets, for the English, is not so much a leisure activity as a way of life. In fact, ‘keeping pets’ is an inaccurate and inadequate expression – it does not begin to convey the exalted status of our animals. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but his dog is the real king. [...] [our pets] get far more attention, affection, appreciation, encouragement and ‘quality time’ than our children, and often better food. (p. 234)
This is a clear ‘yes’ to the question of whether or not we are too obsessed with our animals. Is it compassion with the (no pun intended) underdog, the weakest in society, that makes these islanders stand up for animals? Or is it sheer sentimentality? One of Susanna Reid’s guests yesterday suggested that the animal lover is a truly spiritual person whilst the animal hater isn’t; are Brits more spiritual in this way than others?
Fox offers a completely different interpretation of the obsession with pets. Her main thesis in Watching the English is that English everyday life is characterised by Social Dis-ease. This is the phenomenon I talked about before whereby awkwardness and embarrassment must be integral parts of social interactions in order for these interactions to be recognisably English. Basically, if it isn’t awkward, it isn’t English. (You do wonder who Fox had in mind when she was writing the book.) Firstly, she says, pets are status indicators. Corgies are a fine example of this; they are practically the royal breed. But regardless of which breed we’re talking about, the point is that, secondly, pets will receive better treatment than humans. This is because, thirdly, pets help to break through the problematic cultural norm of Social Dis-ease. Let me (or her) explain:
The average Englishman will assiduously avoid social interaction with his fellow humans, and will generally become either awkward or aggressive when obliged to communicate with them, unless certain props and facilitators are available to help the process along. He will have no difficulty at all, however, in engaging in lively, amicable conversation with a dog. Even a strange dog, to whom he has not been introduced. Bypassing all the usual stilted embarrassments, his greeting will be effusive: ‘Hello there!’ he will exclaim, ‘What’s your name? And where have you come from, then? D’you want some of my sandwich, mate? Mmm, yes, it’s not bad, is it? Here, come up and share my seat! Plenty of room!’ (p. 235)
In other words, animals serve as facilitators of social interaction, as props. I want to make two points about this: Firstly, if this is indeed the main function of animals – which is debatable, of course – then this means that Brits don’t appreciate animals more than anyone else does. The animals doesn’t even figure for who it is, it is merely an extension of human needs and wants. This is an unpopular point to make although I think it is the more honest one. As Helene Guldberg pointed out yesterday morning, we can’t really help but put human needs first, and we might as well be honest about that. This applies especially to pets. Pets mean a lot to people, full stop. The second point derives from that: In the cases in which Fox’s description actually applies, animals are needed. Their owners, to an extent at least, cannot do without them if they want to achieve certain social goals. The dog helps the stranger to strike up a conversation with the dog’s owner and vice versa. Without the pet, social interaction would be much harder to come by.
This doesn’t tell us much about cats but I think in most situations cats and dogs rank pretty much the same as far as their position in their owners’ lives is concerned.
It’s all a bit sad; not the fact that animals aren’t appreciated in their own right but that two grown-ups should have difficulty interacting without using dogs and cats as props. I am almost inclined to think that Fox must have got it all wrong. Surely, this statement here – and it’s the last I shall quote – is quite an exaggeration:
You see, the English really are quite capable of Latin-Mediterranean warmth, enthusiasm and hospitality; we can be just as direct and approachable and emotive and tactile as any of the so-called ‘contact cultures’. It is just that these qualities are consistently expressed in our interactions with animals. (p. 235)