Tuesday, May 31, 2022

On the Importance of Cats, and Why There's No Such Thing

Firstly, the title is not a joke: there's no such thing as cats.  That may seem surprising, and as someone who has loved cats his whole life, I can understand your skepticism.  But I will address that; please be patient.

Secondly, all of this (and all of everything which anybody ever discusses) rest on specific points of view, and specific patterns of how to map our sensed perceptions of "the world out there" into structures our minds can understand.  I'm not talking about "alternative facts" or any similar head-in-the-sand practice of treating fiction as reality.  Quite the contrary.  What I mean is something real, being perceived through multiple valid metaphorical lenses.  What may look to someone like an equal partnership, may look to someone else like a dominant/submissive relationship.  The subjects in question may reject both descriptions, and in fact may each perceive their dynamic uniquely.  These cases, where everyone might be in disagreement are all "right, in a way", serve to illustrate that we all, by necessity, have simplified, rough-cut perspectives.

So, let's begin.

Dogs and cats are wonderful human companions, both with plenty to teach us about ourselves and our societies.  Consider a dog, be it a wild wolf or a so-called purebred puppy.  The creature has an instinctive understanding of hierarchy.  Packs have leaders, alphas.  Being in a pack is better than being alone, so to be in a pack one acts according to the leader's conditioning.  Do something "right", get rewarded, become inclined to keep doing that thing.  Do something "wrong", get punished, become disinclined.  A dog's instincts map out their world into a hierarchical structure.  Substituting a tall, weird-sounding, two-legged animal who shows themselves capable of rewarding "right" and punishing "wrong" for a pack leader is not a great leap for the canine mind.  It's an easy fit for humans too; naturally we want to cuddle and feed a dog who does something cute, or scold them for peeing on the rug.  And indeed many humans have instincts not so far away from a dog's, desiring to be part of a pack, and following alpha two-legged weird-sounding animals of their own.  Society is flecked with these hierarchies, large and small, built with leaders on top.  Chief executives, governors, monarchs, regional managers.  Top-down structure.  I'm about to use a word which carries a lot of baggage, but I mean it only in the literal sense that dogs are big on obedience and chain of command.  Life with dogs is authoritarian.

But society is also composed of chaos.  There is no organizational chart large enough to list every citizen of a small town, let alone a state or continent or planet.  At any moment, many humans are being born with no pecking order among them, and many are dying without upending any "subordinates" or "superiors" they might have recognized.  We each know a handful of people closely, more people less closely, and so on until completely unfamiliar people are some sort of rounded, aggregate statistic.  For people we don't know well, we build a lot of mental sorting buckets.  Artists, car owners, nerds, feminists, Italians, conservatives, MBA's.  These buckets are not without their uses, and in fact many people proudly identify using these sorts of labels.  But many of us give in to the temptation to dismiss entire buckets worth of people.  Hippies, Scientologists, immigrants.  Once the label is there, whether the person announced it, we deduced it, or a leader we follow proclaimed it, we might decide, with no further information, that the labeled person has nothing to offer us, and therefore we can (or even should) ignore or reject them.  You might be able to come up with an example or two where this sort of thing has led to violence.

So what about cats?  All I've been blathering on about is societal structures and human foibles.  All right, I'll discuss cats.  Except there is no such thing.  Cat people (to use a bucket term) know this to be true upon reflection.  You can grow up alongside a cat, love and cuddle and play with them every day of their life.  Know their meows, be soothed by their purrs, read their moods and learn their favorite spots to nap per given time of the day.  All of that is a wonderful bond, but gains you next to nothing towards the next cat you meet.  I knew many cats before meeting one who growls and plays tug of war.  I knew a cat who understood many words, including her name.  I know a fully-grown big chunky cat whose voice never got deeper than a puny squeak.  There is this cat, and that cat, and this one, and that one, but there is no such thing as "cats".

You've probably already guessed that my roundabout point is that there is also no such thing as "people".  There's this person and this person and that person.  Those buckets mentioned earlier are all lies.  Even the ones we enjoy and find helpful -- none of them are real.  So, what can we learn from a lie of a bucket like "cat people"?

A cat's instincts don't use hierarchy, at least not in the way a dog's do.  You can train a dog, but it's said that a cat trains you.  That's a cute idea, and it's close, but the truth is that you and a cat figure out, together, how to coexist.  It's potentially a painful, slow and messy process, compared to "you do as I say".  Feedback is inconsistent, boundaries are never fixed, and sometimes you end up bitten, scratched, and bruised.  But your multi-species family grows, together.  Not because someone in charge says so, but because everybody found ways to make it work.  Are you ready for another charged word?  Life with cats is democratic.

And that's it, right there.  A society whose goals include things like equality, adaptation, and the embrace of diversity has plenty to learn from cats.  Families which include cats are microcosms of our much bigger family.  The global and national and city societal families we're all born to.  "Cats", of which there is no such thing, show us that each person on this planet is exactly that, a person.  You'll never understand them all; they'll do things which amuse and annoy you, and every now and then you'll be gifted a dead animal or step barefoot in some cold barf.  But if you learn from each other, figure out which battles are worth picking and what is workable to allow on each other's terms, you'll find more agency over your own life, and more appreciation for theirs.

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