Sunday, March 10, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 344: Biomythography - Note 86, Oppositional Thinking

Oppositional Thinking

The fish I pulled from the pond next to my grandmother's house was bigger than my two hands together. Since I was six, that wasn't much, but it seemed huge at the time.

"Fish don't feel pain!" my uncle Mike shouted. He danced around the silver carp. 

The carp flopped on the sand and rocks, where I had reeled it in to meet our lack of net. Mike skittered beside it, unsure of where to put his feet, unsure of even his hands. He waved his arms without making the move to pick it up. Clearly, I had upset him with my burst of anguish. I'd scowled and cried out when I found I'd caught a living being with a hook through its mouth. It seemed cruel, like a big kid sitting on a smaller one. This time, I was the bigger kid.

I wasn't as big as my uncle, of course. Mike was around twelve, maybe thirteen. He had grown tall and thin with pre-adolescent vigor. Or maybe this was his early adolescence but acne hadn't set in. He hadn't reached his full height, for sure. He seemed to think like a big child, to me, rather than a young adult. He had volunteered 'to teach me how to fish' most likely because he wanted permission from his mother to go fishing. I probably had seemed underfoot, asking lots of questions. He saw it as an opportunity.

"Save it!" I pleaded. I grabbed at the fish. The fins of the carp expanded suddenly in my hands. A spine cut my hand near the thumb. The fish escaped me. 

"I'm trying." He knelt. The carp flopped hard twice, three times, and eluded him. He looked at where I had dropped the fishing pole. He ordered, "Pick it up!"

"I'm hurting him!" I yelled. But I picked up the fishing pole. 

"Fish don't feel pain," he insisted. "They proved it."

I stared at the flopping carp. It had started to tire. Its gills flapped more slowly. Its tail kicked its body over but no longer knocked it into the air. Mike was able to grab it. His fingers found the base of the hook. He started shifting the metal wire from side to side.

While Mike worked the barb free, I gazed into the panicked eyes of the fish. That was pain, in there. And exhaustion. And defeat. I knew I didn't care what anyone said they'd proved. 

This was a new concept to me. I was starting to realize that people sometimes told me things that were wrong. People lied, and not just my little brother when I caught him sneaking a treat. My father told lies. My uncle told lies like this one, apparently. I was starting to sense a pattern. People lied when they wanted to justify something. If the world was a certain way and they didn't like it, they were going to pretend it was how they wanted it to be. 

Part of me, even then, dimly realised Mike insisted fish didn't feel pain because he didn't want to accept the obvious. 

He wasn't the only one. Even in school, I read lessons and talked with teachers about aspects of life that were written down but couldn't really be true. Among those were an insistence that animals couldn't feel pain. 

There are a number of other things I was taught that turned out not to be true:

  • Chicken bones
    • The first time I heard chicken bones are dangerous to dogs, it upset me. A lot. I'd been feeding chicken bones to dogs for years. In my life, it was too late to hear it was dangerous. Since then, I've seen bunches of dogs eat bunches of chicken bones. There's never been a problem with it. My dogs have all been mutts except for one abandoned Brittany Spaniel but the Brittany Spaniel ate bones, too. And lived to a grey age. 
  • Animal pain
    • It's not an "other" thing but if you object to this, you could be on the autism spectrum. It's more likely that you're willfully delusional, though. Also, just wait until the next item on this list.
  • Plant pain
    • It's obvious, if you watch plants, they have pain reactions. Even one-celled creatures have pain reactions you can see under microscopes, so this is nothing startling to hear about in plants. On a multi-cellular (but largely invisible) level, cilantro, marigolds, and other plants exude scents to attract predator bugs when they are attacked by aphids. Acacia trees react by releasing tannins and ethylene when antelopes eat their leaves. Their tannins poison the leaves and the ethylene warns other trees. You may not feel empathetic towards plants but nevertheless, they have pain reactions. 
  • Slavery
    • In elementary school, I was taught slavery had been abolished. Since I had read every book I could on Harriet Tubman and wanted the victory to be true and complete, I believed it. By junior high, I was starting to notice references in the newspaper to what seemed like slavery. By college, I understood a bit more about human nature. Also, newspapers had started to acknowledge slavery hadn't been wiped out everywhere. 
  • Blood plasma 
    • In my first EMT class and similar classes on first aid, I was taught that blood plasma infusions restore needed fluids to the body and keep veins from collapsing. In fact, administering "plasma first" was killing people at the time, lots of them. In the 1990s, Dr. Jeffery Kashuk and other researchers figured out the problem and proved it to such an extent that they changed the standard practices of trauma care. The death toll estimates from this single, bad medical practice soared into the millions. People started wondering if lawsuits were coming. Then the newspapers stopped printing anything more about it.  
  • The human brain
    • In my youth, a debate raged over whether humans were effectively pre-programmed or the mind was a blank slate. We now know definitively the mind does not begin as a blank slate. Studies of language acquisition and other forms of cognitive development show we have hard-wired inclinations. The extent of what this means is still a great topic but the blank slate part is done. 
  • Continental drift
    • When I was a child, the continents were static and unmoving in my textbooks. And in my school teachers. The debates over the topic raged even while the older generation of geologists died off and continental drift won acceptance. 
  • The land bridge
    • Early studies showed the diversity of American Indian languages meant the group of people speaking them had been isolated from the Old World for about 60,000 years. I didn't know this particular fact when I was taught about the land bridge in elementary school. Even in fourth grade, though, the idea of an ice-free corridor seemed suspicious. The theory eventually turned out to be a weird sort of wishful thinking from scholars who couldn't stand to see the Americas having a long human tradition, sometimes for religious or ethnic reasons. 
  • Earthworms
    • Everyone told me earthworms were good and natural when I was growing up. In the Americas, they are invaders and powerful predators in the soil. After the icebergs receded, there were no earthworms in North America until Europeans came and introduced them. American soils were a completely different biome from the Eurasian one. The toll on American microbes and other native life is still uncounted - and perhaps uncountable.
There are plenty of other examples but so many, in fact, I know I'll never remember them all. Lots of concepts I was taught in my childhood have not held up. It's easy to see the patterns of commercial interests and just plain wishful thinking that won people over to these views and makes them linger today despite the facts and obvious pains staring us in the face. I would attribute, in part, my "oppositional thinking" habits to observing so much wishful thinking from my friends and family. That, and my father being so quickly oppositional, himself. He set an example. 

Wishful thinking might not always win. It certainly remains a powerful force in our lives, though. It always will.

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