Trust Me—It’s Privilege
Trust: confidence, hope, certainty, positivity, conviction, certitude, faith, sureness
Mango leaps up and runs when I inadvertently touch him during the night. His eyes pop open when I sneeze, his earthy eyes filled with terror. If he has done something wrong, and I call him sharply, he will not come close enough to be caught, or even touched. Mango fears the anger that often accompanies loud voices, and pain that follows from overpowering, controlling human hands; he is cautious about coming within reach, about entering confined spaces where he can be seized or struck. Mango learned that human beings can and will hurt him, that it is not safe to place his lithe body at their mercy. He is a fear-nipper. All this despite the fact that I adopted him when he was just eight months old and have now had him for five years. All of us who know Mango try to show him that he can trust, but his fear runs deep, his triggers seem tucked away where no amount of gentle can penetrate.
Mango was harmed both physically and emotionally by humans who controlled him when he was a puppy. In The Other End of the Leash, dog trainer Patricia McConnell notes that violence is counter-productive when training dogs—you end up with a dog like Mango, who is simply afraid. Apparently Mango’s people had not read McConnell’s book, and their unacknowledged human privilege was expressed violently, cruelly, unpredictably. Although living in fear is not healthy or conducive to his happiness, and though broken trust forecloses many possible joys, Mango’s fear is understandable, even expected. Though his deep lack of trust is a terrible burden for the little fellow to carry day by day, I do not push him to trust. To care about Mango is to give him space when he wants space. To ignore his wishes would be to deny his feelings and preferences—just like his previous people. I must let him choose if he wants to trust again, if he wishes to accept pats and snuggles and a scratch behind the ears. He knows what he wants; his actions tell me what he prefers as clearly as words, and to care about Mango is to respect his wishes.
Mango is just one of many individuals who suffer from broken trust in a world where those with privilege and power can and do intimidate, abuse, and take liberties with those who lack privilege and power. In her book, The Pornography of Meat, Carol Adams describes how patriarchal cultures shape a dualistic, hierarchical view of the world, a view in which white, wealthy males hold power over all other peoples, and over nature and animals. But this dualistic, hierarchical vision is not rooted in reality. In Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals and The Animal Manifesto, Marc Bekoff describes telling similarities between humans and other species. We are animals, mammals, primates. Oppressed humans, those who have suffered abuse or unwanted advances, are therefore likely to recognize and understand Mango’s triggers—his reaction to loud noises and the fear with which he views humanity. In truth, it would be unreasonable to expect Mango to trust in a world where human privilege trumps every right he ought to possess as a thinking, feeling being—including his right to life.
Empowered people sometimes pressure those with broken trust to overcome their fears, to have some faith simply because trusting opens doors and because life is better for those who believe in the goodness of humanity. They advise the disempowered and damaged to take risks, to live more freely. Similarly, people sometimes pressure fearful dogs to trust, triggering visible fear. While likely well-meaning, only those who are blinded by privilege imagine that those with broken trust choose to live in fear and distrust. Of course life is better for the privileged. Of course life is better for those who do not face intimidation, abuse, and/or exploitation, who do not carry scars from demeaning oppression—for those whose trust has not been shattered. When comparatively privileged people criticize those with deep-seated fears and a lack of trust, they harass and further harm those already damaged by privilege and power, making oppression yet more painful.
If we care about those who lack trust, whether dog or human, best not to criticize or explain how much better life is for those who are able to trust—how can this possibly help someone with broken trust? What is essential is to be trustworthy: Hold our hearts in the right place; make sure our words match our actions and that our actions are never self-serving. If we hope for trust, we must exemplify fidelity, dependability, commitment, loyalty, faithfulness, and reliability. If we are genuinely concerned and want to help those with broken trust, there is only one unwavering requirement—be trustworthy.
Lisa Kemmerer is professor of philosophy and religions at Montana State University Billing. Her recent books include Eating Earth: Environmental Ethics and Dietary Choice (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Sister Species: Women, Animals and Social Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2011).
The image used at the beginning of this post is by Gilbert Mercier.