It seems rather mean on the part of mankind to describe their more questionable forms of self-exculpation as “fishy.” Why should fish be made to provide the metaphor for what is dubious and equivocal? As a matter of fact, fish are rather blunt and unceremonious in their dealings with one another—they are cannibals, but not casuists—and have not yet reached that stage of evolution in which rough actions are sanctified by far-fetched excuses. When they have a mind, for instance, to devour their smaller neighbours, they do not say to themselves, as men do, “Shut your eyes and open your mouth,” but just swallow their prey sans phrase; yet “fishy” is the term which we men apply to our most hypocritical evasions. Let us at least recognize that of all “fishy” excuses the fishiest are those in which the aggressor affects a pious regard for the sensibilities of the victim, who, he is persuaded, either “does not feel” the injury at all, or in the long run actually benefited by it.
How often, for example, when protest has been made against some form of inhumanity, have I heard it said of the sufferers, whether human or sub-human: “Oh, they don’t feel it!” It may be that his insensibility is ascribed to the poor who live in slums, or to the hardened “jail-bird,” or to the ill-used “beast of burden,” or to the wild animal in a “Zoo,” or to the wild bird in a cage—there are many occasions that call it forth, but the argument is always the same. “They don’t feel it”; therefore why trouble about them? Let things go on as before.
That such assertion is often very effective as a soporific for humane scruples, we need not doubt. It may sometimes even be true, in a certain sense; that is to say, there may be no active rebellion on the part of the sufferers against the conditions which have aroused the complaint. But the iniquity of an immoral practice does not depend on the resentment which it awakens in the victim; indeed, injustice may be regarded in some cases as even more heinous when it is not felt. The shame is still greater when any person, human or subhuman, has been reduced to a condition in which he does not actively feel the loss of his just rights—when the iron has entered into the soul. Imagine the case of a besotted people who have lost their freedom and live in base content under a tyrant’s yoke. Is it any justification of the tyranny that such a race may not personally “feel” the loss they have endured? On the contrary, the slave, rightly viewed, is just as striking a witness against the curse of tyranny as the martyr, and, as a spectacle, much more pitiable. To have lost the very capacity for feelings one’s degradation, that is worse than the loss itself.
So, also, in the case of the hardened prisoner or the wretched inhabitant of the “cages” in which men stupidly confine the wild animals and birds. If it be true that “they don’t feel it,” so much the more shame to those who have brought them to an insensibility which is as melancholy as it is unnatural.
Besides, what of ourselves? We, if we are civilized ought to feel the sight of a wronged fellow-being as a real injury to our own happiness, whether the wrong be actively resented, or not, by the victim on whom it is imposed. We ought to be unhappy, even if he is not. Is not this view of the matter too often overlooked in the various controversies in which humanitarians are engaged? It is justice, not mere absence of physical injury, which should be demanded. A life like that of the pit pony, deprived of a due share of freedom and happiness, would be a terrible and hideous thing, even if there were no atom of active cruelty employed.
It may be that only the higher imagination will realize this fact as it ought to be realized; and how rarely, if ever, is the higher imagination to be found. Mankind, even the humaner part of mankind, as it exists at present, is but a dull and heartless race, and far from realizing what is implied in those “else-unfelt oppressions” alluded to by Shelley, whose heart, the cor cordium, was perhaps the truest and tenderest that the world has yet known.
Me, who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
The else-unfelt oppressions of this earth.
Only when there are many hearts like Shelley’s—nerves to feel the oppressions which now go unnoticed—will this world become a happy place to live in. And how many centuries will have to pass before mankind has attained to that?
Meanwhile we shall doubtless continue, curious self-deceivers that we are, to see in our predatory habits a reflection not on our own morals, but on those of the lower races; and Man, the cannibal-with-a-conscience, will find an odd satisfaction in deriving his most characteristic hypocrisies from that frank and unsophisticated cannibal, the Fish.
Henry S. Salt
The Animals' Champion, June-August 1930, p. 3