STATS ARTICLES 2003

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Percy (The Pit Bull) Is Not A Racist
March 06, 2003
Trevor Butterworth
Taking anthropomorphism to extremes

Consider the following: It's a bright sunny day, and while out walking your Pit Bull, Beckham, in the local park, you come upon an amateur soccer match. Before you can say, "here we go, here we go...," Beckham breaks loose, tearing off after the ball. The players are outmatched by the swift and skillful mutt as he dribbles the ball between his powerful front paws down the left flank. Stuck on the sidelines, the dog's beautiful game provokes the following question: Could Beckham actually be playing soccer?

No, of course not. You might say half-jokingly that he is, but given poor Beckham's inability to understand language, the concept of soccer - goals, teamwork, not to mention the offside trap - has no meaning in the canine pursuit of a round object that won't stay still. Nor is it at all possible for soccer to teach Beckham all he needed to know about "morality and obligations," as it once did  the great Algerian goalkeeper Albert Camus.

Indeed, the realsoccer players would think you one player short of a team if you argued otherwise. And things might get downright ugly, if you began to extrapolate from Beckham's behavior to what the players were reallydoing on the pitch. As the great Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp succinctly put the problem with behaviorism,"Behind every kick of the ball there has to be a thought."

And so with that in mind, it is time to turn our attention to a real dog, Percy, a young Pit Bull from Brooklyn, who, in all seriousness, has just been denounced as a "racist" and a "bigot" in the online magazine Slate.

"A racist dog you say - even though, following Pavlov, we tend to understand behavior in animals as the product of unconditioned or conditioned stimuli, and not as conceptually driven?"

Yes.

"Or as the great French striker Eric Cantona put it, "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."

More or less.

The problem with young Percy, who was taken in as a stray by friends of Slate writer, Clara Jeffery, is that he habitually treats Black and Hispanic men as if all were employed by the U.S. Postal Service.

"His prejudice was revealed in dribs and drabs. The first clue came a week after his adoption when, while on a Brooklyn beach, he eyeballed and growled at two fishermen a hundred yards away. They approached, lugging buckets of fish, and he began ferociously barking and lunging. As the men gingerly passed by, we could see that they were Hispanic.

"A lone incident would have been dismissed, but Percy targeted my then-boyfriend, also Hispanic, for similar treatment. And he was prone to lashing out at black men, too. Teased for taking in a racist dog, my friends, who are white, initially objected. He was a good dog, a sweet dog, people are already biased against pit bulls, don't call him a racist. Not all men of color were targeted, they pointed out. And indeed, the odds seemed to increase if the man was carrying bags or luggage, or if his clothes were particularly baggy. But as Percy now resided just off a main shopping district, and in the heart of hip-hopping Fort Greene, these distinctions provided little solace."

Habitually, but not always. Black and Hispanic men, but not women. Such speed bumps on the way to a shocking theory of canine behavior might give some pause for thought, but Jeffery is determined to make her indictment stick.

"Most dog owners and people of color will admit (bashfully or forcefully, depending) that dog racism exists. Many non-pet owners (and Cartesians) will sniff disdainfully. Racism requires malice aforethought, they'll say. Dogs can't think, therefore they can't be racist."

"Nonsense, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and author of several books on animal behavior, most recently If Only They Could Speak. "Any behavioralist knows that dogs don't like subsets of people..."

Actually, the great French philosopher Rene Descartes, who bequeathed the adjective "Cartesian" as shorthand for saying that the mind is an entirely different substance to the body, was an ur-behavioralist when it came to animals, thinking them little more than clockwork toys. But while both these positions gather dust in the museum of ideas, they preserve a distinction that Jeffery seems to have missed.

Almost no-one today believes, as B.F. Skinner once passionately believed, that behaviorism can adequately explain human behavior. Skinner argued that all behavior, including thinking and choosing. is governed by conditioning. Unfortunately for Skinner, few philosophers or cognitive scientists looked in the mirror and saw Pavlov's dog salivating back at them. It was simply impossible to understand behavior or the subjective "feel" of experience without some reference to the existence of mental states and processes. Even if one accepted the idea of conditioning, it required some nod to the existence of internal memory states to work.

Even in its most brutish human expression, racism requires the concept of race. It demands some mental process of representation, classification and discrimination, however illogical or immoral the end result of this may be. If it were nothing more than a conditioned response to certain sense data, we would have great difficulty seeing any racist as being first and foremost human (and thus morally responsible for his or her behavior).

Dogs - or any other animal species for that matter - may appear through their actions to mimic these same human mental processes; but it ought to be clear, pace Scooby Doo, that they don't. And that's why it is a mistake to extrapolate from human behavior to animal behavior. Just as nosing a ball around a pitch doesn't mean a dog is playing soccer, snarling at Hispanic fishermen doesn't mean that Percy is a racist.

 


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