We all have rules to live our life by. One is, treat your fellow man or woman with respect. Strangely enough this rule is based on size. Fat people or skinny people (compared to us) can be made fun of. Whales and mice can be slaughtered. And the planet is fair game for everyone. If it’s too big or too small we don’t see it and don’t want to see it.
These rules of moral behaviour originate in self interest. If we make a social contract to live together as a tribe or inhabit a village or city, it makes sense to try and ensure we help, not harm, one another. Chimpanzees, for instance, agree on mutual grooming rather than trying to kill one another. Humans for their part have invented division of labour and the concept of altruism. This works; until the population gets too big. Then groups form, not for self interest, but to drive away other groups seen as foreigners. They may live in the same city and look like us but they might as well be Martians. We not only dehumanise them, but desize them.
One way we discriminate against, and fight with, those different from ourselves is by size. When we feel threatened, we exclude from our moral systems those too big, such as the environment or the planet, or too small, such as pets, insects or the atmosphere (really bigger than ourselves but invisible to us). Killing innocent women and children as in WWII in Dresden, Nagasaki or Hiroshima is seen as merely bombing a sprawling urban centre known as a ‘tactical objective’.
This aggressive behaviour is called war, and it can occur at any time we get too crowded, even in times of peace. When it does we look at ways of justifying it, as it is usually prohibited by our system of morality. We try and exclude groups not like ourself: those with different skin colour, a different sex or faith, from a different economic group and so on. We can be at war with all these groups, and all because our own group has grown too large.
One day not long ago I spilled some juice on my bare foot. When I looked down later I was alarmed to see the foot was black. It was covered with ants cleaning up the juice, which had dried on my skin. I had not the slightest compunction at washing them off my feet, not thinking at all how many ant Einsteins or Mozarts I might be destroying. The ants, whom I notice about their business forming mysterious queues and bumping into one another occasionally, had invaded my sphere and had to be destroyed. I didn’t try to brush them off. I wanted them gone quickly, and put my foot under the garden tap. Not very humane, but they were just ants. In the same way people squash cockroaches, harmless little beetles with the unfortunate habit of invading homes looking for scraps dropped on the kitchen floor or benches. For heaven’s sake, they’re just beetles. Law abiding folk suddenly reach for the napalm/insecticide and commit kitchen genocide without compunction. The reason? It’s a smaller species.
And yet, the further we explore our planet the more we become aware that life is made up of distinct individuals. Not only humans have individuality, but cats, dogs, and, if we but knew it, ants, cockroaches, microbes, snowflakes, even molecules. Each unit of life seems to be unique, unlike any other, and destroying it transforms the universe in an incalculable way. What a moral quandary to be in.
The best known literary reference to differences in proportion leading to prejudicial behaviour is in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels of 1735, still probably the best satire ever written. Ostensibly a traveller’s tale like Robinson Crusoe of 1719 which was extremely popular, Gulliver’s Travels refers fairly closely to European politics of the time. In the land of Lilliput, where everything is one twelfth normal size, and the land of Brobdingnag, where everything is 12 times normal size, Gulliver is presented with people and events that are ridiculous or disgusting.
The Lilliputians think it reasonable to bind the gigantic Gulliver, and he to sweep them out of his way. Neither they nor he thinks for a minute of the harm they are doing one another. Held prisoner, Gulliver is forced to defecate publicly, and the offending matter is removed by a procession of tiny wheelbarrows, which causes much offence and later he puts out a fire by urinating on it and offends the Lilliputians again. In the land of Brobdingnag it is the opposite, for here the inhabitants are giants: “as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me?” The giants aren’t impressed with Gulliver’s gold, which they can barely see, while Gulliver is disgusted when one of the giants feeds her baby and he sees a gigantic breast and nipple and skin with enormous spots, pimples and freckles.
In these two lands there can be no mutual respect or consideration because of a difference of scale. So, size does matter.
Due proportion might be important in dealing fairly with others, but it is not the same as one of our many unmentioned senses, our sense of proportion. This is part of our instinct of self preservation. You could say that due proportion is about the outside world and our relation to it, and our sense of proportion is about ourselves. It protects us from worrying about things too big, such as the end of the world, or too small, such as stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. When our concerns threaten to become obsessive and so harmful to us we urge ourselves not to worry about them, to “see things in proportion”.
On the other hand, altering the idea of proportion between our fellow humans, or accepting it uncritically, allows feelings of aggression to be expressed against what we don’t like. During the war in Vietnam, for instance, soldiers noticed the small stature of Vietnamese peasants. So they obscured the difference between adults and children and waged war against children, some of whom were only six or seven when they were napalmed or shot or blown up with a hand grenade. After all, they could have been enemy soldiers.
To be prejudiced against anything is a limitation. It may be necessary: for instance if we are rigid about hygiene and take swift action against germs, but it still shuts out part of our environment and puts us at risk in a way we are not aware of. Our place in the world is as a mid sized species. Most, estimated at nearly 90%, life forms are smaller than us, many invisible to our eyes. The Jains wear a veil over their face to prevent them from swallowing any micro life form unintentionally, and sweep the dust before them so they don’t tread on an insect. In Stanislaus Lem’s Solaris researchers on another planet take a while to realise that the ocean on that planet is a collective life form with powers far greater than man’s. One of the risks we take in searching for intelligence in the universe is that we might not recognise it when we find it, most likely because it will be too big or too small for our expectations, which are limited by our human size. In the 1880s Charles Darwin published a revolutionary book – on earthworms. He had discovered that destruction of earthworms, which people then considered a pest, led to degradation of the soil and poorer crops. Earthworms, he said, though small, were vitally important to farming. Weedkiller destroys not just weeds but an incredibly intricate microsystem in your garden and degrades the environment. If we want something big to worry about, we could try variations in the solar wind which affect the Earth’s magnetic field. If there were too extreme a variation we would lose our atmosphere, and wouldn’t last long without breathing. But these examples are too big or too small, so who cares?
To see life in its complexity requires the use of our imagination. Humans are perhaps unique in being able to extend, not their size, but their concepts. Each of us is not just a body, whether small or large, but an environment. We form networks of friends, neighbours, family, colleagues, and these can extend across half the globe in some cases. We create a culture. We have moods, and don’t need to believe in the existence of auras to feel that someone near us is happy, disturbed, sad or sorrowful. We are affected by our biorhythms, the weather, and in some cases the moon. We respond positively to others’ self confidence, charisma and altruism when it exists. As Humphrey Bogart says in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep when Martha Vickers tells him he’s not very big: “Well, I try to be”. Negatively, we are wary at the absence of these connections in a person who may be dangerous by isolation. To recognise all this is to see that humans exist in a sphere far greater and more extensive and complex than that of their apparent size. Similarly, our environment, the planet, extends far into space, and interacts with it in ways we don’t yet know.
In other words like all living things we are not just an entity but an environment. These environments can be pretty large. They are all fragile. We can be dominated by media, personal development philosophies, faiths and fanaticism. These all work the same way. They limit us. They cut us off from our environment or part of it, and in our vulnerable state try to determine our actions for us. I am/am not too fat or too skinny. Global warming is/is not an issue. The world is facing (or is not) a shortage of food and natural resources in the near future. Crop pests should/should not be exterminated with DDT. The enemy should be/not be bombed. Selfishness is good/bad. Swift’s Lilliputians go to war over which end of a boiled egg to cut off. These decisions are often made by reducing us to our mere size, when we should make them by extending ourselves to the limit of our personal environment. The smaller we think, the more destructive we get, the less we consider. A fanatic has very few concerns, and a mere consumer only thinks of self gratification. The wider our perception of others the more humane we become; humans have to try hard if they are to be humane.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.