Cultural Gulfs in Developing Markets #2: Guilt Kittens

Well, if ever there was a blog title to discourage readership, I think I found it - "Morality of drowning kittens".  The proper thing seems to be some warning of the subject matter on the relativity of "cultural morality", and giving the proper weight to the moral decisions of the rural and unempowered.  I don't want to lure a reader inside and shock them.  The alternative title to Cultural Gulfs #2 was "A Load of Clue".

When I was four or five years old, I lived in Columbia Missouri, a college town.  My dad and mom were both from Taney County in the Ozarks (Land of Taney, Elmo Ingenthron now $55-210 on Amazon), both studying at the University of Missouri.   Each was the only person in their respective high school classes to go to college (though my mom, a female valedictorian, did not get a scholarship to MU.  The rotarians gave her one to a secretary school in Springfield.  She married my dad instead, at 18 years old, and left the county).

We lived in the basement of my auntie Maude Freeland (dad's aunt), who grew up on Indian reservations in the southwest with her father, a teacher in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  My great grandfather was a onetime liberal converted to Republican newspaper editor by the "unintended consequences of charity".  He disliked FDR and the TVA, thought government bureaucracy was always worse than private sector development, and he basically fought to keep the TVA out of the Ozarks.  One year, my mom's brother Eddie lived in the basement with us as he went through his freshman year at MU.  It was cozy.  Auntie Maude never married, worked as a photographer for the newspaper and wrote editorials for the Taney County Republican.

Columbia Missouri was the "big city".  Well, really St. Louis and Chicago were not that far away, but for people whose parents grew up in homemade shoes, Columbia had electricity and running water and was a symbol of American progress much earlier than Taney County.  I imagine it wasn't that different from a rural Chinese family moving closer to Guangzhou, living in the basement of an aunt's house, putting up an adult brother from the farm.

(there's a great video posted at the bottom of the blog, John Jacob Niles singing over old film of mining, stay tuned).

So.  About those kittens.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?
I'm of a generation that never had to drown a kitten, but we were taught how to do so.   In rural areas of the USA, the poorest places with water supplied by a well, outhouses for toilets, and maybe electricity within the post-World-War-II projects (the "last miles" of electricity in the USA), cats weren't exactly pets.  Not exactly.  We played with kittens at my grandparents farm, but we were told not to go near the mother cat.  My little brother, at 2 years old, made that mistake, and got 4 claw gashes deep across his right cheek like someone on the wrong end of Wolverine from the X-Men.  I was 5, and stood just beside him, and felt crushing guilt that I had not stopped my brother from petting the cat.  It had seemed like such a cruel rule, but on farms those are not always without reason.  It's part of rural conservatism, I'll theorize, that rules from the preacher may have similar consequences.  If nature is cruel, and God made nature, don't mess with God's rules.  What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Cats were kept on rural farms to keep rats and mice populations down.  No one bought cat food, cat food was a "first world problem".  If you fed your cat, why would it still want to catch mice?

And of course, no one ever heard of spending money to have their cats fixed.  Bulls were spayed of course, but that's another subject no one wants to read about, nor the connection between beef steer, steak, and sausages.  Let's just say that nothing is wasted on a farm.

Except kittens.   I was taught that you may want to play with the kittens and to let your kids play with the kittens, they are cute and cuddly.  But it's cruel, waiting gives the mother cat a chance to bond.   And it's not good to let your kids get attached to cute things and then to break the attachment.  The choice to give away kittens in a rural community is quickly exhausted, as anyone you gave a female cat to has the same kitten-litter problems the next season.  Do the right thing meant acting quickly.

If you think that abandoning the cats in the woods is a moral solution, well, that is 100% proven not to be the case.  More kittens will die if you do that than if you don't, and if all you really care is that you not see it and not have any sad act attached to your conscience, well I doubt you read this blog.  Feral cats and widespread rabies and feline leukemia is a problem created by city dwellers who haven't learned what you have to do with the kittens, before they open their eyes.

While they are still blind, I was told as a child, you have to put them in a box or brown sack and drown them in the pond.  Drowning was humanitarian, it was quick, and for kittens used to breathing amniotic fluid, it was probably not something they understood to be bad until it was over.  Don't let the mother cat bond.  On the farm, it's cruel to be kind.

The "cultural gulf", and the cross-cultural export of standards of "guilt", make this a tough sell to an urban audience.  I tried this story out on my wife this morning, who grew up in Paris, France (though she worked in the grape orchards in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where her parents were from and where they spent every vacation with the rural family).  When I brought up the subject of the morality of drowning kittens, she had a angry-sad-horrible reaction.  Why would I talk about that on a Sunday morning!!!  And yet the divide is not that great.  Her reaction syncs with I was also told by my parents, that it's not right to wait until the kittens are older, eyes open, have bonded with their mother cat, and then you are attached to them.  My wife and grandparents would agree.  People who drown larger awakened kittens that way are messed up.

So, there's a range of agreement, and a range of disagreementm a moral spectrum which appears to change with cultural geography..  So it's not as big a gulf as it might sound.  It's a matter of weeks. (At Carleton College I had a course on ethics with David Sipfle which began with editorials and analogies on abortion laws, but I won't go there today, but we wound up debating the gulf between abortion and infanticide, cultural geography, and the financial means to be moral).

When visiting Americans take urbanized Africans and urbanized Chinese back to theirancestral host country villages, or to the slums, and then display American horror and distain at "informal recycling", we are bringing a sort of racial humiliation to the urbanized.  It's in many ways the same mistake my great grandfather wrote essays and columns about for the Taney County Republican, about his two decades working with the Hopi and Navajo in four corners.  People who cannot accept drowning of kittens tend not to accept many of the choices of jobs which constitute hard work by hand.

But people who are shocked by "useless lists of jobs beneath wealthy people", and even the people like Jim Puckett who bring them to those places to feel the misplaced shock (and earn money for it, which they don't distribute there), I must admit they are leveraging modernization and progress.  We have many standards today which I agree with as better than standards of the past.  The question is harmonization of codes.  We can all aspire to a world where kittens need not be drowned, and aspiration becomes a basis of consensus.   Certification becomes an industry which rewards "best practices" and ideals.

Still, I'm left with the creepy feeling that morality is a commodity which the wealthy urban can better afford.

The Americans in Hollywood made fun of the Beverly Hillbillies for not knowing what a television was (see minute 14), and that you don't build a fire inside an electric stove.  That harmonized with corporate sponsors who wanted the majority of consumers, Americans with televisions, to get a message of planned obsolescence.   It would be funny not to have a modern kitchen - people may laugh at you. At the same time, they found a harmony in making fun of the Dreisdales (the wealthy banker next door), and somehow Buddy Ebson and the crew found a balance in exploring the humor of America's cultural gulf. I wonder if the Chinese are developing sitcoms about rural poor.  Or maybe China went directly to the American urban-youth sitcoms (here's a link to China's "Friends").

Jed Clampett was always shown in a moral light, he was given an innocent dignity which towered over the sophisticates of Beverly Hills.  Make no mistake, he was a kitten drowning man, but we didn't have to look at that, and we could admire him without making him into some "noble savage", in part because the program did such a good job of exposing the hypocracy and smugness of the Dreisdales.

There is something to capture here, something that reminds us of informal recycling.

What I learned in college is that it's a mistake to pander and make rural people into "noble savages", and that it's also bad to presume you know everything about them and can judge every practice.  That led to one of my favorite jobs, teaching "cross culture" to arriving USA Peace Corps volunteers in Africa.  Walk a mile in another man's shoes, and find out why hot humid countries avoid gangrenous "hong kong foot" by avoiding steel toed shoes.

That walking in an Egyptian, Ghanain or Indonensian's shoes is what an older generation in the environmental community has failed to do for the importers of used electronics.  There's some nasty stuff, like burning wires.  There is also incredibly savvy stuff, like harvesting of chips to reuse in clock radios, avoiding the mining of rare earths and pollution from mining, refining and manufacture.  There are other viral approaches, like and which are taking a different approach.

Calling Jed Clampet a "primitive kitten drowner", over and over and over again, does not make you moral.

The priestatollahs like Mike Daisy and Jim Puckett bring us ugly halloween alliterations about primitive assembly and disassembly practices, but either "-sembly" is work done by hand by people who need work. Missionaries working in Africa in the 1930s brought back noble tales of digging wells and creating schools, which I know were indeed an important part of the development of Africa.  My best friend Yadji stubbornly walked 2 hours to attend a catholic school (with his "slave brother" Dahirou, from a "lower caste" tribe that the muslim elders allowed the "moral risk exposure" to missionaries).  Because of that Yadji spoke French, and was open to marrying a westerner.   But he never forgot Yenwa.  And I don't forget Taney County, the Taney County I learned about as a child, the stories from the Depression and before, the roots of bluegrass, Before Branson.

We don't want people to enjoy drowning kittens.  And we certainly don't want to raise kittens until their eyes are open and they are too cute to drown, then drown them cruelly.  And we don't want them to starve as feral leukemia cats, and we don't want to let stray cats loose to kill all the young of endangered species. And we cannot pretend that if we let the kittens loose in the woods we are doing anything good for the environment or for the animal kingdom.  And we can't pretend that Ozark farmers, seventy five years ago, had access to veterinary clinics to spay and neuter their pets.

And we cannot pretend that Egyptian and Tunisian students had access to IPhones and flat screens a decade ago.  But somehow, some of our moral leaders applaud the arrest of the Joe Bensons and Discount Computers that allowed them the only other choice they had - $21 CRT computer monitors.

Perhaps we have reached a point where we are modernized and developed enough to compromise with Peta and Basel Action Network, and nurture the city revulsion of rural standards.  Perhaps the judgement of primitive practices is a coming of age for the emerged markets.

But don't arrest people for fixing TVs.   The line is crossed when describes Egyptians paying $21 average apiece for CRT monitors from Discount Computers as "primitive burning operations", or when the Semarang Indonesia SKD factory is embargoed because Allen Hershkowitz never understood what semiknockdown refurbishing factories are - Manufacturer Takeback, Warranty Repair.  When you tell David Higgins at Interpol lies, that 80% of the goods Africans like Joe Benson buys are destined to be burned by children in Agbogbloshie, maybe you are bringing modern sensibilities to Africa, teaching the women to cover their breasts in a way which will indeed make it easier for them to find careers in the new urban cities of Lagos and Accra and CapeTown.

But when I had this conversation with Jim Puckett six months ago, he used the term "collateral damage".

If you arrested my grandfather, a subsistence farmer, for animal abuse, because he taught his kids to drown litters of kittens while they are still blind, and to cull chicks with curved beaks (before they interbreed and cause more starving and sick chickens to evolve), I could only describe it as a kind of urban savagery.  Every bit like stories of a tribe burning a missionary for transgressing some cultural gap (like child molestation, perhaps).  It's so Mrs. Dreisdale.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of whether a cultural merge, urban-rural graft, cross-culture mashup takes place well or not is music.   The missionaries of Africa didn't bring back any music.  They chose to embarrass and shame the Africans into singing Christian songs.  It was the soukous musicians of Congo who discovered the guitar, and learned to play it like a percussion instrument, which created Congo music, discovered in Cuba and Latin America as rhumba.

I'm not saying that recycling in the emerging markets is not without problems, and it should definitely aspire to meet standards such as child labor laws.  There are many practices to change,  as Adam Minter has documented changes (wire recycling) in China over the past decade (in Junkyard Planet).  But a true cross cultural experience doesn't mean judging the farmer for his cat stewardship.  He knows more about animal health than you do, and is in many ways more compassionate than the factory farms fed with the money of people who cannot bear to slaughter themselves.

True cross culture means seeing people for what they can do, and hearing instruments and voices for the sounds they can make.   Bullboy shaming "lesser developed" children into singing the choir music you learned as a child is not progress.  Meet the culture at least halfway.  Choose pagan holidays for your Christian events.   Offer fair trade incentives for markets willing to compromise, and make adjustments to meet your standards.  But don't give them "hong kong foot" if they don't wear boots out of bad experience.

Here's a very nice combo of traditional "John Henry" recorded in 1940 by John Jacob Niles, set over film of mining and timbering in the 1930s (embed is not showing in Chrome).  Many poor safety practices we can see, much pollution.  We have evolved to better standards.  But it is a slippery slope from here to "worthless lists" of jobs beneath wealthy people.  We need to harmonize our codes.  Drowning kittens may not be a best practice, but in the hierarchy, the worst recycling is better than the best mining.

Developing markets tend to recycle a lot more than we do, and before we denigrate the recycling and send them out to mine more material for us, we should get a load of clue.

Coming up probably never - morality of cooking dogs in Kinshasa, in hollowed out refrigerators converted to meat smokers.   It's morally arguable that it's better than drowning the puppies, and I strongly argue it's far better than bushmeat.  But we can only take our loyal blog readers so far.

No comments: