TOM PLATE WRITES — International peace and stability, more vital to survival than ever before in our enervating epoch of pandemic-proliferation and climate-deterioration, requires a collaborative community of responsibility. What is needed – urgently, obviously — is a global ethic of helping-out and digging-in for the common long haul rather than pointing fingers and declaiming reasons for feeling so utterly exceptional or piously superior.
Grandiose moral judgments should be made only by nations that are themselves without sin – and there aren’t many of them, if any – so far as I can tell. The United States, for example, is not one and neither is China. But without both of these singular nations leading the fire-brigade against frightening common threats, how can the most oppressive conflagrations of our time ever be pushed back?
The national psyches of both are now precariously perched atop the issue of status. China is aiming to regain it and America fears losing it. This reality, relatively unexamined, helps explain the current big chill. Thankfully, from England, comes some pertinent observations about animal/human nature. Acclaimed environmental philosopher Melanie Challenger (blog: Thinking with the Planet) has likened status threats in the mind of so-called ‘humans’ to nothing less than attacks by pathogens and predators. They are existential challenges. In her new book How to be Animal: A New History of What It Means to be Human (Penguin) she writes: “Originally, status was about priority access to resources in situations of competition” — and with Beijing and Washington, it still is, of course — adding: “Reductions in status might lead to a life-or-death scenario, sending alarm bells through the whole body of an animal… particularly for male primates….”
No, Challenger has not lost her mind; rather, she offers solid new science and resurrects overlooked past science to create doubt that humans can be elevated above animals on the dubious ground that they have a mind independent of their bones, tissues and fluids. Challenger, an internationally acclaimed award-winning researcher and author, does not deploy ‘animal” as mere metaphor. It is precisely who we ‘humans’ are. There is no brain or consciousness-component divorced from our animal bodies, no ‘ghost in the machine’ after decay and death propelling us to angelic being or holy eternal reward. Her opening line in the book is uncompromising: “The world is now dominated by an animal that doesn’t think it’s an animal.”
Political man (woman) then is a political animal. Chinese, Americans and other ‘humans’ roam around the globe like the animals that they actually are without knowing this is who they are. And the essence of the political animal is no different, except superficially, from that of any advanced animal. We think we ‘humans’ are better than all other creatures but that doesn’t prove a thing: there are other sets of animals, for instance, that do a better job at limiting destruction of the earth or nurturing closely-knit communities.
For Challenger, it is anything but a putdown to say, as she does, “the truth is that being human is being an animal,” even accepting that “this is a difficult thing to admit….” For her, ‘humans’ are animals somewhat advanced up the Darwinian ladder – but don’t push it, she says. In a hugely supportive essay on Challenger in the influential New York Review of Books, John Gray, the English political philosopher and London School of Economics and Politics emeritus professor, takes her animal-kingdom hypothesis to a higher level with the kind of insightful warning that makes most international-relations theory seem truly academic: “Rather than mankind acting as a single agent, some human beings will appoint themselves as humankind’s representatives. This group will then identify its values with those of humankind. Almost inevitably, human beings who do not accept these values will be regarded as less than fully human.” This should give all of us a bit of a chill. It’s what China and America tend to whisper about each other.
I was stirred by Challenger’s thesis and Gray’s thesis endorsement because the possibility of military conflict between China and America seems low on the Darwinian ladder and, with a decent dollop of compromise on both sides, utterly avoidable. So why do otherwise sensible and distinguished Chinese and American diplomats bark at each other like – well — animals? Precisely because that is what we are while believing to be something else: in fact, denying that we’re in a feral state of nature when barking at one another is our true nature. Each side claims to be convinced they alone are at the center of things while noting that the other side is at a lower stage of evolution. Both are wrong.
In years past, in interviews and conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, I missed few opportunities to sound him out about China and America. After all, it was known that he had influenced Chinese economic reformers, including Deng Xiaoping. Even so, he always said he viewed himself as no expert on China – that this amazing kaleidoscope overwhelms any one pair of eyes. Oh, how often since then have I wished on America’s putative ‘China experts’ similarly modest self-reflections. China fortune-telling is a giant gamble. But Lee did appear certain of one thing while splintering ‘inevitability of war’ arguments into so many toothpicks: no rational reason for military conflict between China and the U.S. existed. Properly managed – as members of the world community, not aliens from another world– there is enough globe to go around.
But perhaps humans are unique and separate from earth’s animal kingdom, and Challenger, Gray and other like minds have got it upside-down. If so, we might start acting like it before ‘humans’ make themselves an increasingly endangered animal. A turnaround in Sino-US relations is strongly recommended.
LMU Clinical Professor Tom Plate is also vice president of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles and author of the book ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’. The original version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, to which Plate is a regular opinion contributor.