“You’re so cute I could eat you up”

In this post on io9, “Ever felt compelled to squeeze an adorable animal really, really hard?”, we are told,

Sure you have. We all have – and not in a malicious sense. Squeezing is just something you want to DO. Bunnies. Puppies. Wee baby elephants. Ducks. Baby sloths. All wellsprings of the intense desire to hug so hard it hurts. Well it turns out scientists have given this compulsion a name. It’s “Cuteness aggression,” and they’re trying to make sense of it…

Scientific American points out,

Cute aggression’s prevalence does not mean that people actually want to harm cuddly critters… Rather the response could be protective, or it could be the brain’s way of tamping down or venting extreme feelings of giddiness and happiness.

Meanwhile, back at io9, we have this response:
violent love
(link)

When I read this my first thought was rather judgmental. I felt uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of the attempt at/appearance of cuteness (using words like “ellyfunt” and “going kitty,” finding animals cute enough to comment on blog posts about said cuteness) and the violent image of the kitten being punched. I also found it disturbing that the kitten is being punched because “it” is a kitten. As an intersectional feminist who’s had run-ins with rape culture, I resist that kind of objectification, of any member of any species. (See Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory for more on this.)

But then I thought more. Another io9 commenter admitted playfully “nibbling” on a kitten’s ear, and it made me look at myself. My new little son is very, very cute! And I would be lying if I said I hadn’t fake-“bitten” his adorable little pudgy foot while saying something like, “ooh, you are soooo cute!” I have also nibbled his ears. And our cats’ ears. Okay, fine, I admit it! I guess I have some cuteness aggression!

Is that okay though? I wonder if I would have these instincts and say these things if I didn’t grow up in a culture that constantly objectifies individuals of other species.

My feeling is that we don’t say these words, usually, to animals who we actually intend to consume. My mother grew up near a family who kept rabbits. They bred them, named them, loved them, and eventually, killed them and ate them. She thought that was pretty problematic, but she ate cows and chickens and other unnamed and unloved animals, and taught me to do it too. All around me, as I was growing up, humans treated animals like objects, though I could see they were just as alive and aware as I was.

I grew up eating some animals and respecting/loving others. When I met animals that were supposed to be food it was rare and sad and strange. I had to try to reserve my love and empathy from them so I could continue to eat them. They were cute, but to say they were “cute enough to eat” would have been creepy.

My personal feeling after going from a meat lover who thought vegans were crazy, to where I am now, after many years of experience and reading and thought, is that society did me psychological harm by teaching me to objectify animals.

It’s very confusing for children to be told on the one hand not to pull the kitty’s tail, but to be told on the other to finish eating their chicken or eggs, and not to worry about the chicken (if in fact the child ever picks up on the fact that s/he is eating a corpse or eggs/milk taken from an exploited mother). Children like to ask why. Maybe we should try to come up with answers that make more sense than the ones we give now.

And maybe we should think hard about why we tell those we love that we could “eat them up,” but we can’t tell those we intend to eat that we love them. Take a tiny baby lamb. If he’s a pet at the moment, he’s so cute we “could just eat him.” But if a human wants to eat him, he’s hung up and his throat is slit, and as we butcher his body and cook and eat his flesh, and wear his skin, we try hard not to think about how cute he was or how hard he fought to get away, or how loud he cried when we took him from his mother.

In both situations, it’s the same lamb. He’s just as cute. He’s just as “edible” in both the “cuteness aggression” sense, and the “made of meat” sense. He’s just as sentient. The only difference in this situation is our actions and what we are telling ourselves about why the lamb deserves to be treated the way we are treating him.

I grew up in that culture, and it taught me pretty clearly to treat others not as they want to be treated, but as I want to treat them – if they’re too weak to resist my will. I call that moral inconsistency. I call that a lack of understanding or intentionality. I call that oppression, convenience, blindness, cruelty. My guess is that this moral ambiguity isn’t very good for kids’ moral or social development. Which is why I’m glad I found another culture. It’s called “going vegan.”

For me, veganism means I try as hard as I can to respect others of all species. In every situation I try to think of the direct and indirect impacts of my actions on others, and I try to balance my needs with the needs of others. A lamb is a lamb – his own person. My role is that of an ally and equal, not an owner. I’m not superior to the lamb in any way; I may be pretty smart, but then, I can’t grow my own weather-proof cozy coat that precludes any need for clothing, can I? We have different skill sets, the lamb and I, but that doesn’t place us in a hierarchy. Unless I say it does – because like it or not, I’m a member of the dominant group. My task as a person who’s discovered I have privilege is to dismantle the hierarchy I used to support.

Which brings me back to rape culture, and sexism, and other human-on-human oppressions like racism and classism. If we’re supposed to dismantle those hierarchies, to challenge those oppressions, I think we should do the same when it comes to non-human species. If we did, maybe in a few decades, we’d find ourselves being able to say “I love you” to everyone, and saying “I could just eat you up,” to no one. And maybe that would be better for everybody.

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