Compassion, Misplaced

This video, which came across my Facebook feed, annoys me.

Did you take a look? Okay. It’s very unlikely the duckling is feeding the fish out of “compassion,” as per the caption someone added on Facebook. Rather, the duckling is dipping its food in the water to soften it. Dabbling species like mallards do this routinely. You won’t find a domestic duck-care site that doesn’t remind you to offer water along with food, so that your ducks can do their thing.

So, what’s wrong with seeing this duckling as feeding the fish? Why be the Grinch who destroys the dream of nature as compassionate? Isn’t it a harmless, feel-good mistake?

Well, it’s simply not true. That alone is a defense. I wouldn’t be an educator if I weren’t invested in the idea that getting your facts straight matters. And I wouldn’t be a writer myself if I didn’t care about noticing details — like how the duckling moves away from the fish at a number of points. ‘Cause, you know … they’re taking its food. You can see people pointing this stuff out in the YouTube comments. Which is, perhaps, why the video is now making the rounds on Facebook, where, divorced from those skeptical comments, it’s been shared more than 6,000 and viewed almost 12 million times.

But more than that, seeing this as a Golden-Rule-following duckling destroys duckness and replaces it with humanness. When we anthropomorphize other species, we’re saying, “I’m not going to bother getting to know you as you really are. Instead, I’m going to assume you’re just like me.” And pretty soon, everything we look at in nature is just a mirror, showing us ourselves. Us, us, us … it’s all about us. It all is us — shells of other creatures, stuffed full of us. Our values, our priorities. It’s an unintentional but nevertheless profound kind of narcissism. Other creatures are not allowed to be themselves, and we’re not required to interact with the alien and the other, coming to understand it on its own terms instead of ours. We just take a pass on all that.

Real compassion is great, and one of the things that makes it great is that it’s unusual, not universal. Other species do display altruism; we certainly don’t have a lock on it. But those species that don’t display it, even those whose behaviors disturb us instead of charm us, still deserve to be known as they are.

7 thoughts on “Compassion, Misplaced”

  1. Well said. I’m heavily involved in conservation and see this behaviour by the human species far too often, occasionally with nearly tragic results.

  2. “So, what’s wrong with seeing this duckling as feeding the fish? Why be the Grinch who destroys the dream of nature as compassionate? Isn’t it a harmless, feel-good mistake?”

    I’m with you. It’s a mistake because it’s an example of willful ignorance. We have too much of that going on as it is. The specific premise may be harmless in this case, but the mentality it represents is not.

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