It’s a pretty hard trend to miss. Over the last few decades, the amount of time and emotional energy that Americans devote to their dogs has increased exponentially.
Animals that were once a pleasant and comforting adjunct to family dynamics have, it seems, been placed near the very center of many people’s emotional lives.
A few weeks back, to cite just one example, the Boston Red Sox observed a moment of silence before a game to honor the passing of the dog of the team’s long-time groundskeeper.
And on the few occasions in recent years when I have given students open-ended personal essay prompts in composition classes, I have received a surprisingly large number of paeans to canine house pets, personal evocations that half a generation earlier would have had as their object a beloved parent, grandparent or particularly important mentor.
I love dogs and thus would very much like to look at this new wave of pet-loving in a purely positive light, as the result of a conscious and laudable drive on the part of our leading institutions to stem the longstanding problem of animal mistreatment. Or to see it as a simple outgrowth of a generation and a half of children raised on the exploits of canine movie heroes like Balto, Skip and Marley.
Looking out on the broader expanse of emergent cultural behaviors, however, I find this very difficult to do as the rise of the highly anthropomorphized dog seems to coincide quite closely with that of ritualized, human-on-human cruelty in our media and our broader national culture.
No sooner had my then pre-teen children finished with Disney tales of endless canine ingenuity than they began watching, over my insistent, if archly expressed objections, festivals of orchestrated humiliation on programs such as Chopped, America’s Next Top Model, and of course, American Idol, each of which used the pursuit of excellence™ as a pretext for the vicious and public assaults on the dignity of spiritually needy contestants.
As social media emerged as a dominant pathway for human communication in the early 2010s, the young raised on these reality shows took the lesson that life has always been a pitiless choice between total victory and abject humiliation with them into the new, disembodied public square. The Hunger Games, released in 2012, elevated this view of human relations into the status of an unassailable social truth.
Not surprisingly, encounters with students and advisers during my office hours, which during my first two decades of university teaching revolved largely around curricular matters, veered increasingly toward stories of the indignities they and other students suffered while “partying” from Thursday through Saturday nights.
It was horrible to listen to what privileged 20-year olds were willing to do to their “friends” in their drive to fatten their accounts of social prestige. But even worse was seeing that most of these victims of cruelty believed there was really nothing they could do to stop these assaults on their person short of crying to the Dean of Students, a “solution” they rightly knew would only further complicate and embitter their lives.
When I would ask in a round-about way why, in the case of the young women, they felt the “need” to line up and wait to be selected for entry to a frat party on the basis of their looks or perceived level of coolness, they shrugged and said, in effect, that’s the way it is. “If you want to have a social life, you need to play by the rules.”
And when I very, very obliquely mentioned to some of the male complainants that there used to be rather standard verbal and even “physical” ways of dispatching extreme antagonists from their lives, they looked at me as if I were from outer space.
In time, the fear of being “called out”—for a silly question or articulating ideological positions that went against predominant and mostly woke-anchored strains of thought—became a quite palpable if invisible presence in my classes, greatly deadening the quality of our discussions.
All of which, believe it or not, brings me back to dogs.
As I’ve said, I love dogs. But I’ve never confused the interactions I have with them with those I maintain with humans, with their (our) marvelous capacity for irony, cognitive clarity and the full-spectrum expression of tenderness and enduring concern and care.
But what if I had seldom, if ever, felt and received these things on a consistent basis from other people? What if I had been told again and again, in small and large ways, that human relations are mostly a zero-sum competition for ever more scarce material and reputational goods?
In this context, the unconditional and always assenting loyalty of a dog might look pretty darn good.
Why deal with people whom you know will hurt you and with whom you are sure to have all sorts of misunderstandings when you can channel your energies toward the much more even-keeled devotion of a dog?
What, of course, gets lost in this method of coping is the development of the interpersonal skills needed for developing full emotional maturity and for operating as a true citizen in a democratic society.
The newly-born disinformation industry is bent on telling us that truth is a product that can and should arrive to our lives fully formed, like a ripe apple on an October tree in Connecticut. The key, they would have us believe, is simply making sure we find our way to only the “best” orchard, which of course is the one to which the “best” people have given the “best” ratings online.
But, of course the ancient Greeks and most that have followed in their wake within our Western tradition knew this view of knowledge acquisition was nonsense. They knew that truths relating to complex, multifactorial phenomena seldom arrive in neat little packages and that the best we can usually do is develop approximations to their essence through spirited and earnest interpersonal dialogues.
Call me simplistic, but I believe our culture’s current obsession with the allegedly “human” qualities of dog, has a lot to do with our generalized retreat from the difficulties of finding enduring comfort and wisdom—and the foundational key to both, dialogue—with the always complex humans around us. And I believe, in turn, that this widespread retreat from what Sara Schulman calls “normative conflict” had an awful lot to do with enabling the assaults on human dignity and freedom committed in the name of controlling Covid.
Because—and I’ll repeat it again lest I be misunderstood—I love dogs, I think I can understand some of what the canine companion of the Fenway Park groundskeeper probably meant to him during the course of his arduous hours spent on the diamond. And I understand the appeal that honoring the dog might have for much of the crowd.
But if I were the director of ceremonies for the Red Sox I’d probably tend more toward a moment of silence for say, those that have died from vaccine injuries, lost their jobs over mandates, or were forced to spend their last moments on this earth alone, forcibly separated from those who through the construction and maintenance of loving, and yes, probably not so loving dialogues brought true meaning into their lives.