Concerning Cats, Cucumbers, and Moral Exhibitionism

On 14 November 2015, HuffPost Lifestyle published to their Facebook page a video compilation of felines being startled by docile cucumbers. At the time of this writing, the video has garnered 2,365,425 shares and 500-some-odd-thousand likes, and that's on HuffPost's page alone. A cursory search of "cats and cucumbers" reveals dozens of other similar compilations on Youtube and Facebook, each having sprouted in recent days, each with several hundred thousand views and shares or more. Needless to say, the Cats vs Cucumbers compilation and its variants went viral.

You would think that the reason for this video’s virality is its infectious humor. Given our ten-thousand year history with cats, most of us have had a relationship with one, and we know how hysterical they can be. But despite most people sharing the vid while in a giggling fit, others shared it in moral outrage. Yep, according to some, if you laughed at these felines’ expense, you’re wrongheaded. And if you went so far as to sic a cucumber on your cat, just to see what would happen, you might even be sociopathic.

In a NatGeo article written by Brian Howard entitled "People Are Scaring Their Cats with Cucumbers. They Shouldn't", various animal experts chime in on the act of cucumbering cats, and this is what they're saying: it's evil.[1]

Domestic animal expert John Bradshaw says the videos are “despicable.” Author of Think Like a Cat, Pam Johnson-Bennett, says laying a cucumber next to a kitty is a “cruel thing to do.” And animal behaviorist Jill Goldman says, “If you cause stress to an animal that’s probably not a good thing. If you do it for laughs it makes me question your humanity.” The article even includes the ominous subscript, positioned below the viral vid, “Don’t try this at home: It’s probably not a good idea to surprise your cat, experts warn.”

Are people seriously this concerned over cats’ psychological states? Apparently so. CBC News and Gizmodo published similar articles further decrying cucumber-fun with felines. Both articles quote Lara Chan, an employee at Calgary Cat Clinic, as saying “What I actually worry about is long-term psychological problems. Some cats are quite delicate.”

Chan suggests that cats which have been proximately violated with a cucumber might develop a permanent fear of them; their owners might have to forever keep cucumbers out of the house. A ridiculous concern? George Dvorsky, author of the Gizmodo piece, says no. Cats deserve to feel safe in their home environment (safe spaces, people, safe spaces!), and owners shouldn’t be triggering cats' evolutionary flight response by teasing them with a piece of fruit that’s roughly the girth of a boa constrictor, goes the argument.

There’s a certain absurdity in all these articles. For instance, not one of them cites any evidence that the cucumber prank is, in fact, harmful. And the authors and interviewees, Gordon et al, offer no arguments in defense of their sentiments, i.e. that scaring cats is hurtful. As such, the articles raise all kinds of questions. To wit, can cats never recover from hearing a foreign loud sound, being grazed by a child’s whizzing electric toy, or pounced on by their feline buddy — events which all startle with equal efficiency as a cucumber, and with greater regularity? Can anyone rightly ascertain a cat’s subjective experience? And what about us humans? If it’s immoral to jolt a cat, is it also immoral to leap from behind a door and give your roommate or spouse a fright?[2]

Let’s not attempt to answer these questions, because animal ethics is only the surface issue here. The real issue—what these ethicists and activists are arguing for—is not fairer treatment of animals, but control of the national moral climate. The real fight, when it comes right down to it, is for political power. And the inflated outrage we see in these articles is just one example of a wider political movement, a movement whose adherents have gotten into the nasty habit of feigning moral superiority and shaming us lesser mortals.[3]

Politically speaking, this movement is called progressivism. It is home to vegans, feminists, environmentalists, crusaders of equality, enforcers of Politically Correct English, academic highbrows, and, as we’ve seen here, animal activists.[4] And though not all devotees of progressivism are as fanatical as Gordon et al, many employ moral exhibitionism and shaming as political stratagem.

Moral exhibitionism might be defined as the gross or exaggerated effort to establish one’s moral identity in a social community. It’s kind of like when a first date swears she wouldn’t harm a fly. In swearing this, your date says nothing about whether flies are worthy of moral consideration or not, but says a whole lot about her desire—her need—to be seen as morally upstanding; she’s trying to make a positive impression. And in the same way your date's expression serves herself more than it will likely ever serve the fly, progressives' raucous cries better serve their moral identity than the downtrodden they claim to be rescuing.

But many of us miss this. We often assent to people who act morally superior, and in doing so we step into their circle of influence. To be clear, if we believe a person is morally outstanding we automatically grant them a kind of authority. We trust them, and we’ll follow them in some cases. Fortunately, most of us don’t take seriously the idiomatic “I wouldn’t harm a fly.” But we do take seriously outspoken progressives. We take them seriously in part because many of them are credentialed intellectuals or politicians or artists or Hollywood celebs, and we take them seriously because they shame us into doing so.

Shaming is how moral exhibitionism functions in the national sphere. When progressives act appalled at the use of disabled as opposed to differently-abled or pet owner as opposed to pet parent or transvestite as opposed to transgender or at the spoofing of cats,[5] we are to conclude they are morally astute bleeding hearts. Further, we are to believe their bleeding heart-ism is behind all their political efforts. For example, progressives don’t suggest certain policies are ineffective; they suggest they are immoral. On the ships of shame they advance their cause.

Consider the following analogy. A recent study conducted by the Sauder School of Business revealed that consumers who are snubbed by luxury retailers are more likely to buy than consumers who are acknowledged. Apparently, in the same way teenagers believe wearing certain clothes will grant them access to popular cliques, some consumers believe that buying a $1500 Louis Vuitton wallet will grant them access to the social class of their longing. When such a consumer goes window shopping at Gucci or Prada or Louis Vuitton, she’s more likely to buy if a Brad Pitt-looking employee ignores her. In short, it’s the feeling of exclusion that leads folks to hand over cash in exchange for overpriced brands. Conversely, if luxury retailers treat vying consumers courteously, consumers feel part of the elite class already, and thus are less driven to buy their way in.

Political shaming works similarly. When progressives shame us for innocuous words and behaviors, they create a social divide and simultaneously sting us into wanting to mend that divide. That’s how moral shaming/correcting works: it puts people in check. But instead of narrowing this divide with cash, as consumers of Gucci and Prada attempt to do, we attempt to narrow it by submitting to progressive ideologues, by confessing our privilege,[6] by unreflectively spewing the same rhetoric that made us feel ashamed in the first place. And once we’ve demonstrated our political allegiance, we are accepted into the club. At least, this is how moral exhibitionism affects some. Others just conclude that people like Gordon et al have cucumbers up their asses.

  1. Although none of the naysayers in these articles uses the terms immoral or evil, their tone implies this.
  2. For the record, I'd jump, too, if someone sneaked up behind me with a cold cucumber. Especially if I was on all fours with no pants on, as these young felines are.
  3. Gordon et al probably don't have political motivations, but by taking offense to innocuous behaviors and shaming people they are participating in and reinforcing a prevalent political dogma, consciously or not.
  4. According to PCE, this sentence is ill-formed. Instead of saying that progressivism consists of vegans, environmentalists, etc, I should say that progressivism consists of people who identify as vegan, environmentalist, and so on.
  5. Who can keep up with PCE? E.g., it was once incorrect to say gay, now it’s incorrect to say homosexual. We’ve gone from retarded to handicapped to disabled to differently-abled in the span of 25 years. And god knows the cumbersome differently-abled isn’t going to stick.
  6. “I'm privileged” has become the shibboleth of the progressive movement, the passphrase to inclusion.