Additional Reflections on "FEED THEM SILENCE" by Lee Mandelo
This is a follow-up to my review of "Feed Them Silence" by Lee Mandelo, involving some thoughts that are too personal to make sense in the review as they swiftly veer away from the text specifically and instead into a broader meta-conversation of books like this which I have read previously, assumed correlations between emotional complexity and humanity, and how processing these thoughts has prompted me to make a change in my own life.
CW for discussion of ableism, dehumanization, animal cruelty/death, body-horror-adjacent concepts, and brief mentions of racism and genocide.
How some of my neurodivergences affect me as a reader and reviewer
I have alexithymia, which is a term referring to a collection of symptoms related to a combination of “difficulty identifying feelings, difficulty describing feelings to other people, a stimulus-bound, externally oriented thinking style, and constricted imaginal processes” (Wikipedia link with sources). Experientially, I don’t like that the first two descriptions seem to assume that I and others like me have some emotional capacity, if only I/we could access it. Having lived my whole life without that additional capacity or nuance of emotion, I’m content to live the rest of my life without it and continue my stimulus-driven existence as one that keeps me interested, occasionally happy, and avoiding boredom as much as possible. I’ve turned my avoidance of boredom into a constant stream of projects (one of which is this review blog and associated podcast).
The thing which occasionally causes trouble for me is my lack of capacity to imagine, something which isn’t always experienced by other alexithymics, but which seems to surprise and disturb people who think at all about what it means for me, from their imagination-heavy perspectives. The biggest way this affects me is as a form of aphantasia, where I can only picture things I’ve literally seen. In my reading, I prefer dialogue-heavy books which explain the reasons for various actions alongside physical descriptions. If I watch the movie version of a book then the movie version is the only thing I can picture, no matter how much it diverges from what’s described in the original text. Anyone who follows me on TheStoryGraph might notice the sheer number of books I DNF because they over-described things and told me what color everything is, trying to paint a picture with their words. I dislike an overemphasis on visual detail, or repeatedly describing facial expressions instead of translating them into thoughts or emotions, all of which makes the story unintelligible to me.
This is complicated by factors such as that I am an allistic (not autistic) person with alexithymia, but many Western cultural assumptions about autistic people are actually descriptions of alexithymia (plus or minus meltdowns), because there can be overlap between both states. I just happen to be in the less stereotypical position of being alexithymic, but not autistic.
I have for some time (even before learning specifically about alexithymia) identified as a philosophical zombie on the basis of a basic awareness that the culturally dominant terms around me imply this greater complexity in other people which I don’t have and don’t experience. I find this conceptually interesting, and a somewhat pithy way of getting across to people without alexithymia (or without other conditions which similarly constrict emotional experience) the gulf between their emotional life and mine.
In the course of this essay I use some references to emotions that reach beyond my personal palette of neutral, happy/good, bored/bad, excited/interested (this interest is content-neutral and can be about “good” or “bad” topics), and sad/disappointed. I do this because I generally understand the context that is implied by more specific emotional terms, but not because I’m literally feeling the emotions. I’m used to saying the more specific terms in conversations with other people (which is likely a form of masking). Because my experience as an alexithymic is central to my reaction to "Feed Them Silence" and ideas of neurological complexity as a delineation of moral responsibility, I’ll translate my actual emotion from the more generally accessible specific term when possible.
So what does all this have to do with "Feed Them Silence"?
“Feed Them Silence” follows a researcher named Sean who uses technology to experience the mind of a wolf (dubbed “Kate” by the research team), with the interface translating the wolf’s thoughts and emotions into something that is understandable by Sean’s human brain. Ultimately, the question of whether Sean’s experiences of Kate’s emotional complexity are literal or are caused by the proxy of the interface’s programming, or if the technology actually reflect Kate’s complex emotions into Sean’s brain is immaterial, because Sean proceeds through the story with the assumption that what she feels from Kate is complex and real. This is in the greater context of a (specifically but perhaps not only Western) assumption that complexity correlates with some kind of “good” in a moral sense, that feelings which are complicated are better and more real than feelings which are “simple” or composed of fewer discrete elements. It’s also a story about her inability (or disinterest) in emotionally connecting with the humans around her, using her connection to Kate as a way of experiencing the feelings of connectedness which she craves. To me, the thing that immediately stands out is that the process of trying to map the wolf brain onto a human might be a form of technologically-assisted anthropomorphization wherein the wolf isn’t actually experiencing this emotional complexity, but the interface has been programmed on the assumption that these neurological impulses have human analogs.
As general concepts, assumptions of neurological complexity are often tied in with assumed emotional capacity in popular descriptions in a way that doesn’t clearly delineate between physical pain and emotional pain. When moral considerations become involved, there’s often a kind of post-hoc justification that cruelty is okay if the being who is harmed isn’t actually emotionally or neurologically complex. These include whether harm crosses the line into cruelty, or whether a death is a murder - using the broad definition that “murder” is death which is not morally sanctioned or otherwise permitted by the applicable social structures. As someone with alexithymia, I find this somewhere between confusing and frustrating. In a literal sense, my emotion is that I’m intrigued by the contradiction and therefore have turned that interest into writing this essay in addition to my review. Part of what caught my interest is that in "Feed Them Silence", the protagonist, Sean, discovers that wolves are more emotionally complex than I as a person am. There’s a very long list of emotions that Sean experiences through Kate, a complicated array filled with nuance and considerations of the future. Throughout the book, the question of whether wolves are emotionally complex is one of the factors in whether the characters feel bad about mistreating, experimenting on, or killing them. While Sean feels that they are, she does so on the basis of experiencing those emotions through the interface and therefore has difficulty in explaining her changing conclusions about the ethical considerations of the research to her colleagues. It’s disturbing to read. I use “disturbing” as a term to get at the idea that I would not want to regularly engage with someone who thought the fact that I’m probably less emotionally complex than my extremely expressive cat would be a reason to mistreat me. Or, inversely, that if they have as their default assumption, that I am like a person without alexithymia, a person with emotional complexity, but they assume my cat, a non-human animal is not emotionally complex, that it would be fine to mistreat my cat on the basis of that assumption.
I have enjoyed individual books like this one, that deal with the question of our relationship to animals and their sentience/sapience/emotional depth as a facet of how we interact with them. A long time ago, I read “Eva” by Peter Dickinson, a book which formed some of the background in my mind onto which “Feed Them Silence” has become layered. In that book, a teenage girl ends up with her consciousness copied/transferred into the body of a chimpanzee after an accident. Throughout the novel the division between her humanity and her life as a chimpanzee becomes blurred. By the end of her life, she barely remembers her time in a human body, and she is fully a chimpanzee in how she interacts with her new community. She might have a slightly higher than baseline intelligence for a chimpanzee, but what I recall is that she's presented as being very different by the end from immediately after the implantation. I think books like these are a way for people with this emotional complexity and nuance in their internal lives to try and grapple with this topic in one of two directions. There’s the positive direction which sometimes includes anthropomorphization and/or some kind of projection, wherein non-human animal behaviors are attributed to human motivations, including emotional drives. The other direction is dehumanization, which either enforces or justifies a paradigm, in which people who look like the (human) person doing this assessment, are assumed to not be fully human whatever the speaker means by that for the sake of perpetrating some greater harm. Even the basic language for this concept assumes that “humanity” is special and morally relevant, such that “dehumanization” refers to treating people like things or denying their autonomy. I prefer the language of “personhood” in this context, though even that can become fraught as there are people who experience “depersonalization” where they and their experiences do not feel real (See In Defence of De-persons by Johanna Hedva). The project of dehumanization and its intertwining with racism, classism, ableism, sexism, etc., means that there is no perfect word for unambiguously expressing the simple sentiment that I don’t think outside observers should be in a position to declare someone else’s lack of autonomy or place judgements on the shape of their interiority, especially in any context where the observers find or place themselves in the position of denying access, autonomy, or opportunities to those whom they have judged and found wanting. I prefer the language of “personhood” as it moves further from substrate chauvinism in a way I find pleasing (good/happy plus interesting). Substrate chauvinism is the idea/assumption that interiority is defined or constrained by substance. This is a concept which often comes up in discussions of artificial intelligence, where someone might deny personhood to a computer which had the exact same interiority as a flesh person (usually a human in these examples) because of an assumption that the physical form (substrate) underlying the mind in question constrains the range of possible mental states. Because of a societal tendency towards substrate chauvinism which underlies and frustrates (feels interesting but not in a good/happy way) my attempts to choose words which are free of historical attempts to deny autonomy, coherency, worth (not intertwined with capital), and dignity, I still use the term “personhood” while recognizing that the particular bundle of ideas which this term indicates to me may not be the same to other beings with whom I attempt to communicate.
What this means for me
I find myself not at all bothered that, based on her behavior, my cat probably has more complex emotions than I do. But this has led me to intellectually grappling with (i.e. discussing and then writing an essay to cohere my thoughts on) the idea that people have used either the perception or the actuality that other humans have the same limited emotional capacity as I do as a justification for harm. This can be as minor as not taking into account how small specific actions might mess up someone else’s day, all the way to grander scales of harm, like ableism, racism (specific and systemic), and various justifications that have been used in genocide (the fourth stage in the ten stages of genocide is specifically “dehumanization”).
So in that context, I don’t like the idea that someone would assume on the basis of talking to me that I am worthy of more just because of the complexity that they assume I have when I don’t, nor am I okay (good/happy) with the idea that anyone would be treated badly on the basis for assuming that they’re like me, whether or not they are. In the course of putting together this essay I accidentally talked myself into being vegetarian on the basis of the thoughts that are outlined here, for the sake of ethical and intellectual consistency with this change in mental paradigm. I don’t want to eat animals that are more emotionally complex than me, and since I can’t know for sure I’d rather err on the side that maximizes positive emotions for those who can experience them, either complexly or simply.
I don’t have some grand conclusion, just that maybe if you ask someone how they’re feeling and they never seem to know, they might never have an answer for you and that needs to be okay (good or neutral) in a general sense. Also, I hope (would likely be happy in the future to know) that this helps people pause before demanding emotional complexity from others in order to acknowledge or respect their dignity and autonomy.
Thank you to the friends who reviewed this for coherency in its draft form. Your feedback was insightful and deeply appreciated (good/happy plus interesting), helping me to create the best achievable version of this post. Thank you particularly to [sarah] Cavar and Shaina Krevat, whose comments prompted additional references and explanations, without which this would be incomplete.