Empathy 101: Excerpt from The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson

“One of my favourite books and I love this excerpt from it. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. We have it available for purchase in the store and to borrow from our library. I have been thinking about this whole concept a lot lately, and just how much better life would be for dogs if humans took the time to understand them and look at things from their perspective as well”

Imagine you live on a planet where the dominant species is far more intellectually sophisticated than human beings but often keeps humans as companion animals. They are called the Gorns. They communicate with each other via a complex combination of telepathy, eye movements and high-pitched squeaks, all completely unintelligible and unlearnable by humans, whose brains are prepared for verbal language acquisition only. What humans sometimes learn is the meaning of individual sounds by repeated association with things of relevance to them. The Gorns and humans bond strongly but there are many Gorn rules which humans must try to assimilate with limited information and usually high stakes.

You are one of the lucky humans who lives with the Gorns in their dwelling. Many other humans are chained to small cabanas in the yard. They have become so socially starved that they cannot control their emotions when a Gorn goes near them. Because of this behaviour, the Gorns agree that they could never be House-Humans. They are too excitable.

The dwelling you share with your Gorn family is filled with numerous water-filled porcelain bowls, complete with flushers. Everytime you try to urinate in one, though, any nearby Gorn attacks you. You learn to only use the toilet when there are no Gorns present. Sometimes they come home and stuff your head down the toilet for no apparent reason. You hate this and start sucking up to the Gorns when they come home to try to stave this off, but they view this as increasing evidence of your guilt of some unknown act.

You are also punished for watching videos, reading certain books, talking to other human beings, eating pizza or cheesecake, writing letters. These are all considered behavior problems by the Gorns. To avoid going crazy, once again you wait until they are not around to try doing anything you wish to do. While they are around, you sit quietly, staring straight ahead. Because they witness this good behaviour you are so obviously capable of, they attribute to “spite” they video watching and other transgressions which occur when you are along. Obviously you resent being left alone, they figure. You are walked several times a day and left crossword puzzle book to do (you have never used them because you hate crosswords; the Gorns think you’re ignoring them out of revenge).

Worst of all, you like them. They are, after all, often nice to you. But when you smile at them, they punish you, likewise for shaking hands. If you apologize, they punish you again. You have not seen another human since you were a small child. When you see one on the street you are curious, excited and sometimes afraid. You really don’t know how to act. So, the Gorn you live with keeps you away from other humans. Your social skills never develop.

Finally, you are brought to “training” school. A large part of the training consists of having your air briefly cut off by a metal chain around your neck. They are sure you understand every squeak and telepathic communication they make because sometimes you seem to get it right. You are guessing and hate the training. You feel pretty stressed out a lot of the time. One day, you see a Gorn approaching with the training collar in hand. You have PMS, a sore neck, and you just don’t feel up to the baffling coercion about to ensue. You tell them in your sternest voice to please leave you alone and go away. The Gorns are shocked by this unprovoked aggressive behaviour. They thought you had a good temperament.

They put you in one of their vehicles and take you for a drive. You watch the attractive planetary landscape going by and wonder where you are going. The vehicle stops, you are led into a building filled with the smell of human sweat and excrement. Humans are everywhere in small cages. Some are nervous, some depressed, most watch the goings on from their prisons. Your Gorns, with whom you have lived your entire life, hand you over to strangers who drag you to a small room. You are terrified and yell to your Gorn family to help you. They turn and walk out the door of the building. You are held down and given a lethal injection. It is, after all, the humane way to do it.

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