Thursday, September 17, 2009

If Lions Could Speak

The Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein once said, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” (I wish I could say that I knew that quote from having studied philosophy, but I actually heard it on the Ricky Gervais show.) But it was a fascinating idea to me, and it got me thinking. Is it true? What would a lion say if it could speak? Why couldn't I understand it? Would there be "cultural differences" that would make communication impossible?

To be sure, I have encountered cultural differences among people so great that communication was impossible, even in a common language. When I arrived at the high school in Japan where I would teach for two years, I was shown a picture of all of the teachers. Among them was a lady in her fifties who looked just like Aunt Bea from Andy Griffith. I said I was surprised to see that there was another foreign (i.e. not Japanese) teacher at the school. I was told that there wasn't - I was the only one. I pointed to the lady in the picture, and I was told that she was Japanese, even though she clearly wasn't. Incredulous, I asked if one of her parents were from the West, and was told no, she was 100% Japanese, just like everyone else. The truth was that I had stumbled into a complex web of social mores, etiquette, political history, and acute sensitivities that I knew nothing about. (Fifty years before my arrival, southern Japan had been home to thousands of American GIs, but it wasn't something that people liked to talk about.) The teacher was really saying, "Change the subject, because you are prying into an embarrassing detail of her personal life that we, as her friends, collectively pretend not to notice." He was speaking my language, but I couldn't understand him.

Would talking to a lion be like that, but even more so? Cultural differences, multiplied by species differences? I've thought about it a lot, and I really can't believe it. Lions already communicate very clearly, if you know what to look for -- posture, movement, breathing, muscle tension, eyes, mouth, tail. "My food." "My female." "My cubs."

Language is almost like a code that humans use to encrypt information before sharing it. If that Japanese teacher had given me The Look -- the look that our cat Rosco gives Bagel when Bagel gets too close to Rosco's food -- I would have stopped asking questions immediately. I would have understood that my curiosity was not welcome. But because his message was encoded in language, I used more language to dispute the point, and we missed each other completely.

People would also be more aware of what they are really communicating -- as opposed to what they think they are communicating -- without words in the way. After a recent dog training session, I watched parents plead with their child to give a dog toy back to me, while the child merrily ignored them and did what he pleased. I approached the child with a serious face, strong posture and steady gaze, and said quietly but firmly, "My toy." Of course, he gave it to me immediately. The irony was that I had just taught the parents the exact same technique for use with the puppy, and they had done it beautifully. But when language came into the picture, they lost track of what they were really communicating with their faces, bodies and voices: "I'm weak and losing control! If I agree to let you be in charge, will you do what I want?"

In short, I believe that lions -- and cats and dogs -- often communicate much more clearly without language than we do with it. And if a lion could speak, I don't think it would change things much, because lions already communicate everything they have to say. That’s what makes working with animals such a delight: they are completely present and completely transparent. Their bodies are mirrors of their internal states. And I think people can understand them, if they take the time to learn their language.

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