Monday, December 16, 2013

The morality of gingerbread men.

Am I the only person that feels bad about eating gingerbread men? I can't be.

I mean, yes, they're unfeeling masses of flour, sugar, butter and spices. I get that. But they've been made to look like people. It's the whole logic of the uncanny valley in reverse: to a point, non-human things that resemble humans become more and more adorable the more they resemble humans. It's why puppies and kittens are cute; they act like us, sort of. We can understand their basic impulses because they're our basic impulses. And it's also why gingerbread men are cute: they're supposed to look like tiny little versions of us.

However, at a point, this logic flips on its head. When something is kinda like a human but kinda not, we get squicked out. Evolutionary biologists say this is a defense mechanism to prevent us from mating with humans that might have debilitating diseases, or wasting resources on humans that are likely unable to help the survival of the group. This is why zombies are so creepy, and why nobody gives half a thought to mowing them down with a lawnmower; indeed it's even kinda funny to watch.

However, this is also why burn victims face so much stigma; why disabled people are routinely discriminated against, why the mentally disabled are especially so discriminated against.

I was sitting in this very seat yesterday when someone came up to me. He's well-known in this town, and he's mentally disabled. Really nice guy, really friendly. Always offers you his hand. Usually I accept it, but for some reason I didn't last night. I waved, and was polite, but I was squicked out; he's in the uncanny valley. It's a disgusting reaction, and I'm not disgusted at him looking back, but at myself.

And here I am feeling bad about eating a gingerbread man. I can sympathize with flour and sugar better than with a fellow human being. This is a natural reaction, and I know it's a natural reaction in everyone. But, as has been pointed out by no less than Richard Dawkins, evolution is no less a terrible moral system just because it's true. Humanity evolved and unconsciously enshrined evolutionary values into our social systems, and have slowly been discarding the morally repugnant ones.

The people that get a perverse sort of pleasure out of "torturing" gingerbread men have always bothered me on a moral level that I recognize as silly. Obviously nothing's being hurt, but the idea that someone's getting pleasure out of just pretending cruelty is disturbing to me. I really like gingerbread men, but there's no way to eat them without "hurting" them so I usually go for something else. Pfeffernussen, which is a German thing and tastes similar, is one of my favorites.

But questions like that are all moot if we don't treat our fellow man with respect. Maybe I'll make pfeffernussen next year for Christmas. But hopefully, next time that guy offers me his hand, I'll take it.

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