It’s a risk you take when you marry an academic – having worrying conversations over dinner.
I married an anthropologist. But it doesn’t really matter what his discipline is, as far as chit-chat is concerned. Because his daily toil exposes him to such a range of interesting research that you never know what the day’s topic will be.
For example, animal behaviourism.
The other night I cooked a mild, fruity chicken curry. I finished mine well before the anthropologist. He was too busy talking to eat.
A presentation that afternoon, on rat research, had made a deep impression.
The rats, he explained, were being put through various exercises, involving food, to explore their willingness to share and cooperate.
The rodents soon learned that they could obtain more food, not just for themselves, but also for their ratty friends, by pulling a lever. So they did. Cooperative behaviour was displayed.
In the first exercise the rats could all see each other.
The next step was to put up barriers so they couldn’t see each other but could hear and smell each other. And yes, they still helped each other feed their ratty faces.
Next, they circulated the air so they couldn’t smell each other.
The rats stopped cooperating.
At this point I was plainly supposed to say, ‘hmmm, that’s interesting’. Which I did. Then I added, ‘did the air being sucked out make a lot of noise?’
But what I should have asked – and what, because of the title, some of you might be asking – is, were the rats representative of both genders?
And the triumphant response would have been: no!
They were all female.
The next step, therefore, was to start testing male rats.
Well. Guess what?
Male rats are selfish.
Male rats don’t seem to want or need allies.
I suppose I wasn’t surprised but the thought began to worry me.
Because rodents – mostly it’s mice and rats – react like humans in many, many ways. Which is why they are so widely used for research.
If you follow the logic, then, this male rat behaviour might suggest that men don’t feel the need for networks of cooperation. For friends even.
Our dinner table discussion moved on to more familiar anthropological ground. With worrying examples of how in societies, as they become larger – too large for hunter-gather style group scrutiny to work – males can become more individualistic, uncooperative and … aggressive.
And yesterday, as I thought further about this analogy between rats and men some unwelcome images came to mind.
As if on cue a sinister cartoon appeared in one of our popular daily newspapers. A nasty portrayal of refugees (some obviously Muslim) flooding into Europe, with rats scurrying between their feet.
The ‘Twittersphere’ went ballistic (yes, the military-industrial-complex reference is intentional).
Old copies of cartoons from Nazi era Germany were resurrected and pictured side-by-side with the new cartoon. A comment from a 1930s edition of the same paper was circulated, revealing that its xenophobic editorial attitudes had remained horribly consistent.
And I thought about a book I studied for a French exam at school: La Peste, (The Plague), by Albert Camus. A French book, set in France’s former colony, Algeria, written by a Frenchman born in Algeria.
The novel revolves around an epidemic of plague that invades the town of Oran in north Africa, carried by rats. It studies the effects of fear and isolation – quarantine – on the community.
It could hardly be more relevant today.
The foreigner, the other.
There seems to have been a perennial equation of rats with evil – with invasions, disease, disgust, fear, loathing.
But the images used in the cartoons depict hordes. And I thought back to the early findings of that research on male rats. They did not cooperate. Male rats did not, so to speak, need friends.
At which point, I’m afraid, a song popped into my head.
Do you remember a song called ‘Ben’ by Michael Jackson?
It’s a slushy, sentimental ballad and very, very odd.
I suspect I’m not the only one who wasn’t aware, on first hearing the song, that it was rat-related. Yes, the Ben to whom Jackson croons is a rat. A rat in a horror film.
Some of the words are quite unsettling.*
One line reminds me of a chilling moment in the film Cabaret, set in Germany in the last days of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazi party flexes its growing muscles. The creepy Emcee, played brilliantly by Joel Grey, stage-whispers about his gorilla girlfriend, ‘she doesn’t look Jewish at all’.
I’m mortified to admit that when I first saw the film I missed that line completely. Though, of course, the film stood without it. But now, as I think about it, it sends a shiver down my spine. Because, while it is always relevant, people forget. And now, we would do well to remember.
Among the anxious Western Europeans worrying about terrorists, some would have us believe ‘Muslims’ are all something other, something not like us.
That cartoon with the rats may have been intended to awaken those historical fears in a good way. To remind us that fear makes us do bad things. Or simply to associate evil terrorists with rats. I hope so.
But some will not see it that way. And it’s frightening to see the extremes to which some people will go.
Refugees are people.
Muslims are people.
We are one race, all of us, all people.
And, yes, there will always be bad people.
But if we isolate ourselves, like those rats in that experiment, it becomes only too easy to ignore others. To believe they are different. Even to envisage – or desire – the extermination of the other. Like rats.
I’m a lousy historian, but there are some lessons I never will forget.
*Read the lyrics here: http://www.metrolyrics.com/ben-lyrics-michael-jackson.html or listen to a poignant Oscars performance by Michael Jackson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1dAQN5QcZU