Cats Teach Us To Beware of Racial Compliments

By Bill Hall

There's a lot of bigotry in the world when it comes to cats. Even when people are trying to be complimentary to other people and critters, they unwittingly insult those they would praise by attributing one broad characteristic to every member of the race or species.

Consider, for instance, the common assertion that cats are independent. Not quite right, even if it is an opinion offered in admiration of cats. Many cats are independent, maybe even most. But cats are like people. People coming out of a given culture may have a high likelihood of having been swept up in the habits common to that community. But a person should always prepare to be surprised.

Consider, for instance, the condescending compliments that black people are great singers or that Germans are well organized or that the French are great lovers -- or that cats are independent. There are three reasons why that is dangerous thinking:

1. It is wrong. There are numerous exceptions in every case.

2. It is misleading. Some of that is cultural. For instance, there is a history in this country of black people being even more inclined than others in the nation to attend the sort of church that goes in for a lot singing. Therefore, singing talents tend to get developed. That doesn't mean black people are naturally any more musical than Swedes. But there is a lot of singing in black churches whereas a lot of Swedes stay home on Sunday pickling fish. Thus Swedes are culturally practiced at pickling fish. (That is not a compliment.)

3. Inaccurately attributing flattering characteristics to all the members of a race or species tends to license inaccurately attributing insulting characteristics to all the members. If it is reasonable to believe that all blacks are great singers, then there would appear to be nothing logically amiss in suggesting that all black people are lazy, another popular stereotype.

But, of course, that's sloppy thinking. In truth, most people, black or otherwise, work pretty hard. And a lot of black people sing as well as I do. (That is not a compliment.)

Similarly, saying that cats are independent is just the other side of an insult -- the slanderous contention that cats are not affectionate. In truth, a lot cats are not outwardly affectionate. But a lot are. And in fairness to the latter, it is irrelevant whether a majority of cats are cold. Many are affectionate and don't deserve to be saddled with some pinhead generalization.

In that vein, while I am tempted to agree with you that newspaper writers are good looking, my granting you the accuracy of that generalization tends to license as well the generalization that newspaper writers couldn't spell their own mother's name accurately two times in a row.

So we all suffer from such sweeping judgments. But no one is more commonly afflicted in that fashion than cats. Their alleged indifference to us is greatly exaggerated and often explained by the fact the people the cats reject are unpleasant and would rightly be rejected by anyone.

In truth, cats are individuals, just as people and dogs are. No two cats are exactly the same. And some of them are as different as night and day, or at least as different as noon and early afternoon. We have had cats who don't stick around much except for food and won't give you the time of day when they don't need something. We have had cats who would cling to us, ardent in their affection, distraught when we were gone, hysterically happy when we returned.

While it is generally true that most cats will suffer less than most dogs when their owners are away from home, that is not always the case. There are independent, indifferent dogs and there are smarmy, adoring cats.

And yes, there are cats that will fake affection. Suffice it to say they seem to like you better when the food dish is empty than when it is full. That kind of conduct has been called "cupboard love." In human affairs, that kind of conduct is called gold digging.

But there is such a thing as an affectionate cat with a full belly, a cat that likes to snuggle and purr, a cat who misses you, a cat that would hang around even if you were to run out of cat food. The stereotype of an independent cat, like all racial compliments, is seriously flawed.

(Cats are especially fond of Swedes -- providing the Swedes are pickling fish.)




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