My child loves bugs of all kinds. I have never seen him greet the site of an insect or spider with anything other than glee and fascination. To him, ants are industrious, Chaplinesque characters that bumble about his room. Spiders are stealthy, gravity-defying acrobats that are always celebrated with enthusiasm. Moths are clumsy obsessives making furious orbits around the lamp.
So, when his poking, prodding, and celebrating of our 6-legged and 8-legged friends is over, I am required to scoop them up in a tissue, or a cup, and gingerly dispose of them outside without injury, when all I really want to do is swiftly crush them and be done with it. There are general tenants of ethics that, almost requisite in nature, are taught to children. One of them being don’t be cruel to, or needlessly harm, living things. This includes don’t hit your friends, don’t beat small animals, and don’t put the kitten in the dryer.
These are all valuable dictates that will likely inform your child into adulthood. One frequent exclusion to this rule involves insects, spiders, and other pocket-sized vermin. Due to some collective oversight, or maybe it is a glitch in the moral continuum, the majority of people (adults, children, and politicians) routinely and thoughtlessly eliminate insects with great abandon and little regard. Sure, there are practical reasons for swatting, squashing, and poisoning insects, spiders, and vermin–some tend to bite, harm, or endanger humans and other mammals.
By playing the exterminator (or paying the exterminator) we are assuming the role of judge and jury with the justification that we are protecting ourselves, our children, and our household from harm. But really there is a egregious hypocrisy in the action of killing an insect as a preemptive strike, and not, in addition, offing a dog because he may likely bite your child, or a cat because he may scratch your child or pass on a case of Toxoplasmosis.
To be clear, I am not advocating killing dogs and cats, as much as I am not advocating killing insects. Simply put, I am publicly wrestling with the rationalization that, while mammals deserve our compassion, insects are most often treated with disdain, and heedless violence.
I thought it would be interesting to do some light research on the subject and discover how organizations, both secular and religious approach the issue. The Humane Society of the United States makes brief mention of the issue on their Web site, providing a negligible link between insect cruelty and a developing interest in animal cruelty. Whereas insect cruelty could be seen as a sort of “gateway drug” to larger, more barbaric, forms of cruelty, the Humane Society seems to find little to no link between a little insect experimentation and the development of severe antisocial behavior.
The Bible, which many people consult for all of their moral dilemmas takes on the issue of insects in this way: “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground. Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you.”
I consulted biblical chat rooms and found some discussion, but largely people turned toward what the Bible more famously claimed (and here I paraphrase) that God granted man “dominion over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” thus giving justification to guiltlessly eradicating creepy crawlies from our immediate surroundings. The only thing I was able to dig up protecting the rights of insects and discouraging flagrant cruelty, was something that came from memory.
On a trip to India many years back, I recalled seeing a religious teaching called Jainism that practiced non-violence toward all living things, even the small buggy ones. Those who followed the Jain philosophy would routinely sweep with a straw broom, small insects that threatened to be trampled under foot, and sometimes they would even cover their mouths with a thin cloth, as not to inadvertently inhale a flying insect.
Admittedly this is somewhat of an extreme tactic, and requires an awareness and commitment that most people are likely incapable of. But the issue here resides in both consistency and humanity.
How do we instill a sense of respect, wonder and compassion into our children, when we frequently make thoughtless exceptions in dispatching bugs? Should we be less reactionary, as well as more conscientious, in our dealings with all living things? Or should we embrace the contradiction, and teach our children to be kind to the furry ones, and bring a swift demise to the creepy crawly ones?