Saturday, March 13, 2010

A rabbit walks into a bar...

A rabbit walks into a bar.

This is, of itself, quite a strange event.  Most bars are located in the trendy areas of cities, to serve people over-priced lager in an environment filled with loud music, and it is unlikely that most rabbits, whether domesticated or wild, would feel comfortable in such a setting.  It might seem more tenable that a rabbit would walk into a tavern, or an old pub, if such a place were in a rustic setting, but more careful thought would reveal that firstly, rabbits are by nature cautious creatures, generally averse to exposing themselves to humans, and secondly, a rabbit might be viewed as either food or vermin by the denizens of said tavern, or old pub, and so it's unlikely it would walk into the pub.  It might scurry past, moving between hedges from one side of the beer garden to the other, but brazenly entering the building itself seems less likely.

The rabbit says to the barman, "Got any carrots?"

Again, this is quite a strange event.  Rabbits, after all, do not generally eat carrots.  This is a common misapprehension, spread most probably through Warner Bros' Bugs Bunny cartoons, where the eponymous rabbit would be chewing on a carrot like a fine cigar.  Rabbits tend to eat whatever plants they find, and usually preying upon things at ground level, not root vegetables.  But it can be granted that if a carrot were to be available, a rabbit might eat it.  But it's unlikely to be the primary source of nutrition.

Secondly, rabbits do not usually have a voice box or a mouth of the particular shape and dimensions required to produce human speech.  For rabbits to communicate by speaking, rather than by leaving an elaborate pattern of droppings and occasionally waving their forelegs, would be quite at odds with their normal behaviour.

Finally, as Wittgenstein pointed out, if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it.  Though the lion might talk English, its form of life, being a lion, would be so alien from our own sphere of existence, that we would have no common values to reach comprehension across.  So for a lion, one of the larger, highly-developed mammals, and we must assume, also for the much smaller rabbit, mutual incomprehension across the species barrier is pretty much a given.  And yet ...

The barman says "No, we do not have any carrots."

Is the barman given to hallucinations?  Or is it a common enough occurrence for him to engage in conversation with animals?  There is no sense of shock or surprise here.  A normal person might be surprised or terrified, thinking that the rabbit represented some dread portent.  It's talking wildlife one day, it's the Whore of Babylon the next.  And yet the barman retains his sang-froid in the face of this situation that is frankly absurd.  What's more, he attempts to communicate with the rabbit.  This is a rabbit that we're talking about, a mere animal.  You can no more teach or explain an absence of carrots to a rabbit than you can successfully argue with a chair.  So why does the barman talk to the rabbit?

"Oh" says the rabbit, and leaves.

The situation seems stranger still.  Our normal expectations are being defied here.  It appears that the rabbit can communicate with the barman, despite the various reasons, biological and philosophical, that we have already addressed above.  And at no point does the barman react to the rabbit as if it is anything more than another customer.  What can be going on?

The next day, the rabbit walks back in, and says to the barman, "Got any carrots?"

It seems odd that the rabbit would persist in this.  If we accept that through a strange coincidence the rabbit was once able to emit sounds that correlated with the aforementioned question, it seems highly improbable that this would happen twice, without some guiding intelligence.  And yet this appears to be what is going on.  But this smacks most suspiciously of anthropomorphism.  This is, after all, a rabbit.  It does not do to treat rabbits as equal to humans in terms of intentionality or communication, no matter how much thinkers such as Peter Singer would suggest we should respect them.  It is not an act of inhumane cruelty to suggest that rabbits are unlikely to form this carrot-requesting role in human society.  It is merely a statement of fact.

So the barman says "No, we have no carrots.  This is a bar.  We serve beer and cider and spirits, not vegetables."

On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense.  The barman is clearly well equipped for his job.  He identifies the need of his customer (the rabbit) through active listening, restates the customer's need, and then explains why that requirement will be frustrated in the present situation.  And indeed it is reasonable that a bar should provide beer and cider and spirits, and not vegetables.  It is a bar, not a greengrocer, after all.

But the barman is talking to a rabbit.  He also appears to have no memory, because a similar exchange happened yesterday, and he has made no reference to this.  The barman may know his trade, but he doesn't seem to be able to distinguish rabbits from paying customers.  His financial acumen is in doubt.

Furthermore, his business model is a little doubtful.  These days, bars do not merely provide alcoholic drinks.  There will be a wide range of other beverages - perhaps an espresso machine for the fatigued? - and even the most primitive bar would have at least a few packets of potato crisps or salted peanuts behind the bar.  With the explosion of gastropubs over the last two decades, it would be exceptional for a pub not to be able to serve up an exciting meal - bangers and mash, or a decent stab at a thai curry, or at the very least a ploughman's lunch with a hunk of cheese and some salad.  Given that, it is less clear that a bar that can't muster up any vegetables is going to succeed in the modern fast paced food and beverage industry.

"Oh" says the rabbit, and leaves.

I've already called attention to the strangeness of this activity, and I will not comment further, only to mention that the further repetition makes this seem stranger, not more common.  Are we really to accept that a rabbit will act so consistently?

The next day, the rabbit walks back in, and says to the barman, "Got any carrots?"

It is increasingly strange for a rabbit to continue foraging for a food it is not even likely to eat, in a place which has proven itself sterile grounds for rabbits in search of carrots.  Never mind the fact that the bar most likely has a door, which the rabbit has to either learn how to open (also quite improbable) or else find alternative ingress to the pub.  One suspects there is another reason for the rabbit to be drawn to this bar that is so far unrewarding.  Perhaps the bar was built on the site of an existing warren, the rabbit's entire family was killed, and traumatised by this, the rabbit cannot help but return again and again.

But again, what sense does this make?  We have already established that the lowly rabbit is most unlikely to make such cognitive leaps - its tiny, rabbit sized brain surely does not allow it to make associations in this way, nor to think of ways to psychologically torture the human manifestation of its family's murderers.

The barman gets angry, and yells at the rabbit.  "This is the third day you've come in here and asked for carrots!  This is a pub!  We serve booze!  Not vegetables!  If you come in here again and ask for carrots, I'll nail your ears to this bar!"

Rage is a wholly inappropriate response here.  The rabbit is merely a rabbit, incapable of value judgments or of learning.  Becoming angry with it will not help to resolve this situation.  It's already clear that the rabbit is suffering from some analogue to neurosis, incapable of modifying its behaviour regardless of the results.  It needs understanding, not aggressiveness.

And yet, we can understand the barman's reaction.  He appears to be under a lot of stress.  He keeps encountering the statistically improbable talking rabbit.  Perhaps he has begun to lose faith in his own mind.  Perhaps he is blaming this on drinking heavily.  Perhaps he is now worried for the financial viability of the establishment, by concentrating solely on alcoholic drinks and not thinking about providing meals.  After all, trade is not exactly brisk - we haven't seen any other customers apart from the rabbit during these three days.

But perhaps customers are scared off by his behaviour.  A man who casually offers violence as the solution to a situation like this is not going to be very welcoming.  Nor is a man who has conversations with wildlife.  The latter might be charmingly eccentric by itself, but when combined with these outbursts of anger, suggest some deep seated problems.  This is not the kind of man who should be on his own with all that booze. He would probably benefit from a few days away from the pub - although there seems to be nobody to delegate his role to.  Thus, in this situation, it is impossible for him to attend a customer services course that he so richly requires, or if he sticks with his current offering, to advertise his bar to attract other, non-lapine customers that may find his beverages more appropriate.

The next day, the rabbit walks back in, and says to the barman, "Got any nails?"

"No" says the barman.  "What would we have nails in a bar for?"

(This seems a fair point.  While a bar should probably widen what it provides from a couple of lagers and a bottle of scotch, there's a difference between fifteen different single malts and providing a hardware store full of fastenings.)

"Oh," says the rabbit.  "Got any carrots?"


Post a Comment