Because Neglect Isn't Cute: Tuxedo Stan's Campaign for a Humane World

Shari Sanders

Abstract


On 10 September 2012, a cat named Tuxedo Stan launched his campaign for mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada (“Tuxedo Stan for Mayor”). Backed by his human supporters in the Tuxedo Party, he ran on a platform of animal welfare: “Tuxedo Stan for Mayor Because Neglect Isn’t Working.”

Artwork Courtesy of Joe Popovitch - http://www.refusetobeboring.com/

Artwork Courtesy of Joe Popovitch

As a feline activist, Tuxedo Stan joins an unexpected—if not entirely unprecedented—cohort of cats that advocate for animal welfare through their “cute” appeals for humane treatment. From Tuxedo Stan’s internet presence to his appearance on Anderson Cooper’s CNN segment “The RidicuList,” Tuxedo Stan’s cute campaign opens space for a cultural imaginary that differently envisions animals’ and humans’ political responsibilities.

Who Can Be a Moral Agent?

Iris Marion Young proposes “political responsibility” as a way to answer a question central to human and animal welfare: “How should moral agents—both individual and organizational—think about their responsibilities in relation to structural social injustice?” (7). In legal frameworks, responsibility is connected to liability: an individual acts, harm occurs, and the law decides how much liability the individual should assume. However, Young redefines responsibility in relation to structural injustices, which she conceptualizes as “harms” that result from “structural processes in which many people participate.” Young argues that “because it is therefore difficult for individuals to see a relationship between their own actions and structural outcomes, we have a tendency to distance ourselves from any responsibility for them” (7).

Young presents political responsibility as a call to share the responsibility “to engage in actions directed at transforming the structures” and suggests that the less-advantaged might organize and propose “remedies for injustice, because their interests [are] the most acutely at stake” and because they are vulnerable to the actions of others “situated in more powerful and privileged positions” (15). Though Young does not address animals, her conception of responsible agency raises a question:  who can be a moral agent? Arguably, the answer to this question changes as cultural imaginaries expand to accommodate difference, including gender- and species-difference.

Corey Wrenn analyzes a selection of anti-suffragette postcards that equate granting votes to women as akin to granting votes to cats. Young shifts responsibility from a liability to a political frame, but Wrenn’s work suggests that a further shift is necessary where responsibility is gendered and tied to domestic, feminized roles:

Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture…dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians). This, it turns out, is an old stereotype. In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery. Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists. The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement. (Wrenn) 

Dressing cats in women’s clothing and calling them suffragettes marks women as less-than-human and casts cats as the opposite of human. The frilly garments, worn by cats whose presence evoked the domestic sphere, suggest that women belong in the domestic sphere because they are too soft, or perhaps too cute, to contend with the demands of public life. In addition, the cards that feature domestic scenes suggest that women should account for their families’ welfare ahead of their own, and that women’s refusal to accept this arithmetic marks them as immoral—and irresponsible—subjects.

Not Schrödinger's Cat

In different ways, Jacques Derrida and Carey Wolfe explore the question Young’s work raises: who can be a moral agent? Derrida and Wolfe complicate the question by adding species difference: how should (human) moral agents think about their responsibilities (to animals)? Prompted by an encounter with his cat, Jacques Derrida follows the figure of the animal, through a variety of texts, in order to make sensible the trace of “the animal” as it has appeared in Western traditions. Derrida’s cat accompanies him as Derrida playfully, and attentively, deconstructs the rationalist, humanist discourses that structure Western philosophy.

Discourses, whose tenets reflect the systems of beliefs embedded within a culture, are often both hegemonic and invisible; at least for those who enjoy privileged positions within the culture, discourses may simply appear as common sense or common knowledge. Derrida argues that Western, humanist thinking has created a discourse around “the human” and that this discourse deploys a reductive figure of “the animal” to justify human supremacy and facilitate human exceptionalism. Human exceptionalism is the doctrine that humans’ superiority to animals exempts humans from behaving humanely towards those deemed non-human, and it is the hegemony of the discourse of human exceptionalism that Derrida contravenes.

Derrida interrupts by entering the discourse with “his” cat and creating a counter-narrative that troubles “the human” hegemony by redefining what it means to think. Derrida orients his intellectual work as surrender—he surrenders to the gaze of his cat and to his affectionate response to her presence: “the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. The cat that looks at me naked and that is truly a little cat, this cat I am talking about…It comes to me as this irreplaceable living being that one day enters my space, into this place where it can encounter me, see me, even see me naked” (6-9, italics in original). The diminutive Derrida uses to describe his cat, she is little and truly a little cat, gestures toward affection, or affect, as the “thing…philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of” (7). For Derrida, rationalist thinking hurries to “enclose and circumscribe the concept of the human as much as that of reason,” and it is through this movement toward enclosure that rationalist humanism fails to think (105).

While Derrida questions the ethics of humanist philosophy, Carey Wolfe questions the ethics of humanism. Wolfe argues that “the operative theories and procedures we now have for articulating the social and legal relation between ethics and action are inadequate” because humanism imbues discourses about human and/or animal rights with utilitarian and contractarian logics that are inherently speciesist and therefore flawed (192). Utilitarian approaches attempt to determine the morality of a given action by weighing the act’s aggregate benefit against its aggregate harm. Contractarian approaches evaluate a given (human or animal) subject’s ability to understand and comply with a social contract that stipulates reciprocity; if a subject receives kindness, that subject must understand their implied, moral responsibility to return it. When opponents of animal rights designate animals as less capable of suffering than humans and decide that animals cannot enter moral contracts, animals are then seen as not only undeserving of rights but as incapable of bearing rights.

As Wolfe argues, rights discourse—like rationalist humanism—reaches an impasse, and Wolfe proposes posthumanist theory as the way through:  “because the discourse of speciesism…anchored in this material, institutional base, can be used to mark any social other, we need to understand that the ethical and philosophical urgency of confronting the institution of speciesism and crafting a posthumanist theory of the subject has nothing to do with whether you like animals” (7, italics in original). Wolfe’s strategic statement marks the necessity of attending to injustice at a structural level; however, as Tuxedo Stan’s campaign demonstrates, at a tactical level, how much you “like” an animal might matter very much.

Seriously Cute: Tuxedo Stan as a Moral Agent

Tuxedo Stan’s 2012-13 campaign pressed for improved protections for stray and feral cats in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). While “cute” is a subjective, aesthetic judgment, numerous internet sites make claims like: “These 30 Animals With Their Adorable Miniature Versions Are The Cutest Thing Ever. Awwww” (“These 30 Animals”). From Tuxedo Stan’s kitten pictures to the plush versions of Tuxedo Stan, available for purchase on his website, Tuxedo Stan’s campaign positioned him within this cute culture (Chisolm “Official Tuxedo Stan Minion”).

 

(Photo Courtesy of Hugh Chisolm, Tuxedo Party)

Photo Courtesy of Hugh Chisolm, Tuxedo Party

The difference between Tuxedo Stan’s cute and the kind of cute invoked by pictures of animals with miniature animals—the difference that connects Tuxedo Stan’s cute to a moral or ethical position—is the narrative of political responsibility attached to his campaign. While existing animal protection laws in Halifax’s Animal Protection Act outlined some protections for animals, “there was a clear oversight in that issues related to cats are not included” (Chisolm TuxedoStan.com). Hugh Chisholm, co-founder of the Tuxedo Party, further notes:

There are literally thousands of homeless cats — feral and abandoned— who live by their willpower in the back alleys and streets and bushes in HRM…But there is very little people can do if they want to help, because there is no pound. If there’s a lost or injured dog, you can call the pound and they will come and take the dog and give it a place to stay, and some food and care. But if you do the same thing with a cat, you get nothing, because there’s nothing in place. (Mombourquette)

Tuxedo Stan’s campaign mobilizes cute images that reveal the connection between unnoticed and unrelieved suffering. Proceeds from Tuxedo Party merchandise go toward Spay Day HRM, a charity dedicated to “assisting students and low-income families” whose financial situations may prevent them from paying for spay and neuter surgeries (Chisholm TuxedoStan.com).

According to his e-book ME: The Tuxedo Stan Story, Stan “wanted to make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of homeless, unneutered cats in [Halifax Regional Municipality]. We needed a low-cost spay/neuter clinic. We needed a Trap-Neuter-Return and Care program. We needed a sanctuary for homeless, unwanted strays to live out their lives in comfort” (Tuxedo Stanley and Chisholm 14). As does “his” memoir, Tuxedo Stan’s Pledge of Compassion and Action follows Young’s logic of political responsibility. Although his participation is mediated by human organizers, Tuxedo Stan is a cat pressing legislators to “pledge to help the cats” by supporting “a comprehensive feline population control program to humanely control the feline population and prevent suffering” and by creating “an affordable and accessible spay/neuter program” (Chisholm TuxedoStan.com). While framing the feral cat population as a “problem” that must be “fixed” upholds discourses around controlling subjected populations’ reproduction, Tuxedo Stan’s campaign also opens space for a counternarrative that destabilizes the human exceptionalism that encompasses his campaign.

A Different ‘Logic’, a Different Cultural Imaginary

As Tuxedo Stan launched his campaign in 2012, fellow feline Hank ran for the United States senate seat in Virginia – he received approximately 7,000 votes and placed third (Wyatt) – and “Mayor” Stubbs celebrated his 15th year as the honorary mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, also in the United States:

Fifteen years ago, the citizens of Talkeetna (pop. 800) didn’t like the looks of their candidates for mayor. Around that same time resident Lauri Stec, manager of Nagley’s General Store, saw a box of kittens and decided to adopt one. She named him Stubbs because he didn’t have a tail and soon the whole town was in love with him. So smitten were they with this kitten, in fact, that they wrote him in for mayor instead of deciding on one of the two lesser candidates. (Friedman

Though only Stan and Hank connect their candidacy to animal welfare activism, all three cats’ stories contribute to building a cultural imaginary that has drawn responses across social and news media.

Tuxedo Stan’s Facebook page has 19,000+ “likes,” and Stan supporters submit photographs of Tuxedo Stan “minions” spreading Tuxedo Stan’s message. The Tuxedo Party’s website maintains a photo gallery that documents “Tuxedo Stan’s World Tour”: “Tuxedo Stan’s Minions are currently on their world tour spreading his message of hope and compassion for felines around the globe" (Chisholm TuxedoStan.com). Each minion’s photo in the gallery represents humans’ ideological and financial support for Tuxedo Stan. 

News media supported Tuxedo Stan, Hank for Senate, and Mayor Stubbs’s candidacies in a more ambiguous fashion. While Craig Medred argues that “Silly 'Alaska cat mayor' saga spotlights how easily the media can be scammed” (Medred), a CBC News video announced that Tuxedo Stan was “interested in sinking his claws into the top seat at City Hall” and ready to “mark his territory around the mayor's seat” (“Tuxedo Stan the cat chases Halifax mayor chair”), and Lauren Strapagiel reported on Halifax’s “cuddliest would-be mayor.”

In an unexpected echo of Derrida’s language, as Derrida repeats that he is truly talking about a cat, truly a little cat, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper endorses Tuxedo Stan for mayor and follows his endorsement with this statement: 

If he’s serious about a career in politics, maybe he should come to the United States. Just look at the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska. That’s Stubbs the cat, and he’s been the mayor for 15 years. I’m not kidding…Not only that, but right now, as we speak, there is a cat running for Senate from Virginia. (Cooper)

As he introduces a “Hank for Senate” campaign video, again Cooper mentions that he is “not kidding.” While Cooper’s “not kidding” echoes Derrida’s “truly,” the difference in meanings is différance. For Derrida, his encounter with his cat is “a matter of developing another ‘logic’ of decision, of the response and of the event…a matter of reinscribing the différance between reaction and response, and hence this historicity of ethical, juridical, or political responsibility, within another thinking of life, of the living, within another relation of the living, to their own…reactional automaticity” (126). Derrida proceeds through the impasse, the limit he identifies within philosophical engagements with animals, by tracing the ways his little cat’s presence affects him. Derrida finds another logic, which is not logic but surrender, to accommodate what he, like Young, terms “political responsibility.”

Cooper, however, applies the hegemonic logic of human exceptionalism to his engagement with feline interlocutors, Tuxedo Stan, Hank for Senate, and Mayor Stubbs. Although Cooper’s segment, called “The RidicuList,” makes a pretense of political responsibility, it is different in kind from the pretense made in Tuxedo Stan’s campaign. As Derrida argues, a “pretense…even a simple pretense, consists in rendering a sensible trace illegible or imperceptible” (135). Tuxedo Stan’s campaign pretends that Tuxedo Stan fits within humanist, hegemonic notions of mayoral candidacy and then mobilizes this cute pretense in aid of political responsibility; the pretense—the pretense in which Tuxedo Stan’s human fans and supporters engage—renders the “sensible” trace of human exceptionalism illegible, if not imperceptible. Cooper’s pretense, however, works to make legible the trace of human exceptionalism and so to reinscribe its discursive hegemony.

Discursively, the political potential of cute in Tuxedo Stan’s campaign is that Tuxedo Stan’s activism complicates humanist and posthumanist thinking about agency, about ethics, and about political responsibility. Thinking about animals may not change animals’ lives, but it may change (post)humans’ responses to these questions: Who can be a moral agent? How should moral agents—both individual and organizational, both human and animal—“think” about how they respond to structural social injustice?

Epilogue: A Political Response

Tuxedo Stan died of kidney cancer on 8 September 2013. Before he died, Tuxedo Stan’s campaign yielded improved cat protection legislation as well as a $40,000 endowment to create a spay-and-neuter facility accessible to low-income families. Tuxedo Stan’s litter mate, Earl Grey, carries on Tuxedo Stan’s work. Earl Grey’s campaign platform expands the Tuxedo Party’s appeals for animal welfare, and Earl Grey maintains the Tuxedo Party’s presence on Facebook, on Twitter (@TuxedoParty and @TuxedoEarlGrey), and at TuxedoStan.com (Chisholm TuxedoStan.com).

On 27 February 2014, Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell of Nova Scotia released draft legislation whose standards of care

aim to prevent distress and cruelty to pets and to strengthen their protection. They…include proposals on companion animal restraints, outdoor care, shelters, companion animal pens and enclosures, abandonment of companion animals, as well as the transportation and sale of companion animals…The standards also include cats, and the hope is to have legislation ready to introduce in the spring and enacted by the fall. (“Nova Scotia cracks down”)

 

References

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Keywords


Tuxedo Stan; cute; animal rights; mayor; cat; feminism



Copyright (c) 2014 Shari Sanders

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