Darkness Visible

» September 27th, 2012


One of the driving themes in my book The Modern Savage, which I am now actively writing, is that the acceptance of slaughtering a sentient being—no matter how the animal was raised— masks immense personal and societal suffering. To support this claim I’ve had to spend a great deal of time viewing slaughterhouse footage, paying special attention to the juxtaposition of disingenuously humane rhetoric against the cold reality of the kill. I can only do so much of this work at once. I can only watch so many sheep bleed out, so many cows fall to a stun gun, so many chickens decapitated before a sunny day goes cloudy and storms move in. It’s hard to witness so much moral failure and not flirt with despair of a deeper sort.

As I’ve become increasingly attuned to the impact of viewing slaughter on my own psyche (this is also something I’ve seen live, too), I’ve started to think more critically about the larger social implications of this vicious act, one that vested interests both large and small have worked diligently to obscure from human consciousness and consideration for the purposes of exonerating the human palate. What kind of impact does our knowledge of this injustice have on us as a collective of decent people?

The cultural consequences of animal slaughter is so deeply infused in material life that we ostensibly never see it, think about it, or even pause over its implications. I write this while sitting in an airport, with a group of men in front of me wearing cowboy boots, eating bacon and egg breakfast tacos, and haw-hawing it up as if the world were a field of daisies. In this sense, these men are no different from the women to my right and left holding elegant leather handbags drinking lattes and chit-chatting about vacation spots. Few of these men and woman are aware of the horrific violence and suffering that transpired to bring these luxuries to their bodies.

Or are they?

Although great pains are taken to protect consumers from the brutality of animal slaughter, my sense is that we know, on some level, that systematic tragedy underscores these production and infusion of these products throughout material culture. We may not know that we know, but deep down, somewhere in our wily little psyches, we know. We just don’t want to own that knowledge. It’s understandable. On many occasions I’ve said to non-vegans who want to know why  I don’t eat animals that “if you let me show you a couple of videos I could begin to answer your question.” More often then not they respond “no, please, I don’t want to know!” This answer is given sort of jokingly, but the humor hides nervousness, and the nervousness hides something much more insidious. Something I wonder about often.

It’s a basic proposition in individual human psychology that when trauma of any sort is repressed the consequences of that repression are manifested in seemingly disconnected, but quite serious, ways. There is no reason to think that this phenomenon couldn’t have a collective counterpart in our broader social consciousness. As Amy Fitzgerald writes about the human awareness of slaughter: “attempted cultural amnesia brings its own set of consequences.”

They’re not pretty. By making the slaughterhouse “a place that is no place,” producers of animal goods force consumers to beat a retreat from the underlying reality of our material life. (Real time update: now on a layover in another city–Chicago– and the guy sitting next to me is eating some sort of massive biscuit from McDonald’s). Confronted with the prospect of confronting trauma, we duck and hide, understandably, from the gruesome core of an endeavor that—way on the other end—provides the preconditions for pleasure, taste, fashion, and entertainment.  This denial must have manifestations, hard as they may be to identify.  A society that tacitly accepts systematic injustice, and then thrives on it, cannot be a society in good mental health.

I don’t know how we’d go about measuring or even identifying the consequences of our “attempted cultural amnesia.” What I do know, largely from Amy Fitzgerald’s work, is that broad social repercussions resonate through societies that surround slaughterhouses. Water and air quality is diminished, workers in the slaughterhouses become depressed and often abusive, offensive odors permeate daily life, pressure on often non-existent social services increase, arrest rates go up, as do crime and rates of other kinds of violence. So, we know that workers within slaughterhouses suffer as a result of killing animals, and we know that the communities around them suffer as a result of killing animals. It seems perfectly reasonable to propose that broader public spheres otherwise completely remote from killing animals suffer as well. Because we know.

What’s worse is that we suffer while thinking we’re enjoying the richness of a material life rooted in animal products.  But what we’re really doing is moving through life on a foundation of systematic exploitation, one that, as decent people, we know to be wrong. Until we confront this fundamental injustice, we will suffer consequences known and unknown. We will remain, in essence, the modern savages we are. Thus we work to make the darkness visible, however painful and demoralizing it is to see.

8 Responses to Darkness Visible

  1. Rebecca Stucki says:

    This theory is at the core of Will Tuttle’s book, “The World Peace Diet.” When I was in my pre-vegan days of “not wanting to know,” I like to think it was because, if I did become aware, I would have to do something about it and I had no idea what to do. Now, I’m pleased to say, we know there is a very easy path to solving these problems, and one that is increasingly shown to have wonderful health benefits.

    • Bea Elliott says:

      As I read where James was going with this post I knew I’d have to mention the World Peace Diet in my reply – And I see that great minds think alike! ;)

      Will Tuttle brilliantly examines the many negative ramifications of our exploitation to others. He validates it in historical fact and confirms it with the observation of our current cultural malaise:

      “Our inherited meal traditions require a mentality of violence and denial that silently radiates into every aspect of our private and public lives, permeating our institutions and generating the crises, dilemmas, inequities, and suffering that we seek in vain to understand and effectively address.

      A new way of eating no longer based on privilege, commodification, and exploitation is not only possible but essential and inevitable. Our innate intelligence demands it.”

  2. KathyKale says:

    Thank you capturing the lonliness and alienation that we all sometimes feel when we refuse to go along with the big lie. But I’d much rather feel some discomfort in a crowd, than self-inflicted blindness and amnesia!
    The weight of this accepted misery and suffering takes such a toll on Everything, literally…thank you for yet again shining an articulate light in the darkness.

  3. you’re absolutely right, James. it becomes so demoralizing as an AR activist. we feel there’s so much to be done, so many to inform, educate, so much horrific suffering, that we cannot stop our activism. but it becomes so consuming, yet we feel that even if we stop for a moment, we’re letting the animals down. at times, i feel the only way is to have an apocalyptic event to wipe the world clean humans and all, then start over again with animals ruling the earth.

  4. "we will suffer consequences known and unknown" says:

    I am trying to do the right thing as a plant based nutrition/ vegan person yet am still “suffering the consequences” of the meat world. If you’ve read the arsenic report that’s been in the news, you know that poultry waste loaded with arsenic is contaminating vegetable, fruit & rice crops when used as fertilizer. Arsenic is used in chicken feed as an anti-parasite. The focus of the report is mainly on rice: organic brown rice (the ‘healthy’ choice) tested with the most arsenic. Odd how no one seems to be addressing the arsenic in the chicken. I signed the petition at the end of the article calling on the government to set arsenic limits in the food supply, but it feels like…. really?!!! We have to ask for no arsenic? Ok, then.. no arsenic please. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/arsenicinfood.htm#What_should_be_done

  5. Mary Finelli says:

    “This denial must have manifestations, hard as they may be to identify. A society that tacitly accepts systematic injustice, and then thrives on it, cannot be a society in good mental health. I don’t know how we’d go about measuring or even identifying the consequences of our ‘attempted cultural amnesia.’”

    To an extent, we might get some idea by considering the effects of society’s past acceptance of human slavery.

    Thanks for the “real time update,” James. I laughed out loud when I read that.

  6. John T. Maher says:

    Isn’t this what capitalism reduces us all to? Compulsory aberrant behavior. Killing and imiserating others? I hope farmer Bob sees how he is exploited by a capitalist economy and its attendant financing costs and how he projects that oppression onto animals. This is more than murder, it is imiseration

  7. Taylor says:

    Yesterday afternoon I attended a (full-to-overflowing lecture room) talk by Timothy Pachirat (see June 7th interview with him on this blog). Fascinating and insightful. Don’t miss hearing Timothy talk if he’s in your area.

    One thing that came up in the question-and-answer period, in response to his saying that he is now vegan, was the “but plants are sentient too” defence of slaughtering (humanely raised) animals. There are various ways of deflecting criticism (including the voice of conscience); one is to accuse others of being hypocrites (those smug vegans kill plants and plants are sentient too). Another is to joke about the whole thing; google “Suicide Food” for hundreds of images of animals that want you to eat them. Of course, if plants really were sentient in a morally significant way, that would make it even worse to eat animals, since a meat diet greatly increases the number of plants killed to feed oneself.

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