Meat-Eaters Who Think Their Food Choices Are Ethical Use Denial to Disengage From the Cruelty
We saw them peer out from between the slats of tightly packed trucks as they were steered through town. Often when lorries slowed at a road crossing, groups of children—myself among them—hung on to the rear for a free ride (a risky street game we called ‘going for a hudgie’), but the idea of hanging on to a slaughterhouse truck filled us with revulsion. As city kids, our view of farm animals was filtered through the misty lens of Disney, but anyone could see the slaughterhouse run was wrong. Given the chance, we would most definitely have sprung our gentle friends free to roam the streets and our imagination: cows, pigs, chickens—the lot.
They were terrified in those rattling high-sided vehicles; mothers were separated from their young, and some gave birth in the cramped conditions of the truck itself. It was not unusual for a litter to be born and trampled in transit, and for some to slip through the slats as a bolus of blood and flaccid flesh; we once saw a newborn piglet slide out onto the tarmac in Saltmarket, but were unable to find out if it was alive before it was crushed under heavy traffic.
image: Matthias Ripp (CC BY 2.0)
There were three places involved in animal slaughter close to where I grew up in Glasgow Cross, and I routinely passed each on my route to school. Every morning, after stepping over heaps of rotting fish heads bulging with maggots in the Briggait fish market, I passed the poultry processing plant where I witnessed the slaughter of a seemingly endless line of roughly handled and severely distressed chickens. Shackled by the neck on an automated conveyor rail, the ones who missed the chance to have their throat cut were scalded alive. The stench was awful, and I held my breath when I passed.
Cattle were killed in Calton, the slaughterhouse I passed on my way to secondary school. I was never inside, but once, when my older brother was in the fire service, his unit was called out to this dismal place in the middle of the night. A fire had broken out in one of the offices and remained there, but smoke filled the building, and he was forced to wade through it in full breathing apparatus. The smoke was intermittently illuminated by two large, dizzying red lights at the far end of the killing floor that flared in tandem with the long, pulsing blasts of the alarm. He cautiously walked towards them, gripping a metal rail for support. In those unreal moments of red visibility, he saw carcasses, hewn, hacked and hooked on rails, sprays of blood across the walls, and blood pools on the stone floor. He had been walking through those blood pools. Finding charred bodies by the blocked fire exits of old warehouses, and in overcrowded tenement slums, he often caught a glimpse of hell—Glasgow East was the busiest fire station in Europe—but the walk across the killing floor could have been the entrance to that hell. It was a walk that would haunt him.
I never saw inside the Calton slaughterhouse other than through the eyes of my brother—understandably, business managers are usually quite keen to conceal the carnage from the wider public—but from people in the neighborhood I gained an insight into what passed for humane slaughter behind those sinister arched gates. I learned about death, dealt out on an industrial scale and devoid of compassion, of the agony animals endured as part of the slaughter routine, and of the banal brutality carried out to enliven the boredom of the killing floor—a range of unspeakable cruelties invented solely for the purpose of entertainment.
On one occasion, I remember, a bullock bolted at the slaughterhouse entrance and along the Gallowgate. Like a mindless mob captivated by the sport of a slave running for his life, people carrying beers poured out of pubs to merge with a bulging crowd of amused spectators spilling over the edge of the pavements. They laughed as the desperate animal weaved its way through the traffic, and they mocked the uniformed police officers and slaughterhouse workers giving chase on foot. I saw the look on the faces of the crowd, apparently numb to the animal’s panic and its frantic efforts to be free. A local newspaper covered the story by way of light relief, reporting that after a few hours, and several miles, a cow was brought along to lure the bullock towards a ramp and into a cattle truck. Far from relaying the gruesome horror that lay in store, the article carried the hint of a happy ending. In reality, once rendered ‘manageable’—at best, stunned—the bullock would be hoisted into the air by a chain attached to the ankle of one of its hind legs, and it would be cut open at the throat, whereupon its entire body would convulse violently for the last few moments of its life as the heart pumped blood out onto the stone floor. It is also likely the cow and the bullock would be slaughtered in view of each other – a common feature of the killing floor, and somewhat disturbing given research findings from de Waal and Preston that suggest food animals experience that one characteristic above all others that defines our humanity: empathy.
The bullock’s death, audited against a baseline measure of key efficiency indicators, would meet favorably the performance criteria of any quality management system used in slaughterhouses today. Above all, this kind of killing (the industry-preferred euphemism is ‘processing’), would be considered humane – a concept that, by definition, means to show compassion. Many people have come to accept the legitimacy of the words humane and killing in the same breath: the right to die with dignity, to end unremitting suffering, to release organs for transplant from someone in a permanent vegetative state. Death on any other grounds crosses a line. Yet questions about compassion are rarely raised within the exigencies of the meat and dairy industry – a collection of businesses driven by the desire to maximize profit from the ‘processing’ of caring, breathing, thinking things that have the capacity to suffer and a longing to live.
With the exception of India, where thirty percent of the population are vegetarian, the vast majority of people in almost every country in the world, around ninety percent, eat meat and dairy products. From this it is reasonable to infer that people do in fact believe it is acceptable for businesses to own, breed, castrate, fatten and kill animals for profit. A majority, of course, does not make it right – one need only consider widespread support for slavery, ethnic cleansing or capital punishment. Somewhat encouragingly, there are signs of a shift in public opinion, with a growing number of people asking for animal slaughter to be carried out as humanely as possible. This raises the question of where we draw the line between humane and inhumane. Given the tools of the trade – knives, saws, hammers, electricity, chains and hooks—might it be more humane to gas them in the very trucks in which they are transported from farm to city? Or if there might be a concern with the carcasses being spoiled in transit – either for food or skin-based products—might it be more efficient to lead them at the point of arrival into chambers to be gassed en masse? The parallel with human atrocities may be disturbing, but it is reasonable to ask whether the rationality underlying the selective slaughter of animals – on a continuum from pets to food animals – is any different to the rationality underlying the extermination of human populations in the camps. (It is perhaps worthy of note that gas is increasingly, and somewhat horrifyingly, being used to kill pigs, as shown in this link. Warning: it is disturbing).
Morality is at the heart of the matter. As a child, I found it difficult to draw the distinction between martyred saints and murdered animals. My teacher was eager to convey the distressing story of St. Andrew, the patron saint of our country, who was dismembered with a hatchet—his hands and feet first – whilst conscious on an X-shaped cross. It was equally distressing to learn that the dismemberment of conscious animals was a regular occurrence in the Calton slaughterhouse. If animals survived the overcrowded journey from farm to killing floor – the stress, dehydration, heat exhaustion or freezing conditions—they were then beaten, broken, scalded, skinned and dismembered. This is very much the character of the meat and dairy industry today, but on a far more rapid, intensive and inhumane scale.
With regard to the suffering of farm animals, the only reference I recall from those years growing up related to their unfortunate ability to sense approaching death. It was common knowledge that animals could suddenly change behavior on being offloaded from the trucks into the slaughterhouse – seized by terror, they became frantic towards the last few minutes of their life – and it was not unusual for people to question how they could possibly know that they were about to be killed. The explanation going round was that their death instinct was aroused. This convenient justification, a form of denial, adjusted the focus from the blood-spattered mayhem of the killing floor to that of an evolutionary quirk: a genetic defect that somehow enabled animals to sense their impending death.
Animals may well have some sort of psychic antennae, some mysterious means to transcend the known substance of this world, but it seems more likely that their hysteria on the approach to the slaughterhouse has its source in the stench of entrails and in the distress calls of fellow creatures being mutilated and dismembered a short distance away. The notion of a profound death instinct at once masks this reality and assuages guilt: it allows people to acknowledge a discrete form of animal suffering, and at the same time to dissociate from the animal’s dreadful ordeal – in short, it shifts the responsibility for suffering from humans to the animal itself. Viewed from this perspective, the problem is not our desire to consume animals, but their desire to live.
The idea of a death instinct on the part of inferior life forms, otherwise referred to as food animals, is reminiscent of the mindset prevalent among many psychiatrists in the mid-nineteenth century—men such as Doctor Samuel Cartwright, who observed the outbreak of a curious condition among black slaves: the impulse to be free. Having dreamed up a diagnosis (dubbed ‘drapetomania’), for this mental illness—an illness with clinical characteristics that included a persistent longing for freedom, mounting unhappiness, or even occasional sulkiness—Cartwright concocted a cure: pain. He recommended the afflicted slave be whipped until their back was raw, followed soon after by the application into the wounds of a chemical irritant to intensify the agony. It brought the desired result: this mental shackling didn’t cure the condition, but it helped control the outbreak, greatly reducing the compulsion on the part of slaves to break away from their masters.
As revealed by researchers such as Gail Eisnitz, a similar sort of logic prevails in slaughterhouses, where clubs or hammers are used to break the legs or spine of frantic animals in order to settle them down, and where cries of agony are addressed by cutting the animal’s vocal chords – especially when they get caught in the gate and are forced, fully conscious, to have their legs or head sawn off to speed up the line. And speed-up is very much the character of the slaughterhouse today, as increased efforts are made to meet the wholly unrealistic and unnecessary rise in global demand for meat – a rise that is monstrously resource-intensive, environmentally damaging, and a major contributor to climate change. If not for reasons based on personal health, ethics or simply disgust, evidence suggests that becoming vegan is one of the most immediate and effective ways for an individual to reduce harmful emissions that affect climate change. Research by Peter Scarborough at the University of Oxford found that switching to a vegan diet – depending on the choices made for meat substitution—was a more realistic option for most people as a way of reducing carbon emissions than attempts at reduction within the areas of travel, such as driving or flying. The vegan diet, according to the research, cut the food-related carbon footprints by 60 percent, saving the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
Animal slaughter has an adverse impact on the climate, the quality of life in society, and our identity. The extent to which we are willing to accept animal exploitation, and to tolerate animal cruelty – increasingly the key feature of the industrially paced slaughterhouse today – bears some influence on how we see ourselves and others. At a number of points along the continuum, for example, there are clear indications that animal cruelty is a predictor of human violence and crime. The dangers in this regard were raised in Counterpunch Magazine by the investigative health journalist, Martha Rosenberg, who found that criminologists and law enforcement officials were at last beginning to acknowledge what the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, declared back in 1964: “One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it.”
Rosenberg cites evidence that shows a relationship between animal cruelty and violent behavior patterns, ranging from domestic beatings to murder and mass killings. According to Rosenberg, what Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Devin Kelley (the Texas church killer), Anders Breivik (who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011) and a host of others have in common is the fact that they tortured animals and delighted in the pain they inflicted. One might reasonably question whether our tacit acceptance of animal cruelty, of the slaughter that serves simply to satisfy our tastes, in the end desensitizes us—albeit to varying degrees—to the suffering of others.
Many take the view that simply taking an animal’s life is an act of cruelty, and that this too is not without consequences for the nature of social relationships – both at the societal and the individual level. The preference for meat-eating has itself been the subject of study with regard to social consequences, where links have been established between meat eating and notions of prestige, power, hierarchy and patriarchy, and of strength, superiority, domination and oppression. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, the seminal thesis of Carol J. Adams, the key focus is the connection between meat-eating and women’s oppression. For over four decades her work has inspired international research that aims to empirically ascertain the link between meat-eating, virility and violence, and to explore the workings of an industry that promotes the degradation of women and animals.
Adams develops the concept of the 'absent referent’, the idea that there is an absence behind every meal of meat—namely, the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. It separates the meat eater from the referent, and thereby permits the moral abandonment of the living being. Moreover, the absent referent disguises the violence central to killing and to meat-eating: the animal is sold off as body-parts, thereby shielding the meat eater from any moral difficulties that could arise from connecting a life form to the end product. If the way meat is presented desensitizes the meat eater to the killing of a living being, something similar happens by way of desensitisation towards women in the way meat is advertised. Meat adverts are often feminized and sexualized using female body parts, resulting in the objectification and degradation of both human and non-human animals. As Adams puts it, we literally consume animals and visually consume women. In the end, both have little or no meaning beyond their function on a purely physical level. The fact that some men had sex with cows in the Calton slaughterhouse—a depravity not unknown in other slaughterhouses—is perhaps not entirely unrelated to the sorts of power abuse and degradation alluded to by Adams.
The idea of living beings as absent referents and the link between virility and meat-eating pervade a variety of texts, from children’s books and classic literature, to advertising campaigns – what Adams calls ‘the texts of meat’ – and all serve the underlying imperative of profitmaximizationn and patriarchal power. For Adams, both female and animal bodies are commodified as a means of production and reproduction, or reproductive slavery; they are both seen as available and controllable, and they are both considered livestock. Adams provides numerous examples throughout her ongoing work to illustrate the ways in which the objectifying language of misogyny, the body parts imagery or associations, and the desensitisation toward animals and women, are used within meat advertising—‘are you a breast or thighs man?’—and concludes it is so deep in our culture that it is hardly noticed. Consequently, Adams argues, veganism in itself embodies a challenge to patriarchy, because patriarchy is a gender system implicit in both human and non-human relationships.
Studies of personality characteristics show that the principles underlying the ‘texts of meat’ may serve to reinforce existing prejudices. Research by psychologists Dhont and Hodson found that those who consider inequality and social dominance to be natural and inevitable, and who place power and authority in high regard, are more likely to enjoy eating meat, and to be above average in terms of their meat consumption. Their study found strong correlates between high levels of meat-eating and exaggerated notions of masculinity, a strong belief in evolutionary determinism, and right-wing authoritarianism.
It is probably safe to say that most people do not set out to be cruel to animals, and that few would relish the opportunity to engage in killing them. Judging by the high rate of pet ownership in most societies, it would that appear people love animals, but that they also love meat—a contradictory relationship on the part of many omnivores that psychologists Steve Loughnan, Brock Bastian and Nick Haslam, among others, refer to as ‘the meat paradox’ – a phenomenon explained in part by the concept of cognitive dissonance. In the 1950s, Festinger described cognitive dissonance as the mental stress people undergo when they hold contradictory ideas or values, and stated that they try to reduce or resolve the conflict by choosing a belief that suits them. In the case of omnivores, certain groups of animals are categorised as intelligent, emotional and suitable as pets, whilst others are classed as lacking in these capacities, and therefore suitable for food. A number of laboratory-based social psychology experiments demonstrated that in order to reduce concerns about their welfare, and to resist the desire to empathize with them, people typically deny that food animals have minds: reasoning capacities, emotions and moral qualities.
The question of whether animals have minds and emotions is hardly new. In The Emotional Lives of Animals, Marc Bekoff credits Charles Darwin with being the first scientist to give serious attention to the study of animal emotions, and to the belief that there is continuity between humans and other animals – both emotionally and cognitively. In keeping with the experience of Jane Goodall – who wrote about Flint, a chimpanzee that died of grief – Bekoff’s research revealed a range of emotions on the part of animals: love, grief, despair, fear, joy, jealousy, embarrassment and shame. It is likely most people know this instinctively, but to reduce their cognitive dissonance, and thereby overcome the meat paradox, the majority mentally sever the connection between meat and animals. The meat and dairy industry greatly assists in this: killing is deceptively worded as processed, pigs become pork, cows become beef or sirloin, the exploited animals are described as food animals, and the cruel reality of the slaughterhouse and pre-packaging process is kept hidden from view. We are schooled in the supremacy of meat, not its alternatives.
One might imagine widespread condemnation of the meat and dairy business if more people witnessed the slaughter of pigs, cows and chickens—a brutal industrialized killing system somewhat less harshly described as the pre-packaging process for bacon, burgers and breast. If one’s pet dog or cat had to be taken to a vet to be put down, one might be appalled to learn it would be sent to the slaughterhouse to have its life end in a way that was considered humane for a ‘food animal’—methods quite unthinkable in their possible application to humans. Ignoring the routine cruelty towards animals has its equivalence in the tolerance of torture, human trafficking, and ethnic cleansing—an equivalence that exists within the precincts of moral insanity.
Veganism offers an immediate and logical alternative to the reality of the slaughterhouse, but it also has a key role to play in ending world hunger, in improving human health, and in reducing climate change. Veganism, in the view of Carol Adams, is a condition of feminism, and simply by becoming vegan one plays a pivotal part in the campaign against patriarchy. This cross-pollinates freely to an awareness of the psychological tendency towards dehumanization, and towards desensitization to the suffering of all living things. Consequently, veganism is also a condition of socialist morality, for socialism is the antithesis of exploitation, grounded in the core principles of fairness and kindness. After all, what else could it be?
Running parallel to the slaughter in those dark places throughout my years growing up, was the full-scale slaughter of the Vietnam War, and I paid attention to its development because my cousin from New York, a Captain in the US Air Force, was stationed there. On leave once, he visited our home in Glasgow Cross—a tenement apartment he referred to as a ‘cold water flat’—and during one of our many conversations I raised the matter of the massacre at My Lai, which had recently been on the news. He responded sharply and heatedly, declaring everyone was the enemy in Vietnam, even six-year-olds: “Those bastards put shredded glass in your Coke.” The enemy, even kids, became ‘gooks’: lesser beings—animals. In keeping with the rationalizations of meat eaters, who considered food animals to be devoid of mind and moral capacities, dehumanization became a psychological defense strategy, a means of moral disengagement.
On one of our excursions around Glasgow, we walked the length of Argyll Street past umpteen building works towards Kelvingrove Art Gallery. “Just like New York,” he said—“always tearing things down and digging things up.” I didn’t dig things up, I didn’t ask him what he saw or what he did, but deep down I feared the worst. People were increasingly aware of what was going on in the war: news broadcasts constantly covered carpet bombing and chemical warfare in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and occasionally some orgy of brutality was revealed or hinted at. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that there is nothing human beings won’t do to each other so long as we can find the right switches to turn off the morality protocols. It is the same rationality underlying the horrors of the death camps, and the brutalities of prison torture camps such as Abu Ghraib, that underlies what we do to animals simply to put meat on our plates.
Killing has always been the way of things, at once representing a kind of progress and the elimination of hope. We kill on behalf of others, for so-called just causes, and for love. Insofar as we have a choice—and many would say we always have a choice—killing, and all the moral responsibility that goes with it, is personal. That is where it starts and ends. Change must begin at the level of the self: it is driven from the bottom up, and by the strategy of the refusal. That refusal can begin with what we choose to eat—changing the world in bite-sized chunks.