Thursday, June 3, 2010
Exploitation + Objectification = Conklin Farms. (In other words, business as usual.)
I love Mercy For Animals. They are tirelessly committed advocates who create a staggering amount of impressive output every year. They don't resort to shock tactics or insults to get their message across and they present dignified, forward-thinking and honest communications to the public. In this world where PeTA and their human circus of yodeling naked ladies have come to represent vegans, I am deeply grateful for MFA and their consistently thoughtful approach.
This is not a critique of them or their very brave work. I think that if people would truly listen, the only honest conclusion to draw from their work is that those who care about animals should stop eating them. Of course, people will interpret MFA's investigations how they want, though.
Interpretation is everything. This is something that I've become keenly aware of in the aftermath of various exposés that bring the horrors of industrial farming to the public, and it was really brought home by the now-notorious Conklin Farms undercover investigation. I should say that I have not watched the footage and I very much doubt that I will ever be able to do so. (My optimism is tenuous sometimes and I need to safeguard it the best I can.) What I noticed was, counter-intuitively, that the loudest, most seemingly outraged condemnations of the practices at Conklin have been from self-identified omnivores. If you go to message boards and read responses to articles, it becomes very clear that there are many who don't want the vegans to direct the discussion here. The idea put forth is that the demented worker who horribly abused those young cows was just that: demented. He should be removed from society. And, yes, Conklin should also pay for allowing this individual to do what he did, they should be fined and maybe they should be shut down.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it construes the violence as a series of isolated incidents that occurred in a sort of unique bubble of its own. Bringing the perpetrators to justice - which absolutely should be done - also gives the outraged a false sense of security that the "bad guys" are out of commission. What does this then mean? It means that omnivores can continue eating their turkey burgers, omelets and whipped cream coffee drink confections without a whiff of guilt by association. The psycho has been locked up. There is a problem, though: the animal products industries are constructed on a shared model of exploitation. Once you can say "what's yours is mine," meaning the milk, the eggs, the flesh that came from another, you are participating in a system that is firmly anchored in oppression. This is not to say that the people who work in animal agriculture are all deranged sadists torturing animals with crowbars. People tend to point to the exceptions, the idyllic little family farms with the red barns we have in our collective psyche, and convince themselves that this is the norm. It is not. Simply put, these quaint farms with the red barns cannot produce what the masses demand. The concentrated feeding operations and their practices are, instead, the norm, and they are the natural conclusion of getting demand for animal products met. (I should also point out that the sweet little farms that produce animal products are also built on a foundation of exploitation, just one that is less overtly abusive.)
Far more often than people would like to believe, the journey from farm (farm used in the loosest sense possible in the vast majority of cases) to plate or glass is steeped in harrowing, unjustifiable violence simply because of what it is. I mean harrowing, unjustifiable violence on top of that regular ol' violence that is inflicted whenever there is a desire for something that doesn't just happily hop on our plates, squirt milk into our glasses and otherwise gladly surrender her body for our cravings.
The process through which we make peace with the inherent injustice of how we treat non-humans occurs because of objectification, the largely unconscious fragmentation system through which sentient beings are turned into objects. It is easier for the mind to integrate the misuse of objects than the abuse of living beings. Through this process, individuation collapses: all cows, all hens become a single entity to be turned into product. Those who are in power have their interests interpreted as a natural right rather a personal desire. When our interests require the subjugation of another, objectification makes the acquiring of what we want that much easier. How do we begin to fragment living birds into deep-fried pieces inside a bucket, cows into hamburgers with ketchup and onions in a paper sack? They were not individual living beings: they were moving objects created to be segmented and formed into patties. The omnivores who are angered at Conklin Farms are denying or not understanding something very fundamental to animal agriculture, that it is intrinsically violent at its core. Again, it is violent because it is based on the notion that what's yours is mine. I understand people are saying, Yes, we want to eat our meat and drink our milk. Being cruel along the line, though, is unacceptable. The whole concept of taking from another when it's unnecessary and causes harm is, at the very least, ethically problematic. The abuser was just a short detour on that same path, and the people who don't want to change their eating practices are reluctant to admit that animal agriculture is based on exploitation that easily turns violent, even before the gruesome end. If they admit it and do not change their ways then they are accepting culpability. Again, fragmentation. It is easier to accept that a handful lunatics are running loose than that the very system of objectification breeds a culture of violent lunacy.
Why would the industries abuse the animals beyond what is necessary to turn cows into milk machines? Don't they need healthy suppliers? Why expend that energy when it's not necessary? Because they have been driven to insanity by the industry and because they can.
Violence associated with objectification is not isolated to non-human animals, of course. Look at the Nanking Massacre. Look at the concentration camps. The people were going to be killed, did they have to be raped, experimented upon, brutalized along the way? There is an insanity that accompanies institutionalized violence. Historically, where there is pervasive objectification, there is a terrifying violence that goes beyond the standard practice. We have a term for this: war crimes. This also shows our willful fragmentation. There is the accepted violence of war, and then there is "unnecessary" violence. This is the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. Rape, torture, brutal beatings, pillaging communities, enslavement. With objectification, this becomes standard practice because with objectification, any brutality becomes acceptable. When omnivores are decrying Conklin Farms, they fail to acknowledge the essential objectification, and thus the essential violence, of animal agriculture.
I believe that our job as animal advocates is to supplement the important exposés with the message that taking what doesn't belong to us is an intrinsically exploitative practice, and that the threat of violence (again, beyond what is accepted as necessary) naturally accompanies such a mentality. I am not expecting people to drop all animal products tomorrow. I am not expecting people to even reduce their consumption. But I am also not willing to be complicit in a lie: in the most diplomatic but honest way possible, I will tell people that when there is exploitation and objectification, our minds fragmentize and madness is just a heartbeat away. Where there is madness, violence is right around the corner. Anything else is a myth.