Glass Walls
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Robert and Gracia Fay Ellwood, Peaceable Table
March 2014


This means that we experience emotional arousal even before we identify the object before us. If the goings-on in the glass-walled slaughterhouse were the first thing we perceived, the emotional outrage would undoubtedly quench appetite for flesh in most normal people--at least for a time. But when it's the well-cut and cellophane-wrapped steak that we see on the meat counter, emotional charges associated with it from the past are activated first.

The message then is: know the truth with both your heart and your head. Knowing and living the truth finally makes one free. 

glass walls slaughterhouses
If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian
- Paul McCartney

This well-known line from one of the Beatles says it all. But these hellholes don't have transparency--just the opposite is true, and for very good reasons, as summarized by another common saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." Many people in Western culture now have some idea, somewhere in their consciousness, of what goes on in our horrific factory farms and slaughterhells. Some folk are apologetic now and then about still eating meat.  But most manage to put the bad stuff out of their minds when they buy the neatly wrapped piece of meat in the supermarket, and when they eat the cooked and salted contents. What are some of the ways this happens?  Here are a few suggestions.

  1. glass walls slaughterhousesAccording to neuroscientists, we do not in fact see in a dispassionate way precisely what is before us; emotion is an integral part of the experience. When messages travel from our eyes via the optic nerves to our brain, they do not go directly to the occipital cortex which is the primary area for processing visual information.  They first go to the thalamus, part of the limbic system, which is involved in emotional arousal.  This means that we experience emotional arousal even before we identify the object before us.  If the goings-on in the glass-walled slaughterhouse were the first thing we perceived, the emotional outrage would undoubtedly quench appetite for flesh in most normal people--at least for a time. But when it's the well-cut and cellophane-wrapped steak that we see on the meat counter, emotional charges associated with it from the past are activated first. Steak means tasty, means satisfying, means crucially necessary protein, means high-end food consumed by the elite.  Appetite comes before the reflection that this is a chunk of the corpse of a once-living animal, and knowledge of how she or he became this it. (One step in this line of thinking is almost always skipped altogether: the animal was never anything but an it.) These familiar positive feelings are usually able to shunt that uncomfortable information out of consciousness.
  2. If they don’t succeed altogether and the unpleasant feelings do arise a little, we might, in a society like ours with its very extensive division of labor, tell ourselves that while we may not like what’s done in slaughterhouses, that's someone else's job, and he’s decently paid for it.  (We happen to be too busy to check the accuracy of this notion.) I do my job and others do theirs. No reason I shouldn't use the product of their labor, as they probably benefit from the fruits of mine.
  3. glass walls slaughterhousesOr we might tell ourselves that as unpleasant as its source may be, I need meat for my health; I can't help it. A variant on this idea is the commonplace reflection that this is just the way the food chain works; life feeds on life. I didn’t create it, and can’t change it.  (We Ellwoods let ourselves be befuddled by these notions for years.)green-meadow-cows.jpg
  4. The advertising and public relations arms of the meat industry have usually done their job well enough to head off revolting images of where meat comes from with amusing cartoon-like drawings, or photos of happy pigs and contented cows in green fields, even to the point of suggesting that their negative counterparts are just someone's one-sided propaganda.
  5. The more intellectually sophisticated may think we don't really understand how animals such as pigs, cows, and chickens experience their lives. If they’ve never known any life except that in a factory farm, how can they long for freedom? Do they experience death in a slaughterhouse the way you or I would? If we don’t know, we shouldn’t make a naive identification with the animals and get all emotional.

Of course there are other tactics as well. Underlying most of them is a cultural mindset involving many negative associations with animals which help to prevent glass-wall thoughts from ever coming to consciousness.  They are all too familiar. Not only are all animals its, the different species have their own unpleasant qualities.  Turkeys and chickens are stupid. Just look how small their heads are; they’re all birdbrains.  Pigs are greedy and fat and filthy.  Cows are bovine, slow-moving as well as stupid; they don’t feel much if anything. Sheep have no individuality; they all follow the leader. (No farm animals have individuality; they’re all identical with others of their kind, as well as unpleasant.) We needn’t get upset about unpleasant things being done to these unpleasant creatures [a blame-the-victim tactic].  Besides, that’s what they’re there for anyway.

If you've been reading Peaceable Table, and other literature dealing with ethology and the animal concern, you probably know how to reply to these excuses, all of which would be knocked out for most people by a look through glass walls. We know very well why the walls are windowless, and why the management does not offer friendly guided tours to visitors. Instead, slaughterhells are about as welcoming to curious outsiders as concentration camps.  This is clear from many news stories in recent years, whether they are exposés of slaughterhell horrors, or tell of attempts by animal agribusiness lords to promote laws criminalizing covert photography. These powerful people seem very anxious to hide something, and the legislators they control with their deep-pocket donations will go along.

It appears that the pictures the industry seems so eager to keep from getting out include not only people doing appallingly cruel things, but also sights of the victims’ terrified eyes, their desperate last-minute attempts to escape, their dreadful screams. It seems clear that whether or not those warm-blooded beings doomed to die for the benefit our plates think exactly like humans, their responses are very much as ours would be. As Jeremy Bentham, one of the first modern philosophers to take animals seriously as feeling creatures, famously put it, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

From a moral, or even a merely human, perspective this is the basic inquiry. It requires that we “take the view from below,” that we imagine ourselves in the animals’ place. When we do, the emotions that arise in us are no longer those of evasion and lies, but those of honest human beings on the way to becoming whole, to having our deepest feelings in harmony with and our actions. To do so also puts the matter of our health in perspective. As animal activists and readers of a host of nutritional studies know by now, a balanced plant-based diet is much healthier for most, and perhaps for all people, than one with meat or animal products.

The message then is:  know the truth with both your heart and your head. Knowing and living the truth finally makes one free.


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