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Darkness Visible

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Darkness Visible

By James McWilliams
September 2012

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.

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.