Why Factory Farming is a Serious Problem:
Animal Holocaust

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Why Factory Farming is a Serious Problem:
Animal Holocaust

By Justin E.H. Smith on ThomasPainesCorner.wordpress.com

To insist on waiting until all human problems are taken care of before we get around to animal suffering is nothing but an evasion. For the sort of society that can accommodate mass slaughter and torture of animals is one so skilled at positioning its blinders that these may just as easily be deployed to block out any inconvenient human suffering as well. In other words, if facing up to the suffering of animals is put off on the grounds that human suffering is more important, then it will be put off forever.

In his 1954 essay, “The Question concerning Technology,” the philosopher and unrepentant Nazi Martin Heidegger wrote: “Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and death camps.”

The former rector of Freiburg has by now been (almost) universally denounced for his equation of Auschwitz and agribusiness, notwithstanding a few academic disciples who remain convinced that their master could do or say no wrong. Heidegger, it seems, wanted nothing short of peasants in quaint national costumes dirtying their hands to bring viands to his austere Black Forest table (machine-picked cabbage is so inauthentic). Among European philosophers, Heidegger’s contemptuous idiocy would remain unrivaled until Jean Baudrillard’s quip about the World Trade Center’s former workers that “the horror for the 4,000 victims of dying in those towers was inseparable from the horrors of living in them — the horror of living and working in sarcophagi of concrete and steel.”

Yet there is one respect in which the comparison of modern farming methods to the mass killing of humans cannot but strike one as fair. To wit, 10 billion cows, pigs, lambs, chickens (and scattered other creatures) are slaughtered per year in the United States alone, bringing a painful end to their short, miserable, lives in squalid and stinking crates.

The term “animal holocaust” has been making the rounds, in reference to the mass slaughter of animals in factory farming. Is this an impious mockery, worthy of Heidegger, of an event that was without parallel in history? Or is it, on the contrary, a true and simple description of what is happening? Surely we may agree with Norman Finkelstein that to insist upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust to the point of outlawing all comparison would be unscientific, and irresponsible. Nothing human beings do is completely unlike other things they do. We might then begin by noting that factory farming is not carnivorism-as-usual in much the same way that the Holocaust was not war as usual. We might also note that both systems of mass killing can be traced back to assembly-line techniques initially developed by Henry Ford and others not for the destruction of living creatures, but for the production of machines.

But killing humans is to be despised, some will say, while eating the flesh of animals is just in our nature, like the sting in a scorpion’s tail. It is true that humans have always and almost everywhere eaten meat. But that is no compelling defense of the present system, for people have always and everywhere conducted war, and almost all of us agree that this is a good thing, if not to eliminate, then at least to minimize. Not only have people always waged war, they’ve also been, for the most part, either actively involved in genocide or itching to be so involved, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that most societies in human history would have relished the opportunity to do to their neighbors what the fillers of mass graves in the 20th century in fact did. What they lacked in earlier times was not the evil, just the equipment.

The Roman soldiers who placed diseased animal corpses upriver from towns they wished to destroy could no more cognize the moral abhorrence we feel today at mass killing of humans than they could imagine that someday a small minority of people would find meat-eating objectionable. Indeed, if these Romans had read their Greek forebears, they would have learned of a culture that generally valued martial virtues while often denouncing the consumption of animal flesh as unholy. The point is that all the moral outrage about war in our present era, even war against civilians, appears to be something of a historical anomaly, and thus one can’t but ask the question: by what right can we look at a practice — the mass slaughter of animals — that is patently similar to the mass slaughter of humans in numerous ways, and refuse to acknowledge its moral abhorrence on the grounds that “this is just what people have always done”?

Many people have good reasons for not being able to get behind the idea of “animal rights.” Some point out, compellingly, that it is absurd to carry on about animal rights in a world in which we are doing such a poor job of ensuring that humans enjoy human rights. But one does not have to go so far as to affirm that animals have rights to agree that the present system of meat production is abhorrent. Animals are not things, any more than humans are. They are creatures, and creatures command a very different sort of treatment than the sundry inanimate objects that dot our landscape: this not for reasons having to do with morality, but simply as a matter of fact. To be in a room with a raccoon is a very different sort of experience than to be in a room with a toaster. Try it sometime. The raccoon is another; the toaster is an object, and you do not have to be particularly sentimental about cute and fuzzy things in order to grant this.

The present system of meat production is perceived as acceptable by most not due to any widespread consensus that animals are not the sort of creatures that have rights, and thus that whatever happens to them behind the gates of a factory farm is morally irrelevant. It is perceived as acceptable only because it is not, for the most part, perceived. What is perceived is the finished commodity, wrapped in cellophane, physically and conceptually remote from the creature that gave it. This system enables people to participate in and perpetuate a practice that many would not be able to condone, or even stomach, if they were required to draw a bit closer to the stench of blood and feces, to the incalculable suffering, that goes into the production of their meals. This system is capitalism perfected, the same smooth exploitation of false consumer consciousness that makes sweatshop-produced sporting gear and fuel-inefficient SUV’s possible, yet, with respect to the suffering involved (if I may be permitted to make such a comparison), vastly worse.

To insist on waiting until all human problems are taken care of before we get around to animal suffering is nothing but an evasion. For the sort of society that can accommodate mass slaughter and torture of animals is one so skilled at positioning its blinders that these may just as easily be deployed to block out any inconvenient human suffering as well. In other words, if facing up to the suffering of animals is put off on the grounds that human suffering is more important, then it will be put off forever.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Concordia University and a frequent contributor to various publications. A partial archive of his writing may be found online.

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