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Industries of Cruelty

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Less than a week after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals employees in North Carolina faced charges of cruelty for performing anesthetized euthanasia on unwanted animals, then tossing them in dumpsters, the state's council of commissioners had to vote on whether North Carolina's method for disposing of unwanted citizens is properly antiseptic. While PETA's employees were cleared of cruel and unusual behavior, it's not clear whether the State's death penalty will be.

For a state that condones such agricultural practices as crating pigs during breeding, forced insemination of dairy cattle to keep them lactating and debeaking chickens to bring charges of cruelty against PETA rings hollow. Nonetheless, the prosecution focused unusual attention on an organization that sees itself as the champion of animal rights. While democratic governments ought to be the champions of their citizens' right, the charges against the State of North Carolina aren't flavored with the same twist of irony. Perhaps that's because the State government has demonstrated its investment in cruelty, to both animals and people.

We often justify the conditions under which we raise animals for food by comparing their confines to the conditions under which we incarcerate people. "What's wrong with keeping chickens locked in windowless coops, caged in pens measuring six-inches by nine-inches? We lock people in windowless six-by-nine cells too." But it begs the question when we turn around and also justify our cruelty to people by subconsciously relying on the acceptability of cruelty to animals.

The singularity of the human species is ingrained in our minds from birth. One thing on which creationists and scientists can agree is that in the chain of being there is nothing else like us. Whether we descended from apes or gods, we're special. Because of the implicit self-importance in that claim (that we, humans, are either the pinnacle of evolution or the chosen few), there is room in human consciousness (and conscience) for hierarchy. And just as there is room for hierarchy among species, there is room for hierarchies within human society.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. We could interpret our uniqueness as just a collection of attributes which say nothing about our relationship to other species. Or, if we are the pinnacle of evolution, we might see our place in the chain of being as benevolent care-takers of the earth. Instead, we interpret our phylogenetic achievements as the basis of a ranking system where we come out on top. We see ourselves as masters with dominion over all other species. We are raised with a sense that we are superior and that our superiority justifies the degree to which we discount the interests of non-human animals.

Never mind the fact that the basis of our claim to superiority is questionable. On what is the claim premised? If it has to do with us being more intelligent, better at making tools, and more artistic than other species, then this just specious argumentation. In other words, saying that we're superior to other animals because we built and then painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is just a way of saying that we, human beings, are best at doing things that human beings value. So what? Pigs are probably best at doing what pigs value too.

The stratification of species with which we're so comfortable creates room in our consciousness for treating people disparately based on their behavior. If people behave a certain way, if they violate norms or act objectionably, then those people forfeit their place in the chain of being, leaving them worthy only of the respect due to lesser animals.

Murder is unacceptable, whether it is carried out by an individual or the state. In either case, murders are often derivative of human imperfection. We refuse to accept that frustration, helplessness, panic, and other common feelings sometimes precipitate the most egregious interpersonal violence. And we refuse to admit that the death penalty is merely a legitimized form of retribution. Instead we say that the state is balancing the scales of justice while the incarcerated murderer is a deviant whose aberrant conduct is less than human. The state relies on its claim to superiority, which in this context is called authority, to distinguish its acts of killing as legitimate. Murderers are worthy only of our disrespect, marginalization, and dismissal. Since murderers have acted like animals, so the thinking goes, we can treat them like animals -- locked in pens, waiting for slaughter.

Every way that the criminal justice system is unethical is mirrored in our industrial agricultural practices. Prisons are overcrowded places filled with penned-in, drugged-up, poorly treated people whose executions are often botched. Factory farms are overcrowded places filled with penned-in, drugged-up, poorly treated animals whose slaughters are often botched. As we dehumanize inmates, we brutalize animals.

Maybe I've got it wrong. Maybe there's no question begging going on here after all. In fact, maybe our cruelty to both people and animals is just a perverse attempt at consistency. We're just consistently cruel. If this is the case, then I wonder why we're invested in being cruel. If being human is so special, then why isn't humanity invested in being humane?

Like many perversities, money might be at its root. Free-market fundamentalism is the view of the world in which the external costs of doing business are acceptable as long as the bottom line is in the profit margin. What else besides such blind faith in the dollar could explain cutting education programs from prison budgets or the rise of a private (for profit) prison industry? What other than love of money could value factory farm efficiency over clean water and air, the cornerstones of public health, for the communities surrounding the more than ten million hogs of North Carolina's pork industry?

Some people will resist the comparison between the prison industrial complex and the agro-industrial complex, but rejecting the comparison is premised on unfamiliarity with one or both of the industries. Mix in North Carolina's state's history of enslaving people, another institution that conceptualized people as animals, and the investment in cruelty runs deep. That we allow ourselves to be unfamiliar with our past and present industries of cruelty characterizes the limits of our compassion.

Why doesn't our sense of community include the animals we raise for food? We would rather not know how a hamburger is made, so not many of us read PETA's literature. Why do we define people by the worst thing they have ever done? Albert Camus said that we would rather not know that we, a civilized people, have a death penalty, so we hold our executions at night and bury them deep in the bowels of labyrinthine cinder block structures. Why won't the state redress its racist history of slavery in which the state itself used slave labor in a small set of public agencies run by the Governor and also to build many of the University of North Carolina's first buildings? In each case, our deliberate ignorance bears some relationship to our investment in cruelty.

Some people say it's time to move on and bury our sullied past in the wake of our progress. But the wake of progress smells more like diesel fumes in the wake of inmate transfer buses and is as blinding as the wake of feathers swirling behind poultry trucks.

The change has to begin somewhere. It's exciting to see Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation spend time on bestseller lists. Perhaps these books can change our conception of food, challenge some of the policies that make factory farming profitable, or turn some hearts. They won't do it alone, however. Our investments in cruelty are too tangled for any meaningful change to result from tackling symptoms instead of causes. We have to see that we will never treat cattle or hogs or chickens any better until we see that there's something objectionable about the way we imprison people.

As these ideas percolate, perhaps we will be as discomforted by our habit or throwing away people and non-domestic animals as we were by PETA employees throwing away dogs and cats.
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Trained in analytic philosophy, Phillip Barron is a writer and award-winning digital media artist living in Davis, CA. His work has appeared in The Herald Sun, Radical Philosophy Review, Urban Velo, art galleries in Durham, North Carolina and (more...)

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