Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Crimes of Blindness

The Crimes of Blindness

Imagine, if you will, that you are standing in some sort of a packed cell with hundreds of others--some of them family members, some of them friends, and many of them strangers. They all, like you, are visibly trembling and unable to move, even losing control of their bladders or bowels.

You have lost track of time, but you must have been here a long while, because the place stinks--with urine, feces, sweat, and fear, forming an invisible fog that is still thick enough to choke you. You suffocate and fight to stay conscious, not knowing where you are or what is happening.

Suddenly, a door swings open, and blinding daylight floods the confining space. Huge dark figures, silhouettes of strange alien shapes, rush in and start grabbing others around you. Some great clashing sound screams into life, the sound of metal and motor engines deafening you as you cry out, one voice among many.

And then you feel yourself clutched by the leg, yanked forwards, and inverted. Dizzied, you try to orient yourself and gather your senses, but things are moving too quickly in this terrible place. Something cold and hard locks on to your ankle, and you are moving, swinging to and fro in the air as you go.

On either side of you, others in a similarly up-ended position form a long line, swaying in the air like clothes hung out to dry in the breeze. The ride is short and fast, through a crowd of those alien figures. You watch as one reaches up towards you quickly, and with a flashing swipe, you feel an icy sting on your throat.

You try to cry out at the pain, but strangely your lungs cannot take in air…and then the real terror starts. You squirm and writhe, the sting in your throat sharp still but dulling as everything starts to fade. Before your senses escape you, though, you feel the skin of your ankle rip open and pull away from the bone…and you slip through the clasping fixture, flopping to the hard, cold floor.

Laughter and angry grunts get louder as one of the alien figures approaches you. Yet again, you are grabbed (by the injured leg no less, the useless limb now throbbing from somewhere so far away), hoisted into the air…and then slammed repeatedly against the floor, over and over. You feel your skull and vertebrae crack; your ribs shatter and pierce your organs; your blood fills your throat and blurs your vision. And then, finally, it ends…blackness, silence, peace…

I hope you feel some horror at the image of human beings like yourself, and including yourself, enduring such unjust, senseless violation.

But how do you feel when I tell you that the victims are chickens, not people? For the scene I have described is not some torture chamber in a fantasy world, nor an account of brutality from the depths of some draconian prison, but just one of many scenarios in the very real, very frightful animal slaughterhouses to be found throughout the United States and many other countries.

And what if I tell you that my narrative is the G-rated version, lacking so much of the nauseating abuses that come before--such as confinement of anywhere from three to five (or more) birds in a tiny cage, in fetid air and disease-infested surroundings, with fighting and even cannibalism, and involving genetic manipulation and stunting of every single natural instinct (from stretching limbs to scratching the ground), and much more?

Is there still no reaction, no horror? Are you still planning on having a chicken sandwich for lunch, a chicken or turkey breast for supper, fried chicken with all the sides for a holiday picnic? What about scrambled eggs for breakfast? Will you rest your head on a feather pillow tonight and sleep? Are these just the means to an end, the end of your living your merry little life just the way you always have and always will?

My point here is not to gross you out with just a few of the disgusting realities of modern animal “farming” and processing. Few people today can claim ignorance of the horrible conditions and abuses that animals face in factory farms and in assembly-line slaughterhouses. Thanks to many animal-rights organizations and various (if limp-wristed) legislative measures, such as the Animal Welfare Act in the U.S., we have learned a lot about these places and what goes on there. Not only do we know, but we have seen and heard these things for ourselves, in well-publicized and readily available photos and videos. If we stop and think, honestly and without bias, whence came the meat in the cellophane packages or the milk in the carton or the leather for our shoes, we know immediately that we could trace back a long trail of blood.

But we do not trace it. We do not see the realities behind the processed goods, nor the lives that they cost and the disproportionate amount of natural resources that went into their production. Why not?

Because we choose comfortable blindness over painful sight--over the cold, hard, accusatory facts of insight and honesty.

True, almost all of us know the realities of animal production, but the predominant reaction to the facts is something along the lines of “I do not want to know!” or “Do not tell me!” It is easier to live in state of self-imposed blindness than to open our eyes, to see the reality involved in our choices and actions, to own up to our own complicitness in the abuse involved, and then to take direct, sincere steps to end the atrocities.

One of the saddest things is that we choose blindness and allow the torture to continue for such trivial reasons. We like the tastes of meat, dairy, or eggs, the ways they fill the belly and the mouth watering, and we just cannot ever give them up, lest our lives somehow lose their pleasure and meaning and purpose. Or we dote on fur and the way it looks on our bodies. Or we simply follow habit because we can, because the goods are cheap and plentiful and are so completely processed that they bear no resemblance to the creatures they came from. Slices of bacon, veal cutlets, and Big Macs are not to be found walking around on the farmyard or roaming the prairies. Pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep, yes, but not the otherworldly “foods” they form a part of (as just a few of a long line of ingredients, as many of which come from labs as from nature).

Wherefore art thou, O man, but to eat, drink, be merry, and look chic?

It would be so easy, and entirely viable, to recognize the crimes of non-human animal use and consumption, change our lifestyles without any actual harm to ourselves, and so end our abuses of the other animals (our fellow animals) and of the ecosystem. We could trade the pleasures of the palate for a greater supply of nutritional, healthy foods, and in so doing give ourselves as a species more of the nutrition we need--putting the plant-based nutrition directly into our bodies rather than into the animals, which return it to us in diminished form and in smaller supply. And we could trade the tyranny of tradition for a cleaner planet, with more forests than grazing land, more and cleaner water, and a better relationship with our all of fellow animals (not just the familiar ones in our homes) based on respect and kinship, not commodification and exploitation.

After all, we have taken great strides to end slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of intra-species violations of basic rights. We have, generation by generation, raised our collective consciousness and granted equal consideration to others of our species no matter how different they might, on the surface, appear to be. Sure, we still commit shocking, senseless crimes against our fellow humans, and we still are plagued by bigotry and zealous ideology. But as a whole, we have extended our moral sentiments in many ways and undone the past abuses resulting from our mushrooming population, civilization (so called), and uninformed development. These are things to be proud of, draw hope from, and be guided by as we face the many challenges still remaining to us today and in the future.

So we can change, and we have changed. But when it comes to non-human animals, we do not. The progress we have made on this front is embarrassingly small compared to that affecting our own species. Habit, selfish pleasure, speciesism, skewed social mores, backwards and unfair market forces, ignorance, delusion: all of these obstacles to change combine to make us unwilling, unable (we believe), and often uncaring. We choose blindness; we do not want to see, we do not want to know…we do not want to change.

This mindset, or close-mindedness, is pervasive, a pandemic, one might say a defining characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens. More than any of our hominid predecessors, and vastly more so than any of our fellow animals, we are able to know the finer details of so much of our world and to understand the repercussions that can result. We can watch events unfolding in the world and see that we live in a dangerous time, an era of global upheaval and portentous events spelling even greater dangers ahead. While other creatures must simply adapt or die, we can draw broader conclusions and make changes, to ourselves and to our environment, to improve conditions for ourselves and the other life forms here with us.

That power is what truly defines us, this gift and curse and duty as members of the natural world--members, not despots and not saviors. Our superior capacities of reason, our finely developed system of morality, and our hyperbolic tradition of technology, truly are not cranes to lift us above the “brutes” and take us “beyond” nature. They are not our tools to defy nature. They are our greatest ties to it. They are the signs of our responsibility and the means by which we can act upon it.

This is why choosing blindness, refusing to see the suffering and the peril we create and are surrounded by, is such a dangerous and criminal game of Russian roulette. For if we blind ourselves to suffering, how can we see what to change? And if we plunge ourselves into darkness, how can we find again the bright light of hope?

Image credits: Ethelred, and Dr. Temple Grandin, both from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.