In March of this year, the State of Iowa became the first state to adopt a recent version of what some have called “ag-gag” laws. The Iowa law prohibits people from gaining entry into or employment in an agricultural production facility (including, most notably, an animal agriculture facility) under false pretenses. The evident aim of such laws is to prevent whistleblowers from gaining access to and then exposing what takes place inside these facilities. Thus, ag-gag laws help to deter undercover reporters from gathering and revealing disturbing information about animal-using industries. Earlier incarnations of such laws were passed in North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas.
These laws—and more are pending in other states—assist animal-using industries in concealing the conduct that consumers support when they purchase and consume animal products. In this column, I will examine the complex relationship between this concealment of facts and consumers’ willingness to buy animal products.
“The Ignorant Consumer Is Our Best Customer”
Neither the purpose nor the presumed effect of “ag-gag” laws is a mystery. Such laws are passed to prevent consumers from learning what goes into the production of animal-based food and other products, because learning this information could reduce consumer demand for such products.
Thus far, efforts to conceal this sort of information might appear to have been very successful. Even today, for example, many—perhaps most—consumers of dairy products have no idea that the cheese, milk and butter that they buy, whether it originated on a “factory farm” or a small family operation, entails the slaughter of cows and their baby calves.
Many consumers believe that cows just spontaneously produce milk. In fact, like those of every other female mammal on the planet, including humans, a cow’s mammary glands (breasts) naturally produce substantial quantities of milk only after she has become pregnant and given birth. If the baby is a male calf, he will face slaughter within months of his birth, because, unable to lactate, he is deemed fit only for slaughter.
Meanwhile, a female dairy cow who is “lucky” enough to survive the slaughter of every one of her male babies (each of whom is rapidly weaned so that consumers can buy and eat cheese, butter, or milk from his mom’s breasts) will herself face slaughter when she reaches the age of four or five, though a cow could otherwise live to the age of twenty.
These are all basic facts about dairy. Yet even among people who associate meat with slaughter (when they allow their minds to “go there”), many somehow maintain the illusion that dairy is a “peaceful” product.
Why do significant numbers of consumers believe these two falsities: that cows spontaneously produce milk, and that dairy is a non-violent product? One might be inclined to attribute such ignorance to the efforts of the dairy industry to hide the truth. But ag-gag laws (and other similar attempts to silence animal advocates’ speech) are relatively new on the legal landscape. And people have long associated dairy with wholesomeness (though dairy does not, in fact, build strong bones and may contribute to prostate and breast cancer) and with peaceful, lowing cows enjoying serene and untroubled lives until they die naturally of old age. Yet the truth is that slaughter has always been part of dairying, long before confined animal-feeding operations (factory farms) proliferated.
One reason for mainstream ignorance about the fundamentally violent nature of all animal agriculture, including dairy, egg, and wool production, is the symbiotic relationship between the respective goals of the relevant industries and of their customers. Industries have every reason to want to obscure the enormous suffering and slaughter that go into the nearly 200 pounds of meat, poultry, and fish, and the more than 600 pounds of dairy alone that the average American individual consumes every year. After all, such information could conceivably diminish consumers’ enthusiasm for animal consumption.
And consumers likewise may prefer to avoid learning facts that, if truly absorbed, could complicate their lives. People who consume animal products might find it difficult even to fathom being vegan: they believe that they would constantly crave their favorite animal-based foods and that they would experience less pleasure in eating than they currently do. The prospect of what they imagine is a huge sacrifice is emotionally overwhelming, and they may accordingly prefer not to know. (In reality, I can say as a vegan and a member of a vegan family, that being vegan is neither complicated nor difficult.).
If you doubt what I say about people’s beliefs, then approach the average person and offer to tell her all about the slaughter process for dairy cattle. She will likely decline your invitation, especially if she is about to order a pizza covered in dairy cheese. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, the author who exposed the already-execrable conditions in the American meat-packing industry in the early 1900’s, it is difficult to get a person to understand something when her comfort in the status quo depends on her not understanding it.
This difficulty explains why people look at drawings of happy cows on their milk containers and choose to believe, rather than to doubt. Even the most intellectually-engaged person is prone to becoming incurious about facts that might disturb the stability of their lives. It may, in fact, be the consumer’s wish to remain ignorant—rather than the industry’s efforts to keep her that way—that plays the more significant role in perpetuating the suffering and slaughter of nonhuman animals.
Ignorance Is Bliss: Why Exposing Animal Abuse Does Not Change Everyone’s Consumption Habits
If I am correct that both animal industries and their consumers prefer consumer ignorance, then does it follow that if true information about the industries were somehow to leak out, then everything would change? It might appear that if everyone is intent on silencing the messenger, it must be because the message, if it got out, would transform people’s behavior in a manner that could threaten the vitality (as it were) of the animal-slaughtering industries. But is that actually true?
The assumption behind this view—that transparency would transform the world—illustrates an optimism about human nature that may or may not be warranted. Paul McCartney once claimed, in essence, that if glass walls surrounded the facilities that host the slaughter of cows, chickens, and other animals, everyone would stop eating animals. Yet in assuming the transformative power of transparency, Paul McCartney and others must contend with a history of open and notorious human violence against the vulnerable.
Members of our species have not only watched and tolerated, but also participated in and enthusiastically perpetrated, atrocities against other members of our species, as well as members of nonhuman species, for a very long time. One could hardly begin to list large-scale human atrocities in just one sentence, but for brevity, the institution of black slavery in the United States, the Holocaust in Europe, and the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda should provide a beginning. And as Steven Pinker suggests in The Better Angels of Our Nature, our rate of violent killing and torture of other humans in the last century may itself pale by comparison to what our ancestors did to one another in earlier eras. (Unfortunately, Pinker’s treatment of our history of violence against animals is distorted, as I discuss here, and yields the astonishing conclusion that the world has become a more humane place for animals, even as consumers pay for record numbers of animals to be cruelly slaughtered every second of every day).
Though some human-on-human atrocities have taken place behind closed doors (as in the Holocaust), many of them involved up-close-and-personal, bloody, and public slaughtering of victims. Yet conscience rarely seemed to interfere.
About twelve years ago, I visited a New York Historical Society exhibition called “Without Sanctuary.” The exhibit showed postcards with photographs taken from lynchings. In these photographs, smiling white faces appear next to the burned and battered remains of lynched African-Americans hanging from trees. The pictured white people appear to have happily attended the torture and murder of African-American people and then posed next to the corpses for photographs that they would mail home, apparently for later enjoyment or to memorialize the moment. The poses of the white people pictured in the photographs resemble what a modern tourist might send home of himself, photographed next to the Eiffel Tower, or grinning as he shows off a snowman he has just built
Nothing about these lynchings was physically “concealed”—they took place in front of what one can only assume was a cheering, jeering crowd of onlookers, and the screams of victims evidently elicited no mercy and no saviors. As I recall from the exhibit, some of the pictures included hats that had been placed on the heads of the victims, thereby indicating—along with the beaming whites’ smiles—what a festive and jocular occasion they considered the lynching to be. Seeing these images would surely have persuaded me—if I had doubted it before—that physical transparency, without more, will not usher in an era of peace on earth.
I recently read a non-fiction book, Every Twelve Seconds, that makes a similar point. The title of the book reflects the frequency with which cattle meet their deaths at the particular (unnamed) slaughterhouse that the author of the book, Timothy Pachirat, describes in great detail. Pachirat spent time working at a slaughterhouse in Nebraska. He took the job because he wanted to be able to write knowledgeably about the conditions that prevail in such places.
Pachirat suggests in his book that total literal visibility does not necessarily mean that one truly sees anything. As he describes it, one can observe the gentle and curious cows walking by the workers who then use electric prods on them and ultimately slaughter and dismember them, while simultaneously failing to take in the animals or their deaths at all. When one cannot close one’s eyes to what is happening—as consumers currently can, and often choose to, do—one can still close one’s heart and mind to it, simply by focusing one’s attention elsewhere.
In describing an “animal-handling” audit, which assesses whether the animals are experiencing a “humane” slaughtering process, for example, Pachirat says the following:
[t]he result of the audit is to transform a physical confrontation with the killing of live creatures into a technical process with precise measurements of when the procedure counts as humane and ethical and when it does not. The inspector is looking directly at the animals; he or she is listening to their voices, but they are seen and heard only as criteria within a technical process, as data input. This technical dissociation operates for work performed outside of the audit as well. . . .
To understand how best to break through the defenses that consumers erect to maintain comfort in consuming animal products, it is useful to appreciate the human capacity for both kindness and indifference. When we feel empathy for another being, whether human or nonhuman, we want to help that other being or, at the very least, to avoid inflicting suffering and death on her. On the other hand, when we view the “other” as falling outside our circle of concern, then we feel little or no empathy for her and accordingly experience little inclination to try to help or avoid harming her, no matter how physically proximate she might be.
Physical walls and invisibility do help to place other beings outside our circle of concern. If we fail to see their suffering or their slaughter at all, then we can more easily avoid empathizing with them. We do not experience them as being “close” to us, even as we are, somewhat ironically, as intimate with these creatures as one could possibly be, by incorporating their very flesh and reproductive secretions into our own bodies. Learning what happens from undercover reporters and video footage can help bridge the physical gap, to the extent that this gap accounts for our indifference.
Yet even—and perhaps especially—with greater visual access to animal suffering and slaughter, people increasingly rely on emotional-distancing mechanisms to avoid empathizing with the beings they consume. They might think of farmed animals as stupid, servile, and indifferent to their own fate, as creatures whose purpose in life is to feed and clothe humans with their broken bodies. Signs depicting smiling pigs and chickens on restaurants that sell the flesh of these animals help reinforce the notion that animals are virtually asking for us to barbecue and eat their flesh and reproductive secretions.
The insults we use against some of our fellow humans expose the contempt in which we hold the animals who meet their terrifying ends at our slaughterhouses: “chicken” for people who are frightened or lack courage; “cow” for overweight and intellectually dense people; and “pig” for gluttons—the very humans who overfill their plates with the corpses and secretions of such animals. More violent similes are illuminating as well: “like sheep to the slaughter” and “squealing like a stuck pig” both suggest that the right and proper destiny of the live animal is to be cut and bled to death.
I have long believed that a three-part coping process accompanies systematic violence against any vulnerable group, including nonhuman animals: denial, devaluation, and punishment. The ugly truth is that consuming animal products supports unimaginable suffering for the animals whose flesh, skin, hair, and secretions meet consumer demand. People within the industries, and the consumers who supply the lifeblood to those industries through their dollars, deny the reality, by saying “I buy cage-free, farmer’s market eggs laid by happy hens” or by describing themselves as “conscientious omnivores,” because they buy from local farms or by imagining that Proposition 2 in California, which modified some of the standards for animal confinement, has somehow liberated animals from institutional human cruelty.
And people at the same time devalue animals. We speak of uniquely “human” rights, for example, when referring to the right against torture—an experience whose grotesque intolerability derives entirely from parts of our brains that we share with all vertebrates. We refer to violent criminals as “animals.” And we presume that nonhuman animals live in a perpetual present with no memory of the past (a presumption for which people who actually study animal behavior find no evidence) and that animals lack the capacity for the sorts of profound relationships that human beings can have with one another.
And finally, people punish animals. A small-farmer who learned I was vegan once told me that if I saw how annoying his pigs can be when he tries to load them onto a truck headed for slaughter, I would be happy to eat them too. When animals do not in fact placidly “go like sheep to the slaughter,” they pay dearly for their defiance of what most humans regard as animals’ proper role as meat “on the hoof.”
Each of these coping strategies—denial, devaluation, and punishment—involves the creation of distances between humans and nonhuman animals. We pretend that no one is really hurting them that badly (or that those who do are “bad apples,” and that what’s needed are cage-size initiatives), but we simultaneously posit that animals’ experiences do not matter much, and that they deserve whatever they get. The publication of images from within the insular world of animal farming can address only the first of the three strategies, the denial strategy, and only for so long as the viewer looks at the image and has not yet grown used to it.
I tend to think that addressing the second strategy of the trio—devaluation—is most important in inspiring people to change the way they behave toward animals. So long as people can devalue the sentient creature whose corpse or eggs or lactational fluids appear on their plates, shocking images will do very little (and will have to become increasingly shocking, as people become numb to what they have so often seen).
I oppose ag-gag laws, both because of their apparent goal and because they effectively protect the consumer’s “denial” of what is truly going on. Footage and exposés have a role to play in raising people’s consciousness about what they are facilitating when they eat an omelet or a slice of non-vegan cheese pizza.
But we must also fill people’s plates with the wonderful abundance and nourishment that plant-based food has to offer. And we also need to invite people to really see the lives and beauty and complexity of the animals whom we hurt. It is as much the heartwarming story of the dairy cow who hides one of her calves and secretly nurses him until her secret is discovered, as it is the story of what happens to male calves under ordinary circumstances, that has the potential to change hearts, minds, and actions.