Is cruelty really invisible?
To be clear, I am not dismissing the fact that many people do not know all of the details involved with factory farming or animal cruelty. I am asking whether this is 'the problem' or a symptom of another larger and deeper problem.
I have blogged about this in the past, but some additional thoughts. Let’s leave aside the obvious the fact that killing another person unjustifiably is wrong in and of itself. Let’s assume that this question is a serious one. Let’s assume that, regardless of all the obvious social facts in front of us, that there’s a process involved with using animals for food, entertainment and other purposes entirely hidden from the public.
Let's assume that there is no wide social understanding that other animals (like dogs and cats among others) suffer and are harmed when we hurt them. Let's assume that the problem is just a lack of facts about animal suffering and not a lack of moral knowledge about why animal suffering is morally relevant in light of the moral personhood of nonhuman animals.
Finally, let’s forget that there is probably a humane society of some sort dotted in almost every region of North America. Let’s also forget that humane societies (at least in Britain, Canada, and the United States) started humane education in the 1820s (give or take) about 200 hundred years ago.
Let's set aside that animal cruelty has been a continuous moral question since at least Pythagoras if not other ancient Greek thinkers. Let's set aside the laws in the Bible, Koran and Talmud (and in the canonical laws of various expressions of Christianity) that address the moral question of animal cruelty during slaughter, and so on. Let's set aside that there are pre-WWII generations still among us who remember life before factory farming, and that there remain places in North America, Europe, Oceania, etc., where other animals are still killed in highly visible ways.
Of course, even if people are aware that they use animals, and that there is cruelty involved in that use, it does not follow that they are not still caught in the grips of some imaginative reality in which the facts, although they are known to them, do not always provide an adequate motivation to change their behaviour.
I never deny the power of wishful thinking about the world or a resistance to change. What advocates should be providing is information, emotional and economic support (e.g., community groups, youth groups, buying co-ops), practical education (about nutrition, cooking, and so on), as well as encouragement to do what's right: and that's to take other animals seriously as rights holders and to go and stay vegan (as a minimum).
But let's return to our question: is the invisibility of animal cruelty the real problem?
Google says it’s not invisible.
First, a search on Google for “humane” returns 16,900,000 returns. That’s almost seventeen million Web pages that mention the word humane in some meaningful way (so, humane societies, The Humane Society of the United States, humane treatment, raise humane, and so on, would all come up). But animal cruelty in particular draws up 3,810,000. There are 13,900,000 returns for the phrase “cage-free.” There are 3,130,000 returns for the keywords “humane raised”. I realize not everyone in North American uses Google, but still, that’s a lot of Web pages for an invisible problem.
SCOTUS and the mainstream media say it’s not invisible.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) just issued a landmark decision that protects acts of cruelty toward nonhuman animals that are filmed as a type of speech.[i] [ii] [iii] Regardless of what I make think of the decision, if animal cruelty were a great mystery up until yesterday, it is now front page news. If that were not enough, Michael Vick’s dog fighting saga in the US[iv], as well as Pink’s comments on and to Prince William (and the ensuing controversy) about hunting[v], debates about whether to legalize fox-hunting the UK, etc., have been all over the new for the last couple of years.
And this coverage is literally all over. We’re not talking about obscure blogs, Coast to Coast or just the Wall Street Journal. We’re talking about coverage from ESPN, MTV, ABC, MSNBC, CNET and more. Can we really talk about an invisible problem when the problem is being discussed just about everywhere, even by celebrities? It’s true that not everyone reads or watches the news, but it seems unusual to suggest that Pink and Samuel Alito are both aware of an otherwise invisible social issue that the rest of North America is not.
Primetime TV, daytime TV and mainstream documentaries say it’s not invisible.
But let’s say no one pays any attention to gossip magazines, current events or the Supreme Court. It’s still all over mainstream TV. Ellen has self-identified as vegan (on a show that pulls in several million viewers [vi]). Oprah, often ranked as one of the most powerful people in the world[vii], went on a public “vegan cleanse”, on yet another show that pulls in about 7.3 million viewers[viii]).
The problem of these promotions aside, clearly, the public is aware on some level of the problem that our relationship with other animals poses and of veganism. It was on Oprah. Questions of animal cruelty have also appeared prominently on primetime TV shows on FOX: on Family Guy, the OC, Bones and other high profile shows. Family Guy has, on average, somewhere between 7.5 – 8 million viewers depending on the specific show and the specific season.[ix] Bones has about 9 – 10 million[x] and the OC had about 4-5 million viewers depending on the specific seasons.[xi]
In the six or so years since its release, Super Size Me, a film all about how unhealthy fast food has grossed $29.5 million (with several mentions of veganism).[xii] Food Inc., a relatively new film that addresses questions of animal cruelty, has grossed $4.4 million in the United States alone.[xiii] We’re not talking about C-SPAN. These are primetime and daytime shows with millions and millions of viewers (each!), and films now grossing in the tens of millions of dollars.
In short, the proposal from the animal welfare advocacy movement is that millions and millions of people in North America are contributing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars every year to solve a problem that has been covered by primetime and daytime TV, by news media outlets, by feature length documentaries and by even the Supreme Court of the United States that is nevertheless invisible. Even more people are spending even more money to continue to try "to solve" this moral dilemma by buying "humane" products. Spoiler alert: the problem’s not invisibility. Did I mention it was on Oprah?
So, the question is, why the pretence?
The public understands that it uses animals and that there is almost certainly cruelty involved in that use. Advocates can't rely on "what their nonvegan coworkers said that one time when they were totally surprised to learn how horrible the conditions in which their lunches were raised!!" One-off, self-report data is not very reliable. Of course, people may be in the dark about the worst excesses, but that’s not the same thing.
What the public doesn’t understand is why animal use is wrong. If there is consciousness to be raised (and I believe that there certainly is), it’s about this fact: that nonhuman animals are moral persons who don’t want to be hurt or used, who have a right to be used as our property, and without whose use we can live very happy and fulfilling lives. Moreover, they are increasingly aware of veganism as an alternative way to solve this moral problem, and they seem more receptive now than ever before.[xiv]
Why are animal advocacy groups either misunderstanding the problem in such an obvious way or why are they pretending that the problem is one of invisibility, when clearly, that is not the case?
Almost certainly, there are a number of factors. I’m sure some people do sincerely want to educate the public about cruelty, believing cruelty to be the moral problem. But this elides the question of whether we should use animals at all without justification (we shouldn't), and why cruelty to other animals is morally wrong (a hint: it’s because they’re sentient!), as well as what else we might owe them in light of their sentience.
While I don’t believe that we should use other animals, I accept as a statement that describes reality that there are many people who believe that cruelty, environmental impact, human health concerns, etc., are “the real problem” to animal use. But it doesn’t follow from this, however, that there isn’t also a lot of money to be made by advocacy groups in telling the public what they want to hear: “it’s not your fault; you didn’t know any better; you can keep using other animals so long as you make better choices [and buy from our certified vendors].”
Furthermore, raising awareness about cruelty encourages the publicly (intentionally or not) to keep using animals just in more “humane” ways. "Humane" labels and certification schemes from their partners in 'animal advocacy' help agribusinesses to differentiate their products 1) in a crowded marketplace, 2) under a great deal of price pressure to find higher-margin offerings, 3) with a public concerned about the moral problem that animal use poses. That is the purpose of "humane" labelling schemes:
Certified humane animals are gaining popularity among food service purchasers. (Restaurant Business, September 2006). [...] “Humane” was consistently the top-ranked choice among respondents when asked to choose products that were identical except for the standards, according to a survey of 1,000 households and five focus groups by the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California. Over 30% of survey respondents chose “humane” in every comparison among five standards. (Center Research Brief #5, Winter 2005).
In short, "humane" products are profitable to some businesses within the larger industry. Welfare advocacy groups are often helping industry get that message ou (sometimes, quite intentionally)t. Even when they are not the inadvertant propaganda tools of the industry, they unintentionally condition the public to see "humane" products as a positive step for other animals with singular focus on cruelty rather than use.
Humane certification, a lucrative industry all by itself.
For large scale animal welfare organizations, there’s a tremendous amount of money on the table. The Humane Society of the United States has generated half a billion in revenues over the last several years[xv], but humane certification is itself a growing industry. There are potentially hundreds of millions to be made just certifying a product to be “humane”.
For example, to be “Certified Humane” by Humane Farm Animal Care (who partners with the ASPCA, the HSUS and others), it will cost an agribusiness between $1.00 and $0.0009/animal (paid on a monthly basis), depending on the species and the number of animals certified.[xvi] The more animals certified, the lower the cost/animal. The species is also a factor. Chickens cost substantially less than cows. A dollar an animal may not seem like a lot of money, but there are about 10 billion nonhuman land animals raised on land in the United States every year for food alone who could potentially be certified. [xvii]
Businesses that just do the certification will not have to buy and feed the animals involved or need to address fluctuations in production costs or prices in the market much. Whether we imagine that the industry is only worth a few hundred million dollars or a couple of billion dollars, it’s likely to be high-margin (the cost to provide the service and the cost they can charge for the service is larger). High margin businesses tend to be fairly profitable.
Regardless of exactly how much money is at stake, it raises serious questions about why organizations like the ASPCA and the HSUS are partnering with other agribusinesses to develop label schemes that help market animal products to consumers when, if only nominally, they are concerned with animal cruelty.
Certification schemes, industry regulation and other expressions of red tape.
As important, in addition to the profit involved, certification schemes draw attention to other animal cruelty issues and to animal cruelty more broadly as a moral issue. That is, they do what animal welfare advocacy groups claim they are supposed to do: raise awareness with public about animal cruelty (and their profitable solution to this problem).
What is important to understand is that this, by itself, doesn’t lay the ground work for meaningful systemic or personal change to our relationship with nonhuman animals. Instead, it just further convinces the public of what they already believe: that cruelty is wrong, and that we can use other animals without being cruel to them.
By telling the public to buy humane, to donate, etc., animal welfare businesses like the HSUS and the ASPCA (among others) avoid doing the one thing that actually does help nonhuman animals, that actually does help the public solve its moral problem and that’s to promote abolition and veganism unequivocally and clearly.
Moreover, they also advance a general overall sense that the problems that animal use (whether they are moral, environmental or personal in terms of human health) can be managed and regulated without the need for immediate abolition. That agenda and strategy expresses itself through a number of tactics: certification schemes, piecemeal legislation and other ways of regulating animal use rather than abolishing it. That regulationist groups exist at all is testimony to the fact that the public understands that it has a problem that regulation is necessary to solve (that means those problems are not invisible).
Is the problem invisibility or obfuscation and a lack of a serious commitment to vegan education? These are different things.
It seems clear that raises a couple of questions, but I think we would be justified concluding that people do know that there is cruelty involved in our relationship to nonhuman animals. Further, even if we imagine that the millions and millions of North Americans aware of animal cruelty are the exact same across Oprah, Ellen, ESPN, CNet, etc., just raising their awareness about animal cruelty obviously isn’t resulting in meaningful social transformation for nonhuman animals.
That is, even if cruelty were a secret, which it is not, just raising awareness about it is obviously not resulting in wide-spread systematic or personal change. The question this raises is: why not? What the public doesn’t understand is why they should care about animal use and why they should take action in light of it. They don’t understand that other animals are moral persons or what they should go vegan in light of that personhood.
This reflects not the invisibility of cruelty, but one part apathy, one part confusion, one part economic difficult in some cases (e.g,. with food deserts) but also one substantial part active obfuscation on the part of organizations that stand to make or lose hundreds of millions to billions of dollars every year if the public decides to go vegan.
Intentionally or not, animal advocacy that promotes regulates use and treatment rather than abolishing use in light of nonhuman animal personhood, is actively obscuring and delaying the progress we might make on behalf of nonhuman animals by miseducating the public. Even if all of this were untrue, welfare reform would not provide a practical solution to end the slavery of nonhuman animals and all of the cruelty that stems from their status as property.[xviii]
Going vegan is easier than it ever has been. If you’re not vegan yet, you should go today. If you are not an abolitionist, but what to learn more about the approach, you can read through my other articles or visit www.abolitionistapproach.com to learn more.
[xvii] This figure doesn’t include counting animals raised for fashion, entertainment, experimentation or other uses, or those animals like fish, whales, deer, etc., taken