Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Do You Protect a 'Thing'?

I wonder sometimes how many hours of my life I could give up just addressing some of the more problematic information and opinions Mark Bittman releases into the ether. His Opinionator blog post from late yesterday ("Who Protects the Animals?") is certainly no exception to much of the confusion he spreads about what we do or don't owe non-human animals. He has rejected veganism publicly and periodically asserts that veganism is a bad idea because it's supposedly all about eating processed fake meat. And regardless of this, he's co-opted the word "vegan" to describe a diet by which someone only eats animal flesh for dinner.

In his recent piece, Bittman writes about E6 Cattle Company in Texas which recently came under fire when undercover video taken by animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals revealed incidents of cruel behaviour by employees, including but not limited to bashing in the heads of live cows with pickaxes. Bittman goes on to describe other widely-reported cases involving animals raised for human consumption and describes as "horror stories". He expresses what seems to be indignation over the fact that "federal laws governing animal cruelty apply [only] to slaughterhouses" where animals spend their last few moments alive before they're "dispatched". On the actual farms or premises where animals are enslaved and raised, they are only "protected" by state laws, he criticizes. He calls this, along with lack of enforcement of any laws at all in place the "root of the problem".

Bittman asserts that this videotaping is necessary to ensure that animals raised and slaughtered for human consumption are treated "humanely". Furthermore, he writes that polls have shown that "almost everyone believes that even if it costs more, farm animals should be treated humanely". Bittman's concern is over the law that's being considered in Minnesota, Iowa and Florida, by which it would become illegal to engage in undercover videotaping on factory farms. Bittman insists that because of this, welfarist groups like HSUS and Mercy for Animals must not be hindered legally from "documenting the kind of behavior most of us abhor".

At this point, I would have been ready to jump in to add that the heinous video footage that gets passed around from time to time is not the exception to the rule and that the lives of all animals enslaved to be slaughtered for our consumption are horrible lives. But Bittman himself jumps in to admit as much, stating that the video footage we end up seeing merely serves to remind us of what goes on. Of course, he specifies that this is standard on factory farms, but it's not. The same things -- the branding, the dehorning, the forced impregnation and subsequent removal of offspring from their mothers so that they may be sent off to slaughter (or otherwise enslaved themselves for human use and eventual slaughter), et al. -- they occur wherever and whenever non-human animals are treated as future food for human consumption. It's not limited to factory farms. Bittman says that "some abuse is pretty much guaranteed" when the truth is that there is no way in which you can enslave an animal -- treat her like a thing with no interest in a life of her own -- then kill her, and not call it abuse.

Instead of calling for welfarist organisations to be allowed to engage in covert videotaping operations to spot-check for the worst forms of torture imposed on these animals we call "food", why is it so difficult for Bittman to consider suggesting that we don't, in fact, need to use them in the first place? Why is it so difficult for Bittman to consider that since "some abuse is pretty much guaranteed" that all of it could be prevented by educating people that it's wrong to treat sentient non-human animals as if they were things? Bittman inadvertently provides the answer to my questions by saying that "[t]here is, of course, the argument that domesticating animals in order to kill them is essentially immoral; those of us who eat meat choose not to believe this". He argues that allowing welfarist groups to continue videotaping animal agriculture operations would ensure that existing regulations concerning the levels of torture inflicted upon non-human animals would be better observed, while on the other hand, Mercy for Animals' Nathan Runkle elaborates that allowing them to continue videotaping "would allow the public to trust these operations rather than fear them".

And thus lies the absolute moral confusion inherent in speciesism. On the one hand, you have "almost everyone believ[ing] that even if it costs more, farm animals should be treated humanely". Yet the undeniable facts are that all animals raised for food suffer wretchedly on some level or another and that regardless of where they're enslaved or of how they're slaughtered, these animals are treated like things and deprived of being able to live out their own lives on their own terms. And while Bittman himself is willing to admit that the standard practice involved in raising and slaughtering almost 10 billion animals a year in the US alone undeniably involves tremendous suffering, he's not willing to view their enslavement and slaughter as "immoral". And rather than focus on educating the public about not using animals, welfarist organizations like Mercy for Animals work towards facilitating the public's ability to "trust these operations"-- to feel better about continuing to use non-human animals. So, indeed, who does protect the animals? Not Mark Bittman. Certainly not Mercy for Animals.

Please consider going vegan. If you're already vegan, talk to others about doing so. That's the only way to protect non-human animals. At the very, very least, we owe them that much.


Amanda said...

I saw the video his article refers to. This is one of the many things I wish I could un-see. My guess is that a vast majority of the people who have watched this video are people who already care enough to be vegan or vegetarian. Those that contribute to it don't want to know what their diet is supporting. I think that every time someone wants to eat a burger, they should have to watch a short clip of the life and death of the cow they're eating. Maybe then, we'd live in a vegan (and therefore a healthier, less polluted) society.

All about... (vegan) food said...

This is an amazing post, full of good arguments about a discussion that is becoming more and more common (animals treated "humanely").

Being vegan is the best option and I totally agree with you, we own them that much.