Today a Facebook friend posted an endorsement for Temple Grandin’s book ‘Animals Make Us Human’. It was an innocent enough act, done simply because the author endorses animals as sensory beings, acknowledging their sentience and presumably, the rights that might be accorded to a creature that can reason and determine.
I was not impressed.
Temple Grandin is a well-known figure, notable for the fact that she is regarded by many as an autistic savant. She does admirable work to support those who are on the autistic scale, and enlighten the public as to the reality of the issues faced by those affected. I wholeheartedly applaud her work in this area. But she is also legendary because of her pioneering work with animals and her recognition of their capacity for emotional experience and consequent championing of them. She is so well known that a movie has been made about her life that starred Claire Danes.
But what many may not be aware of is that the principal reason for Ms. Grandin to be so lauded is that she has been an innovator in the field of animal management and butchery. She has used her apparently innate and undoubted ability to understand animals to assist in the design of slaughter houses. She has created training methodologies for the workers of said establishments and has effectively written the book on contemporary methods of farmed animal killing. She is credited with being responsible for the humane and enlightened ways with which society conducts its mass genocide of these harmless creatures. In other words, she has empowered us to feel better about the way we deal with such a distasteful and disturbing subject.
On the one hand you may well think that this ground-breaking work has done the farmed animal population a great favour. After all, it has notionally made facing their inevitable deaths a much kinder experience for so many creatures, and has alleviated suffering.
I don’t see it quite that way. As the American author John Robbins observes: “Animals do not ‘give’ their life to us, as the sugar-coated lie would have it. No, we take their lives. They struggle and fight to the last breath, just as we would do if we were in their place.” Ms Grandin pursued her work because of her appreciation of the awareness that is a feature of every animal’s existence. She instinctively knew and accepted that they valued their lives and chose to try and help. Yet her response was not based upon an accepting and all-inclusive empathy that might cause her to seek to protect these hapless and vulnerable beings. Instead it was to create the very mechanisms that have helped speed their dispatch, and with it, ease our consciences. When her insight and public platform presented her with the opportunity to speak out in support of animal's rights to their lives, she chose instead to assist in the taking of them. Her reward has been to be heralded as a humanitarian and draw respect as a prominent ethicist.
To me at least, there’s something wrong with that; something deeply unsettling.
I pointed out to my Facebook friend (a vegan) the hypocrisy of the author. Sadly she wasn’t persuaded to remove the posting, perhaps because the terminology used by the author served her purpose. It was convenient. After all, the book does have the richly ironic subtitle ‘Creating the best life for animals’; and that is her concern, albeit in a far more genuine way than Ms Grandin.
I was left reflecting upon the conveniences that we all allow to become an insidious and maybe even all-pervasive part of our lives:
It is convenient to ignore the suffering of the 160 million animals that are executed each week so that we can dine on their flesh.
It is convenient to turn a blind eye to their sentience, which although ‘scientists’ may question it, is obvious to all but the most insensitive of humans.
It is convenient to deny the feasibility of any alternative to our habituated way of feeding ourselves, despite the fact that non-meat foodstuffs may be produced easily and without the global environmental devastation that is caused by factory farming.
It is convenient that people like Ms Grandin can assuage our consciences and exonerate us from our culpability in the ritualised abuse of our fellow earth dwellers.
It is convenient that we can say that there are more important things to worry about going on in the world right now that deserve our attention far more than these paltry issues.
It is convenient to dismiss our chosen foodstuffs as ‘just animals’.And it will be convenient to ignore this posting and the unsettling message herein.
Albert Schweitzer observed that: “We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognise it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”
Schweitzer was renown for his abhorrence for the ways in which animals were treated. Despite Ms. Grandin's input, he would likely be no less appalled now. For me, his salutary advice trumps all the conveniences listed above. His concisely expressed wisdom says it all. It is quite simply time to stop eating animals.
I believe that in her own way Ms. Grandin tried to live up to the call for action that is inherent in Schweitzer’s truths; but sadly, she missed the mark.