Less than a week after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals employees in North Carolina faced charges of cruelty for performing anesthetized euthanasia on unwanted animals, then tossing them in dumpsters, the state’s council of commissioners had to vote on whether North Carolina’s method for disposing of unwanted citizens is properly antiseptic. While PETA’s employees were cleared of cruel and unusual behavior, it’s not clear whether the State’s death penalty will be.
For a state that condones such agricultural practices as crating pigs during breeding, forced insemination of dairy cattle to keep them lactating and debeaking chickens to bring charges of cruelty against PETA rings hollow. Nonetheless, the case focused unusual attention on an organization that sees itself as the champion of animal rights. While democratic governments ought to be the champions of their citizens’ right, the charges against the State of North Carolina aren’t flavored with the same twist of irony. Perhaps that’s because the State government has demonstrated its investment in cruelty, to both animals and people.
The singularity of the human species is ingrained in our minds from birth. One thing on which creationists and scientists can agree is that in the chain of being there is nothing else like us. Whether we descended from apes or gods, we’re special. Because of the implicit self-importance in that claim (that we, humans, are either the pinnacle of evolution or the chosen few), there is room in human consciousness (and conscience) for hierarchy. The room for hierarchy among species is what makes room for hierarchies within human society.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could interpret our uniqueness as just a collection of attributes which says nothing about our relationship to other species. Or, if we are the pinnacle of evolution, we might see our place in the chain of being as benevolent care-takers of the earth. Instead, we interpret our phylogenetic achievements as the basis of a ranking system where we come out on top. We see ourselves as masters with dominion over all other species. Instead, we are superior, and our superiority justifies the degree to which we discount the interests of non-human animals.
The stratification of species with which we’re so comfortable creates room in our consciousness for treating people disparately based on their behavior. If people behave a certain way, if they violate norms or act objectionably, then those people forfeit their place in the chain of being, leaving them worthy only of the respect due to lesser animals.
Murder is unacceptable, whether it is carried out by an individual or the state. In either case, murders are often derivative of human imperfection. We refuse to accept that frustration, helplessness, panic, and other common feelings sometimes precipitate the most egregious interpersonal violence. And we refuse to admit that the death penalty is merely a legitimized form of retribution. Instead we say that the state is balancing the scales of justice while the incarcerated murderer is a deviant whose aberrant conduct is less than human. The state relies on its claim to superiority, which in this context is called authority, to distinguish its acts of killing as legitimate. Murderers are worthy only of our disrespect, marginalization, and dismissal. Since murderers have acted like animals, so the thinking goes, we can treat them like animals — locked in pens, waiting for slaughter.
Every way that the criminal justice system is unethical is mirrored in our industrial agricultural practices. Prisons are overcrowded places filled with penned-in, drugged-up, poorly treated people whose executions are often botched. Factory farms are overcrowded places filled with penned-in, drugged-up, poorly treated animals whose slaughters are often botched.
Some will resist the comparison between the prison industrial complex and the agro-industrial complex, but rejecting the comparison is premised on unfamiliarity with one or both of the industries. That we allow ourselves to be unfamiliar with our past and present industries of cruelty characterizes the limits of our compassion.
We would rather not know how hamburger is made, so not many of us visit factory farms. We would rather not know that we, a civilized people, have a death penalty, so we hold our executions at night and bury them deep in the bowels of labyrinthine cinder block structures.
Some say it’s time to move on and bury our sullied past in the wake of our progress. But the wake of progress smells more like diesel fumes in the wake of inmate transfer buses and is as blinding as the wake of feathers swirling behind poultry trucks.
The change has to begin somewhere. It’s exciting to see Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation spend time on bestseller lists. Perhaps these books can change our conception of food, challenge some of the policies that make factory farming profitable, or turn some hearts. They won’t do it alone, however. Our investments in cruelty are too tangled for any meaningful change to result from tackling symptoms instead of causes. We have to see that we will never treat cattle or hogs or chickens any better until we see that there’s something objectionable about the way we imprison people.
As these ideas percolate, perhaps we will be as discomforted by our habit or throwing away people and non-domestic animals as we were by PETA employees throwing away dogs and cats.