I’m lucky enough to have been raised in an animal-loving home and family, where I have been around all sorts of farm animals and pets alike. Ever since I can remember, I have had been taught to treat these animals with respect and almost as humans. For me, “speciesism” – the idea that your relevance depends upon what species you belong to – never existed. Or so I thought. Although I grew up around dogs, cats, birds, horses, cows – you name it – I, along with the rest of my family, was an avid meat eater, who mostly didn’t think about where the meat was from or how it got from paddock (or as it turns out factory) to plate. Even as a child, I knew what kind of animal I was eating, but I was under the naïve impression that the bacon enjoyed with my eggs when dad cooked up a barbeque every weekend morning was straight from a huge, green paddock, with all its piglet friends. I wasn’t aware of just how wrong I was, really up until a few years ago.
Let me begin by telling a little anecdote about my mum. Every year since I was about 4, my family have been holidaying on our farm at Milton. There is a local slaughterhouse on the highway just out of the main town, which my mum deliberately turns away from when we are driving down that road, or past it to get to Ulladulla. She also refuses to view any video or images showing animals in factory farms, and I have confronted her about this many times. Yesterday, she finally confessed – “It’s the guilt”. These videos make her feel guilty for eating meat, but as a mother with limited time in between writing (she’s an author), keeping the house clean, making sure my little sister is doing enough study for her exams, feeding our goats, travelling back and forth to visit family, and preparing and cooking meals, she struggles to find enough time to plan strict vegetarian meals (not to mention the fact that my sister eats a total of 3 types of vegetable). For her, like many others, vegetarianism would be a wonderful option, if her life were less chaotic. But is this essentially placing more value on her time, on her life, than an animal’s?
The idea of speciesism seems absolutely barbaric to me, as the essential message of it is that humans are of greater importance than animals. It suggests that animals are inferior, and implies that animals are incapable of feeling emotions such as pain and joy. And yes it is true that many animals are driven by instinct rather than emotions, but isn’t that true for us humans as well? As Peter Singer says, ‘What is so different about us?’ – and the only thing he can think of is the human ability to reason, versus a non-human animal’s less advanced ability to reason. ‘What’s crucial is that we share with them the ability to suffer’ (The Noble Savage, 2011). And there you have it – animals do, in fact, possess the ability to feel. And for many factory-farmed animals, the only things they are able to feel are fear, pain and suffering – both emotional and physical.
What struck me most about this lecture was the idea of the difference between hearing and listening to animals. It’s easy for us to watch a video about factory farming, and maybe even donate money to an animal activist organisation as a result of this, but to what extent does this message resonate in our everyday lives? For me, it has definitely left a mark on my life – I have been a strict vegetarian for over 3 years, and try to consume as little animal bi-products as possible. I became a vegetarian because of the “Make it Possible” campaign video from Animals Australia I came across on Facebook in February of 2014, which led to me watching multiple other videos exposing factory farming for what it really is. Have a look for yourself…
As you can see, anthropomorphism is the feature of this clip (there’s also an extended one you can view here), but its effect, for me at least, has been long lasting, and ending factory farming is something I think about a lot. Whilst anthropomorphism is a problematic symptom of speciesism, it is definitely effective – which is precisely the problem. This technique may promote understanding and empathy for animals, but it also essentially ‘has the ability to make animals disappear’ (Epstein & Johnson, 2014). Rather than seeing animals, such as the pig in this campaign, as individuals, Epstein and Johnson highlight the fact that anthropomorphised campaigns, literature and films show only a protagonist, and the real pigs in factory farms are left unheard and uncared about. Which brings me to my next point – are there more effective ways to campaign for an end to factory farming?
Honestly, I think the answer is no. And this is because of what I see as the human god-complex – as a society, we see ourselves as the divine beings of this world, at top of the food chain, where nothing can defeat us and we are superior to every other species ever to exist. If a shark attacks a swimmer, we cull sharks; if a captive orca at Sea World drowns its “trainer”, we banish that orca to its own tiny tank until its death – and I’m going to stop there because that is a totally different topic that I’m about to get carried away with, but nevertheless it is connected to this idea. Humans are only at the top of the food chain due to what many perceive as their God-given right to kill any possible threats, but if we, like all other animals, were to use just our bodies to defend ourselves, we would not be on top of the food chain. And this is the problem – we have weapons, machines and technology on our side, giving us the ability to kill and eat whatever, or whomever, we want. It is for this reason that anthropomorphised campaigns are so effective, because many humans need to see something or someone as equals in order to be able to feel anything remotely empathetic towards them. And if this is what it takes to put an end to factory farming, then I’d rather exploit animals for anthropomorphism to raise awareness, than for human consumption.
Epstein, B.J & Johnson, M 2014, ‘As Happy as a Pig in Lit? The Dangers on Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature’, Huffington Post UK, 30 September, viewed 25 March 2017
The Noble Savage 2011, 5. Singer on Animal Rights and Vegetarianism – Great Ideas of Science & Philosophy, online video, 22 November, YouTube, viewed 24 March 2017