We’ve all had the experience of listening to someone speaking on a subject about which they are woefully ignorant, spouting simplistic nonsense, often with a loud authoritativeness and even fervour. We tend to judge, condemn and dismiss the speaker but we can also feel compassion and embarrassment. We sense their desire to cover some personal inadequacy and uncertainty with self-assuredness, and after all, haven’t we all done the same at some time?
As humans we are strangely afraid of admitting ignorance. Some of us don’t even like to ask for directions out of fear of being seen to be vulnerable. We like to have answers and explanations for everything so that we can feel we are in control of our circumstances. This makes it hard to change, because often changing requires us to question our previously held assumptions, to become less comfortable and sure of ourselves. Often we hold on to beliefs and ways of doing things even though to change would improve our lives and the lives of those around us. Only consider our continuing use of fossil fuels even though by doing so we are steadily destroying life on our planet and threatening our very future.
All too often, when faced with something about which we are generally ignorant, something new or unfamiliar, something “other”, we respond with suspicion, fear, simplistic assumptions and labels, and often rejection, controlling behaviour and even violence. It is only as the unfamiliar becomes more familiar that we begin to accept, respect and even embrace that which previously seemed foreign.
The tragedy is that, by the time we adjust our understanding, tremendous damage has been done in one way or another, often irretrievably. Nowhere is this more true than our treatment of other people and animals. We have been very slow to recognize the person-hood of others who are not like us, other people and also other species. Person-hood is a fundamentally important status for any of us, one that we all too often take for granted if we never had to fight for it. A person is someone who is recognized as an individual, having the same rights and attributes that we expect for ourselves, including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as stated so eloquently in the United States Declaration of Independence. Our history of moral progress can be seen as a history of extending the community of persons, and the rights associated with person-hood, to an increasing number of previously excluded “others”, not just our own kind.
The process of refusing the rights of person-hood have been painful, tragic and violent. The enslavement and abuse of others is possible only when we fail to recognize their similarities to ourselves, with the same capacity for nurture, expectation and pleasure, fear and suffering and pain, expression and opportunity, all the rich tapestry of experiences and possibilities that we ourselves enjoy. The reason that slavery is the worst kind of violence against any person is that it removes the fundamental freedom to express our own nature, pursue our own goals, and strive for personal happiness. Slavery replaces self-determination with constraint and control, and often brutal suppression. It should be no surprise that brutal treatment goes hand in hand with imprisonment and control of others. The recognition that the enslaved is a person like us is unacceptable, so that every attempt must be made to suppress this knowledge. The cowed, beaten and submissive demeanour of an individual who is horribly mistreated only confirms their status as somehow less deserving, less of a person. A slave learns not to look directly at the enslaver, not to express their person-hood, for fear of reprisal.
We can no longer maintain our distance and superior position when we become aware of the enslaved looking back at us with eyes of awareness and intelligence and suffering. One of the finer threads of recent human history is the increasing recognition of “others” of one kind or another as persons, individuals living their own unique lives, with rights just like ourselves. This recognition occurs as we the intimacy of actually interacting with others replaces the ignorant stories in our heads that describe those who are foreign to us as non-persons, less deserving, less intelligent, less important.
We have enslaved, suppressed, and brutally mistreated the unfamiliar throughout our history, whether the unfamiliar be another village, gender, country, race, religion, or sexual orientation. And much more granularly, every day, we disrespect people who are unlike ourselves, those who are quieter, louder, younger, older, who have different values, different clothes, different degrees of success. In all cases we do not know the people that we judge, and we resist learning more about them out of fear that to do so will mean that we have to give up something, our behaviours, our habits, our lifestyles. Judging, feeling superior, allows us to think of them not as persons but as less deserving intruders, threatening our comfort.
Person-hood is the right of each one of us. The status of person-hood is essential for living creatures to be treated with the fairness and dignity that they/we all deserve. Once again, history is the history of redefining and expanding the word “person” as our familiarity of others increases. We must open ourselves to the person-hood of others, and resist those who refuse to recognize, or actively diminish, the rights of others for personal power. Only consider: without the right to be treated as a person, what is there? To be alive with no hope, with no rights, continually at the mercy of another, is a horror beyond (for most of us) imagination. We must ask, actively, who deserves to be treated as a person, and what does this mean with regard to my own actions?
It is long past time to consider the rights of person-hood for species other than human. When it comes to other species, the two most familiar in our own culture have to a large extent been accorded the recognition of being persons. Cats and dogs are protected by many laws. We recognize their intelligence, their awareness, their capacity for pleasure and pain, fear, and hope, suffering and grief, joy and excited anticipation. We see that they are not so different than ourselves, and, once born, are also deserving of a decent chance at a happy life. We don’t (in the West) eat them. We react with anger and outrage when we experience abuse against dogs and cats, when we see them mistreated, tortured, hurt and even killed by violent and brutal acts. And as owners we become very aware of their individual character. Every dog and cat is different, each has his or her own characteristics, we love each one differently. We respect them, just as we do other people.
Familiarity with other animals brings them into the circle of person-hood. Those who know horses know that every horse is an individual, again with all the capacities to experience life as we have. Those who study birds or chimps or dolphins or any animal report the same thing. We learn that an animal is not a species, he or she is an individual, unique, thinking, feeling creature, having his or her own one and only life, own moment by moment experiences. We learn that each animal is actually a person, just like us, and has a right to strive for his or her own happiness, just like us.
Animals born and raised in today’s large scale factory farms are not treated as persons. Far from it, they are enslaved from birth, and usually fattened, mistreated and then killed at an early age. We should be familiar with the lives of the farm animals that lives all around us, after all we eat them, but we somehow maintain a cognitive dissonance in this regard. When the treatment of farm animals is brought up we cover our ears, dismiss the messenger, and walk away. We don’t want to know, don’t want to change our lifestyle. But pigs, sheep, cattle, chickens, ducks, geese are all conscious and aware beings, each having a unique and individual life, just like you and me and cats and dogs and every one else. There are more than 840 million farm animals in the United Kingdom, compared to some 60 million humans. We can easily see the conditions under which humans live. Why are we “protected” from seeing the conditions of these 840 million other individuals, enslaved and treated so horrendously? What are the rights of factory farm animals? What is our responsibility to ensure that these animals are granted rights?
A pig is one of the most intelligent species on the planet, more intelligent by standard measures than a dog. Each pig is a living individual, curious by nature, always exploring and inquisitive, very sensitive and aware, very sociable. Most pigs in our country live short lives that are more brutal than any of us can possibly imagine. Their entire lives are lived in artificial and unnatural surroundings with little or no access to sunlight or fresh air. At birth they are separated from their mothers. They are fed with food and antibiotics designed to fatten them as fast as possible and prevent them from being diseased as a result of their living conditions. Why is it that we cannot see that these are intelligent, aware beings, just like you and me? Imagine living their lives. They are lost, confused, distressed and terrified from their first day to their last. They have no chance of any kind of life. After a few months they are brought to the abattoir, often crying in terror, where they are stunned, strung up and have their throats cut. They struggle while their life blood pours from them, and then they are cut up into pieces for “processing”. Our first experience of these living beings is as shiny packages on supermarket shelves, to become the bacon or ham on our plates. Every pig is a living being, utterly enslaved and mistreated, with no chance of escape from a pre-determined fate, no possibility of experiencing the joys of life to which they, just like us, are entitled as living beings, as persons. Only imagine your own life taken from you in this way. Why do we refuse to recognize the reality of this, the consequences to another living being of our selective ignorance when it comes to recognizing the rights and lives of others? Animals are not objects, they are each having their own unique precious lives just like you and me. It is utterly criminal to take any person’s life, any animal’s life, and treat as if it were only a factory component for a profit-making industry. And we are the criminals.
The same or similar is true for all other farm animals. You and I become fully responsible for this treatment at the moment we pay for meat and dairy products at the supermarket cash register. We are responsible but, as has been the case with other forms of slavery and abuse, we are also mostly ignorant. Why so ignorant? In a world of mass media and mass surveillance, we might ask, why are there no cameras in our farms? Why is there no television coverage of the horror of factory farms? But information is available. It only takes a little time to learn about the conditions of today’s factory farms, there is plenty of verifiable and information on the Web from sites such as Viva!. The facts and figures, videos and documentaries don’t just paint a picture of horror, they also show us clearly the awareness and suffering of these animals. Just like slavery of other people, once we realize that a person is looking back at us we can no longer continue in our behaviours.
It has been said that people change when change become easy. Factory farming is happening at a time when plant-based diets are proving to be delicious to eat, just as nutritious as meat-based diets, promote longer and healthier lives, require far far less water and energy resources, and offer us our best hope for reducing global warming and resource depletion.
And so we must ask ourselves, do we choose to remain ignorant, to loudly bluster about a subject we know little about as we strive to maintain control at the cost of vast suffering? Or do we begin to listen, pay attention to what is happening on our farms, begin the process of change and honest self-questioning, the recognition of others, that has always been the highest human achievement, that always yields a better and happier world for us all? We owe it to ourselves to make a change today, to recognize individuals of other species as persons, just like humans.