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5 Deeply Ingrained Fictions That Desensitize Us to the Animals We Eat

Grilled suckling pig on a plate in banquet restaurant
Photo Credit: MariyaL/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture, by Robert Grillo (Vegan Publishers, 2016). Reprinted here with permission.

In the constellation of fictions described in this book, there are a handful that we can identify as foundational fictions because they serve as the building blocks for creating more elaborate narratives that combine other fictional devices for more powerful effect. But before we look at these in more detail, there’s a common question that arises from the examples presented in this chapter that is worth addressing up front. Many have asked, “Why not focus on the largest corporate exploiters and just leave the small producers of animal products alone?” There’s no dispute that large corporate entities have the greatest concentration of money, power, and influence to inflict the most suffering on animals based on the sheer scale of their enterprises. Yet, long before so-called modern factory farms existed, the model for large-scale animal commodification was actually established in early civilizations, as evidenced by inventions like the artificial incubator in ancient Egypt.

Consequently, this book seeks to demonstrate just how deeply these fictions permeate our culture, far beyond modern agribusiness. In fact, it would be misleading to conclude that these fictions are somehow exclusive to corporate branding, nor do they even necessarily originate there. It is critical that we understand that they have much deeper cultural and historical roots. So embedded are they in our culture that many people no longer recognize them, let alone question where they originate or who continues to perpetuate them. They are steeped in the language of celebrated writers and great works of literature, in the moving images of iconic films, in the work of some of the most iconic artists and musicians, and in the adventures of popular nature, travel, and cooking shows, just to name a few. Most importantly, they embody the dominant worldview held by all of our important social institutions, such as the schools where we send our children, the doctors and hospitals we trust with our health, the government agencies that determine our dietary guidelines, the companies where we are employed, and even the nonprofits that we support to advance important social justice causes. We assimilate this fictional paradigm and project it back out to our own social network of family, friends, and acquaintances. And so the feedback loop continues.  

1. Anthropomorphism.

One of the most striking examples of anthropomorphism is a TV commercial featuring Jim Perdue talking about what good lives his chickens have. The scene cuts to the interior of a chicken coop where chickens are facing stage mirrors with the little white ball lights around them, as if to suggest they are getting ready to go on stage and give a performance. And people believe that this reflects some truth, albeit a whimsical twist on the truth, about chickens in Perdue’s care. A neighbor once said he had heard that chickens were actually very well cared for. He probably arrived at this belief from seeing this or some similar commercial, and the fiction became embedded in his consciousness, never to seek questioning again. That’s how a good fiction works. It stifles any further critical thinking on the subject. In fact, no one ever seems to have a problem when a major food brand like Perdue uses anthropomorphism in their advertising to mislead us into believing that their chickens are actually pampered. It just so happens to be right in line with what we want to hear, see, and believe about how they are raised, so instead of evaluating the claim critically, we accept it at face value. But then as soon as some dissenting view surfaces that challenges our massive system of animal exploitation, we are quick to level accusations of anthropomorphism for attributing human traits to other animals.

In a recent discussion on YouTube, a pig farmer/veterinarian accused others of being anthropomorphic for stating that pigs suffer by being enslaved and confined, but then she used a counteranthropomorphic defense by claiming that no one could prove to her that her pigs weren’t content. Her claim is anthropomorphic because it assumes that she understands what her pigs are thinking and feeling about being confined and commodified, and that they would not prefer to live free of confinement and on their own terms, if given the choice. She is not an animal behaviorist or other kind of scientist, nor did she bring any scientific or other credible evidence to support her claim. She is projecting what she assumes to know about her pigs, specifically that they don’t mind confinement because they’ve never known freedom, and this claim conveniently fits her agenda for exploiting them for her own gain. But just because they have never known freedom doesn’t prove that they prefer confinement over freedom.

Anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to another species—is the thread that weaves together many of the fictions and fictional devices that follow in this book. The exploiter’s fictional executions portray farmed animals as expressing a range of positive emotions, or at least no negative reaction, in response to their enslavement by humans. It is therefore designated as one of the foundational fictions upon which other fictions are built. It is not, however, anthropomorphism itself that is necessarily fictional, but instead, it is the intent behind anthropomorphism that determines its truthful or fictional nature. For example, critics of animal advocacy often make invalid accusations of anthropomorphism even in response to legitimate and well-researched claims about animals expressing emotions or feelings or acting in a socially complex or empathic manner similar to humans. For evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff, what he calls biocentric anthropomorphism is a means of engaging in “rigorous science” through the inherently flawed and limited lens of human perception. As he explains, “the way human beings describe and explain the behavior of other animals is limited by the language they use to talk about things in general. By engaging in anthropomorphism—using human terms to explain animals’ emotions or feelings—humans make other animals’ worlds accessible to themselves.” In response to the widespread backlash from the scientific community, Bekoff asserts that “the only guard against the inappropriate use of anthropomorphism is knowledge, or the detailed study of the minds and emotions of animals.”

Author and activist Karen Davis meets such accusations of anthropomorphism with some illuminating insights that emphasize the importance of intention:

Anthropomorphism based on empathy and careful observation is a valid approach to understanding other species. After all, we can only see the world ‘through their eyes’ by looking through our own. The imposition of humanized traits and behaviors on other animals for purely selfish purposes, forcing them to behave in ways that are pathologic to the animals themselves, is not the same thing as drawing inferences about the emotions, interests, and desires of animals rooted in our common evolutionary heritage.

Davis’s reference to “anthropomorphism based on empathy and careful observation” brings to mind the powerful message of photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur in the opening of Liz Marshall’s film The Ghosts in Our Machine when she tells us that she feels like a war photographer documenting animals as if they are casualties of war. It seems apt to call it a war because, if humans were the casualties, it would most certainly be considered a war and an atrocity, both epic and endless, like no other in history. Protests would dwarf anything like those against the Vietnam War or the student movements of the sixties. We call it a war because we know in our hearts and minds that what animals are experiencing is a systematic assault on their identities and bodies. You can see the horror and despair on their faces, in their agitated body language and movement, in their desperate calls and anxious, labored breath. Their communication beyond words is so visceral and so much like our own, it haunts us forever.

On the other hand, when animal exploiters attribute positive emotions to animals that they exploit for food (or other purposes) to downplay accusations of causing them to suffer, their position is not just erroneous from a scientific perspective; it’s also transparently self-serving, conveniently portraying animals as “happy” to serve us, “happy” to make whatever sacrifice we demand of them. Indeed, anthropomorphism in this context is the foundation for some of the most powerful tools of persuasion in animal agriculture’s arsenal: humane-washing and consent. Again, in the words of author and activist Karen Davis:

In the rhetoric of exploitation—as opposed to the language of liberation—animals can be redeemed from being ‘just animals’ only by being sacrificed to ‘higher’ forms of life, via science, religion, entertainment, or edibility. Hence, whatever was or is done to them is justified by the ‘will’ of the animals themselves. Nonhuman animals want to be raped, mutilated, imprisoned, and even murdered, if it will make them ‘higher’ and more humanlike, privileged to serve the human interest. This is the essence of false anthropomorphism and of the genocidal erasure of the animal’s true identity in favor of the abuser’s image.

2. Consent.

All too often, farmed animals are portrayed as willing participants in whatever it is we want to do with them. By portraying the relationship between farmer and the animals he exploits as consensual, we, as the consumers of his products, are misled into believing that other animals don’t mind being used against their will, thereby reducing the issue to one of how we treat them. This has led not only to a wholesale denial of the value of their lives but also to a depraved standard of treatment we call “humane,” which, if applied to our cats and dogs, would be considered torture and even sadism. And not only do we portray them as consensual, we embellish this fiction by portraying ourselves as their benevolent masters and protectors. We suggest that animals are elevated by the honor of serving us in exchange for our hard work in raising them, much like the honor bestowed upon a soldier who serves his country. Our language affirms this. We never say that we take their eggs, their secretions, their bodies or their lives. Instead, we claim that they give them to us.

Fictional representations of consensual animal subjects precede recorded history itself and cross most cultural boundaries, which is not surprising since animals have been exploited for food for some ten thousand years or more. In Hinduism, in the popular depiction of Krishna milking the sacred cow, the cow willingly gives her milk to Krishna just as she would her own offspring. In this tradition’s most important stories, the female lactating cow becomes both a symbolic and literal source of nourishment and mothering to the human race, as if to suggest that we need this maternal protection into our adult lives. The sacred Hindu cow is Mother Earth. In the ancient Vedic scriptures, Krishna describes the cow as she who elevates human civilization and connects us to the divine. Drinking her milk seems almost akin to drinking the blood of Jesus. The Indian cow sanctuary Shree Gopal Gaushala describes a symbiotic cow/human relationship in which the Cow is the most important animal for developing the human body to perfection. The body can be maintained by any kind of foodstuff, but Cow’s milk is particularly essential for developing the finer tissues of the human brain so that one can understand the intricacies of transcendental knowledge. A civilized man is expected to live on foodstuffs comprising fruits, vegetables, grains, sugar and milk. The Bull helps in the agricultural process of producing grain, etc., and thus in one sense the Bull is the father of humankind, whereas the Cow is the Mother, for she supplies milk to human society. A civilized man is therefore expected to give all protection to the Bulls and Cows.

In contemporary Western culture, a strikingly similar sentiment can be found in the branding of Organic Valley milk products. The carton design replaces Krishna with a benevolent family farmer affectionately petting a cow. In the modern twist on this narrative, cow’s milk carries forward the ancient notion of nourishing us and giving us vigor and strength. And like the Vedic scriptures, modern day marketing of dairy as essential to good health reinforces our dysfunctional dependence on drinking mother’s baby formula as adults. Author Will Tuttle tells us that “we cannot bear the thought of growing up and leaving home. Perhaps we long for infancy and the peaceful oblivion of our mother’s breast, and if hers isn’t available, then we’ll use the breast of any lactating mother, even if she’s a cow and we have to kill her babies to get to it.”

Narratives and descriptions claiming that animals make sacrifices for us date back to our earliest recorded history and would have us believe that animals give their consent to being violently killed for a “greater good,” such as to provide us with sustenance or at the request of a higher power. However, to sacrifice oneself means to exercise consent, to act freely, to make a conscious choice from a variety of circumstances. For example, upon seeing a woman being attacked on the street, we weigh the options of our next moves carefully in the interest of all parties concerned. We could go and call the police, or we could try to intervene and risk also being attacked. We may decide that the latter is a sacrifice we’re willing to make because we feel compelled to act to save the victim. Another example is the soldier who, out of loyalty to his country, claims he is willing to sacrifice his life to defend his country. Even the most passive or symbolic sacrifice means that you consciously surrender, by choice, to another, perhaps to a loved one or to a higher power, in the form of worship or devotion.

But farmed animals who are exploited as resources are neither acting on their own free will, making a choice, or communicating their consent to being subjugated, enslaved, and killed. It is impossible to fairly describe such a situation as a sacrifice. What we do know for certain, based on observing their emotions and reactions, is that all animals, including ourselves, have a tenacious will to live and a willingness to go to great lengths to preserve their own lives, those of their immediate family, and even those of members of their extended social groups.

Even for indigenous people, who live on subsistence hunting and gathering and who kill animals for food out of necessity, the necessary act of killing does not constitute a sacrifice. Author and law professor Sherry Colb describes this as “a ritual of denial,” a ritual intended to absolve the guilt one feels for having caused another sentient being harm. “Indigenous people — like us — created ways of coping with their own violence against animals through rituals of denial. Some indigenous hunters have given thanks to animals for gifts the animals never consented to bestow . . . ,” writes Colb. “We have consumed the flesh and secretions of animals in restaurants carrying the names and images of ecstatic, celebrating versions of those same animals painted on the entrance.” Whether in the past or in the present, the notion that animals are willing to be harmed or killed as a sacrifice to us is not only anthropomorphic but also a powerful testament to how our remorse for inflicting suffering on others can drive us to deep levels of self-deception.

3. Objectification.

Without objectification, animals cannot be reduced to products of consumption. In a farmers’ market in Morin County, California—a mecca of organic agriculture and sustainability—one can purchase heritage breed chicks from a cage full of newborn peeping chicks with a sign above their heads that reads “$2/each.” Think about that for a moment. We place a monetary value on an entire lifetime of experiences that is less than the cost of a tube of toothpaste that will be thrown out within a matter of weeks. Even in this best-case scenario, we value these birds even less than everyday, disposable household objects, a value promulgated by the farming industry that has become accepted by society at large. Another way we can better understand objectification is to compare a wall-mounted beer bottle opener with the chick beak “trimmer” used by the egg industry that burns or severs the sensitive tip of a chick’s beak. Not only do the two pieces of machinery have striking design similarities, but the callous way we handle the bottle and the chick are also the same. Objectification allows us to suspend moral or rational judgment so that we may erase any distinction between a beer bottle and a highly sentient and complex being. Without objectification, we are forced to recognize that chicks are incredibly precocious learners whose behavior has been studied intensely with the goal of shedding more light on how the human brain develops.

Moreover, the exploitation industries flood the media with images of objectified animals: handled like elements of production, confined to overcrowded quarters, hauled like cargo on trucks or planes, shackled by their legs, hung upside and hurled by machinery down a kill line—all grotesque misrepresentations of subjects transformed into objects. The intent of objectification is to infect us with apathy for the victims and annihilate the human or nonhuman animal identity, to transform what philosopher Tom Regan calls “subjects of a life” —subjects who all share the same capacity for physical and emotional suffering—into usable and disposable objects. For animal law professor Lesli Bisgould, the fictionalized image of the animal object is normal to us by way of the long-standing property status of nonhuman animals. In legal terms, either one is legal property or a legal person worthy of rights to protect her from harm. And animals have, at the very least, a fundamental interest in not being violated, harmed, or otherwise made to suffer for our benefit. “If it seems strange to think of an animal as a legal person, consider that a whole array of inanimate constructs — corporations, churches, trusts, municipalities — are all legal persons in that they have legally protected interests and they can go to court and advance them,” explains Bisgould in her TED Talk. As pieces of property, fictionalized and fetishized objects of consumption, animals are denied the most fundamental right to life itself, which becomes the domain of whoever owns them.

4. Superiority.

During the Q & A of a popular Intelligence Squared debate called “Why Animals Should Be Off the Menu,” a very soft-spoken young man in the audience was given a chance to speak and had this to say:

We are not carnivores. We eat meat by choice. Why would you choose to kill another animal and eat its flesh, when you could choose not to? I think meat feeds much more than our body; I think eating meat feeds our ego. Because by choosing to eat meat, we are demonstrating that we are powerful enough to dominate and kill other animals for reasons other than survival. We demonstrate it through technology on a farm where animals are kept in cages no matter how big or small. We demonstrate it through technology in an abattoir where animals are killed systematically by machines.  Lastly and most importantly, we demonstrate it with our wallets where we pay top dollar for prime steak as a display of wealth. We are not carnivores. We eat meat by choice. And we choose to eat it to feed our ego.

Most people agree with the following statements: “I’ll always put a human before an animal” and “Humans are more important than animals.” But even if we believe or could prove to be superior to other animals, in however we arbitrarily define our superiority, the fact that one feels superior to others does not justify exploiting, enslaving, killing, and eating them. A leading brain surgeon is not justified in violating someone with lower cognitive abilities or less education than himself, such as a patient who suffers from dementia. Even in cases where we may subjectively feel superior over someone else in competitions, there are strict rules to the game, and harming our competitors solely on the basis of feeling superior to them would be considered “playing dirty” and disqualify us. That’s because we do not base morality on how well someone scores on an IQ test or how great an artist they are. The only morally relevant criteria for how we treat someone is whether they can suffer. All nonhuman animals qualify, since they visibly demonstrate fundamental interests in staying alive and avoiding pain, suffering, and death, not to mention a whole set of other complex interests that would be otherwise denied them.

But there is a deeper issue to explore in the human need to assert our superiority over other animals. Although we control the fate of the other animals on this planet, we still find it necessary to continually exert our self-professed superiority. Could it be that we are so deeply insecure about our alleged superiority—in relation to the other intelligent life forms on this planet that predate us by millions of years—that we feel compelled to continually remind ourselves how important we are? Is this desire to feel superior merely an expression of an inferiority complex? Is our understanding of our own intelligence—in relation to that of the other thousands of intelligent life forms we don’t fully even understand—so self-absorbed that our claim of superiority is akin to the tantrums of a spoiled child? Whatever the case, we act on this sense of superiority at every opportunity. The notion that human interests “trump” animal interests when we create an imaginary conflict of interest is particularly delusional when one considers that we wantonly kill sixty billion land animals and kill another trillion or so aquatic animals every year, not to protect any important human interest but just to suit our pleasure in eating them.

It’s as if the all-powerful affirmation that humans are more important than other animals justifies anything we want to do to other animals, no matter how illogical, immoral, or destructive. But it seems that the only thing that is “superior” is our pretentious attitude. If we were secure about our position at the “top of the food chain” or “natural order,” why do we need to defend it so desperately when it is questioned? And why do we attack those who question it? Why do we defend the dominant culture’s destruction of both animals and the earth when this destruction is obviously against our own interest in survival?

5. Naturalism.

The ubiquity of the naturalistic fictions used to defend or promote eating animals, used by religious and secular leaders of all faiths and cultures, is dizzying. But then again, claiming that it is morally acceptable to do something because it comes naturally to us or is grounded in some self-serving conception of the natural order has historically justified some of the most violent and depraved human behaviors, including millennia of institutionalized slavery, rape, pillaging, war, and genocide. Naturalistic fallacies depict nature as some static, simplistic relationship between prey and predator, as portrayed in countless PBS NATURE shows. The fact is only 10 percent of all animals are actually carnivorous, and many of these are scavengers, which feed on corpses.

Nature is so vast, complex, and elusive, it has always been a profound source of mystery, curiosity, and fascination for us. Perhaps the natural order is beyond human comprehension. But one thing we can say for certain is that just because some custom or routine comes naturally to us certainly does not make it ethical. As author Charles Horn points out in his book Meat Logic, “regardless of nature and our own barbaric history, civilization is meant to take us out of the realm of ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘might makes right’ mentalities and to evolve beyond them. Morally speaking, it is time to evolve beyond thinking that our base evolutionary desire gives us the right to exploit, enslave, torture, or kill others. It does not. It is a prejudice.”

One form of naturalistic fiction commonly found in popular culture appeals directly to our cravings, convincing us that giving in to our cravings is positively associated with listening and responding to what our bodies really need, as if to suggest that the mere fact that we crave or want to eat animals makes it natural or inevitable. We recognize this fictional device when addicts use it to justify smoking cigarettes, abusing alcohol, or gambling compulsively, yet our moral reasoning collapses over our craving for animals, which we claim is not really a vice but instead something to celebrate as natural. Clearly, the darker side of our behavior is as natural as the brighter side, but we only feel compelled to explain why we allow our darker side to eclipse our brighter side. We never feel the need to justify our brighter side because acts of goodness and kindness are accepted on their own merit. “Naturally occurring rape, infanticide, and xenophobia, should help dispel the notion that acting in ways that come ‘naturally’ automatically fulfills our moral obligations,” writes Sherry Colb. Colb argues that we regularly evaluate our own behavior and condemn many instances of naturally occurring conduct. “Indeed, if a particular behavior were sufficiently rare,” she explains, “it would suggest that people lack any drive to engage in it, and we would probably need no moral rules forbidding it. From this perspective, it is precisely because both virtue and vice come ‘naturally’ to us that we must critically consider our activities and choose what to do (and what not to do) on the basis of moral reflection.”

Robert Grillo is an activist, author and speaker. He is the director of Free from Harm, which he founded in 2009 to expose animal agriculture’s impact on non-human animals, vulnerable communities and the environment. As a marketing communications professional for over 20 years, Grillo has worked on large food industry accounts through which he acquired a behind-the-scenes perspective on food branding and marketing. Farm to Fable is his first book. He lives in Chicago.

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