“I feel authorized to kill animals because I have given them life, loved them and cared for them.” These words summarize the viewpoint expressed by one of the “compassionate” farmers interviewed in Eating Animals1, a documentary produced by Natalie Portman and based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s autobiographical book. Sounding remarkably like a speciesist version of “I killed her because she was mine” (“La maté porque era mía”), a “reason” often given by Spanish perpetrators of violence against women, these words are certainly not what one expects to hear idealized in a documentary that purportedly defends animals.
It is unclear whether Portman and Foer, as well as the director of the documentary, Christopher Dillon Quinn, aim to contribute to the ending of animal suffering or only perform a sui generis reporting exercise. Whatever their motivation, the documentary does successfully show how wrong the belief that doing something is better than doing nothing is. If you are not willing to do proper research and reflect honestly, sometimes it is definitely better to do nothing. Otherwise you can end up, as is the case with Eating Animals, leading to much confusion – something strategically ineffective and even ethically dangerous when fighting against violence.
Animal suffering and the “caretaker-executioner”
The confusion exhibited by the film does not mean that Eating Animals does not persuasively and clearly display the violence perpetrated against animals on industrial farms. It does this very well, and does so very explicitly, including both known and not-so-known footage. Although the documentary also devotes lengthy segments to explaining the impact of this violence on the environment and on human health, probably more time than it does to footage displaying the cruelty against farmed animals, the fact remains that the suffering of nonhuman animals is represented without any ambivalence.
From the very first long opening sequence, however, the documentary also makes an adamant and ungrounded case for less intensive methods of animal exploitation. Against the cruel practices of industrial farming, animal exploitation is idealized in relation to practices considered traditional, such as those common in family businesses or small farms with fewer, comparatively better-treated animals, which the documentary presents as an ethical alternative. In the view of many humans, less intensive exploitation of animals is often associated with past, supposedly more “natural” and less harmful practices, which are therefore considered better or even good. The extent to which this fantasy is a creation by the capitalist industry or just perpetuated by it is an issue I cannot discuss here, but this association is a recurrent motif deployed by food industries, as is apparent in the advertising of animal products, with its misuse of the concept of “tradition” to improve branding.
In Eating Animals, a bucolic rhetoric is used to describe these “good” practices, including several stories of farmers portrayed as exemplary cases because of their more “human” exploitation, which is defined on the basis of a rather peculiar conception of love. The interviewees claim to love their animals and to suffer when they send them to the slaughterhouse, they assert that they have the right to kill them given that they have granted the exploited animals a good life, and they consider the high quality of the products their animals are turned into as tangible proof of this love. This insane rhetoric, used by both the “compassionate” farmers and the documentary itself when depicting the farmers’ practices, follows what is already a trend among all industries exploiting nonhuman animals: the adoption of an animal welfare narrative to demonstrate that they do care for animals and heed ethical concerns. Similarly, the scenography within which the farmers are depicted in Eating Animals can only be described as taking inspiration from the aesthetics of animal sanctuaries, with pastoral scenes of farmers walking leisurely surrounded by the nonhuman animals in the midst of wildflower meadows, only that here the farmers are both caretakers and executioners.
And so Eating Animals is both a condemnation of the cruelty of the animal industrial complex and a promotion of a glamourized, less intensive form of animal exploitation, which is portrayed as sustainable and human. The take-home message of Portman, Foer, and Quinn thus turns out to be utterly self-contradictory: if you want to avoid participating in the violence against farmed animals, and the rest of the problems that this violence produces (including environmental and human health impacts), you must eat animals exploited and killed with love. That is, if you want to avoid violence, choose “violence with love”.
I am going to ignore here the not insignificant fact, and very well explained elsewhere, underlying the fallacy that promotes extensive animal agriculture as a viable option to replace intensive animal farming: the fact that there is simply not enough land on the planet for such a replacement, even with a radical reduction of consumption by the Western world. Livestock’s Long Shadow, the world-renowned report published by U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization,2 already convincingly demonstrated that extensive animal agriculture is actually a greater emitter of greenhouse gases than intensive animal exploitation. It is frankly shocking that Eating Animals does not bother to assess the real viability of extensive agriculture . Yet this is only a secondary issue, since even if such exploitation were a technically viable option, the ethical problem would remain. This is what is probably the most speciesist practice that lies at the heart of capitalism: the eating of other animals’ flesh and fluids.
Less intensive exploitation of nonhuman animals, reminiscent of traditional methods romanticized in the collective imagination, may well result in less suffering for a smaller number of animals, but it is still an exploitative and violent practice. In extensive or less intensive animal agriculture, animals are just as objectified, manipulated, instrumentalized and, of course, in the end executed. To consider less intensive exploitation methods as an ethical option is only a choice from a speciesist perspective, given that a similar proposal would never be accepted if it involved humans. For example, no one would dare to affirm today that the cruelty of contemporary human slavery, however massive, can be fought by returning to ancestral practices of domestic servitude, with humans enslaved by families that “care for” and “love” them.
Trying to adjust the concepts of love and care to practices that involve violence immediately produces nasty results, such as the figure of the “compassionate” farmer as caretaker-executioner, who would never apply the insane logic of having the right to kill someone because you have given them life and cared for them to their human biological children. Likewise the association made in the film by the same farmer between an alleged greater intelligence of better-treated animals compared to animals “stupidized” by industrial abuse, is a comment that again seems to be a speciesist version of the archetypal devaluation of the oppressed made by ideologies of domination.
The alleged ethics of the so-called traditional practices of animal exploitation do not stand up to an objective analysis. That there is a smaller number of beings suffering less doesn’t make exploitation more acceptable — it simply makes it less intensive. The ethical problem of approving of the abuse of other species based on unjustified and also unnecessary discrimination persists, especially considering the excellent plant-based alternatives widely available today. The inconsistency between the reality of an alternative diet to animal protein that is not only possible but actually less polluting and healthier and the fact that a vegan diet is still the choice of only a tiny (although growing) percentage of humans is to a large extent due to the confusion disseminated by the food industry in a strategy which replicates that of the several other business sectors in crisis.3 Despite its good intentions, Eating Animals contributes to this confusion so cherished by capitalism, whose roots are deeply entrenched in the exploitation, trade, and ownership of other animals.
In this respect, it is necessary to emphasize the deception that lies at the core of Eating Animals, and actually at the core of all animal welfare rhetoric that is used to support less intensive animal farming. This rhetoric is based on the fallacy that it is possible to humanize violence. So-called “compassionate exploitation” (or “human exploitation”), however, simply does not exist; it is a contradiction in terms, just as there is no such thing as “compassionate slavery” or “compassionate oppression”.
This is also why the confusing strategy used by Eating Animals is not only ethically problematic but also ineffective from a strategic point of view. Just as we do not defend women by asking violent men to have mercy on them or fight against child slavery by asking for the exploitation of children to be more benevolent, it is also utterly ineffective to defend animals by accepting that the industry exploits them in so-called humane ways. As with violence between humans, violence against non-humans is not a matter of degree, but rather of kind. Accepting degrees of violence means accepting and prolonging violence, because violence always engenders more violence. In this sense I think it is useful to consider violence as being like fire. It is not enough to reduce fires – they must be extinguished because, otherwise, they can spread further and do so with even greater virulence. It is precisely this inflammatory nature of violence what allows the massive abuses suffered by animals at the hands of humans, even where violence is supposedly more under control and minimized in current capitalism. Eating animals includes an extremely cruel example of this.
Violence begets violence
In the United States, as in the rest of the world, the government funds research devoted to increasing agricultural productivity and farm business performance through centers such as the US Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC). In the case of animals, this means, for example, trying to increase the number of offspring per birth, increasing the amount of product that can be extracted from their flesh or fluids, discovering diets that optimize the cost-benefit ratio or that simply enable animals to survive without any human care (for example, in extensive livestock). All this involves conducting all kinds of experiments with animals that in some cases involve extreme cruelty, some of which have come to be reported in the media.4
For many people these experiments are in all cases morally unjustifiable, but in some they are even inexplicable from a business performance point of view. One of these occasions is reported by a veterinarian interviewed in Eating Animals. The story was already denounced at the time the events occurred, but it is especially shocking in the film because it is recounted by a veterinarian who was a direct witness of it.
The case concerns experiments carried out to study the libido of bulls which consist of immobilizing a cow in a cubicle, introducing a bull into it and counting how many times the bull mounts her in a given period of time, usually around fifteen minutes. Recurrent rape (the cow is immobilized and forced) is a common practice not only in research centers but also in farms around the world. The experiment that the veterinarian witnessed, however, had gone much further by locking and immobilizing a young, adolescent cow with not one, but six bulls that were allowed to rape her for hours until killing her, leaving her with her back legs broken and her body torn. The veterinarian, who was present, was not allowed to apply euthanasia. All of this happened, let us not forget, in facilities linked to the US Department of Agriculture that are allegedly dedicated to scientific research.
It is evident that to having a group of bulls rape a cow until its death has no bearing with any scientific logic nor yield any relevant information on how to increase the productivity of anything. It does, however, reveal relevant information about us human beings, about how violence breeds more violence and about how different forms of violence feed on each other in current capitalism. Antispecist theorists and activists have repeatedly denounced the connection that exists between all forms of violence and especially between sexism and racism. This connection is blatantly exemplified by the statements and attitudes of the “compassionate” farmers of Eating Animals, who adopt with a speciesist formula the logic and rhetoric of not only sexist and racist violence, but also of class violence. The latter is actually amongst the most forgotten of all intersections between animal oppression and human oppression, despite its clear expression in the words of the “human exploiters” of the documentary, whose attitude is similar to that of the human slavers of 19th century, whether on slave ships or plantations or in the coal mines or textile mills of the British Industrial Revolution: a sort of paternalist supremacism over those considered to be inferior.
It is no coincidence that both theorists of liberal capitalism, such as Adam Smith and the French physiocrat Turgot, as well as its strongest critic, Karl Marx, agreed on the key importance of nonhuman animals in the process of early accumulation of capital5 Smith, in particular, traced the creation not only of wealth but indeed the origins of inequality to the domestication of animals. Power and status came from the increase of “herds and flocks”.6 Not surprisingly, capital, the root term for capitalism, evolved from capitale, a late Latin word based on caput, meaning “head”. The etymology of capitalism confirms Smith’s view and thus reveals how wealth was first measured: in terms of heads (of cattle).
As much as the thesis of Eating Animals makes a contribution to understanding how capitalism indoctrinates us to view other animals, its neglect of the full dimension of the ethical issue at stake makes the documentary strategically fail even from a simple utilitarian point of view.
Neither political strategy or ethics can accept violence of any kind.
This article is expanded from an earlier version in Spanish:
Banner Image: Scene from Eating Animals. (Sundance Selects via AP)
- Eating Animals (Motion Picture). Portman, N. (Producer), & Quinn, C.D. (Director). United States: Big Star Pictures, 2017
- Steinfeld, H., Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, & Livestock, Environment and Development (Firm), Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006. See also Garnett, T., “Intensive versus extensive livestock systems and greenhouse gas emissions”, FCRN Briefing Paper, 2010. Available at https://www.fcrn.org.uk/fcrn/publications/intensive-versus-extensive-livestock-systems-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions
- See Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M., Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2010 for studies of the tobacco or climate change denial industries; and Almiron, N. & Khazaal, N., “Lobbying Against Compassion: Speciesist Discourse in the Vivisection Industrial Complex”, American Behavioral Scientist, 60(3) 256–275, 2016, for the vivisection industry.
- In 2015, for example The New York Times published research on the USMARC: Davis, L.,“U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit”, The New York Times, January 20, 2015. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html?smid=tw-share
- Hribal, JC. “Animals are part of the working class reviewed”, Borderlands 11(2), 2012. Available at http://www.borderlands.net.au
- Smith quoted in Hribal, 2012