Friday, March 11, 2011

Why We Fight

Every war involves propaganda, even the war for the rights of animals.

Big corporations that make animal products have been under assault from both Animal Rights and Animal Welfare groups. Not long ago, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) produced a stark video about leading pork producer Smithfield Foods. The video, called Undercover at Smithfield Foods (click here to see it), is a damning indictment of how the huge corporation treats its pigs. The first half of the video is shocking and heart-wrenching. Sadly, the second half is a plea for improving conditions in pork production, rather than a desperately needed argument on behalf of ending all forms of animal exploitation.

Now, Smithfield has fired back with a propaganda video called "Taking the Mystery out of Pork Production at Smithfield Foods" (included above). Please take out a little time to watch it. If we're going to challenge the likes of Smithfield Foods, it's crucial to first hear and consider their arguments. The video isn't very long - nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds - and it is interesting to see the company putting a positive spin on pork production.

This pro-pork propaganda is not always easy to watch, for totally different reasons than videos of brutality and slaughter. For starters, it depicts the pigs as being well cared for and seemingly happy with their lot in life. At one point, Dr. Mary Battrell, a North Carolina-based veterinarian who takes care of Smithfield's pigs (and is seen in the video holding a piglet), assures viewers that the pigs have "the best care that we can make available to them."

Everything in the video is portrayed as idyllic, from the rolling green pastures surrounding the "climate-controlled facilities" to the inside of the buildings where the pigs are kept, which are bright and airy. The video shows Smithfield using "green" (i.e., environmentally friendly) methods to take care of their pigs, and Dr. Battrell tells the audience that pigs are not injected with any sort of hormones. The pigs shown in the video appear happy and carefree and full of spunk. Dr. Temple Grandin turns up as a talking head in the video, commenting at the beginning about being happy that she was asked to appear in it.

In the end, the video - not surprisingly - is a spirited defense of Smithfield.

Which takes us back to the HSUS video, insisting that Smithfield treated its pigs horribly. One might pose the question: Which one is correct? But that is not the question that ought to be posed.

The question that we ought to be asking is: Do human beings have the right, even under the best and most idyllic of circumstances, to transform sentient beings into food?

The problem with Animal Welfare arguments is that they rest on the assumption that getting rid of the worst abuses and excesses will finally lead to a more just and tolerable situation for animals. Really, all that does is pacify the consumer of animal products - lulling them with a false sense of justice that everything is fine, that animals are being protected, that it's OK to consume animal products.

We can sit here and tick off all the horrible ways that pigs are treated in most factory farms. Their tails are "docked" - or hacked off - without pain killers. They are cramped together into dark spaces. They live short lives full of noise and anxiety and stench, only to have their throats severed. This picture here, taken of a pig farm in North Carolina by University of North Carolina epidemiology professor Steven Wing, shows what sometimes happens to pigs at these kinds of facilities. The rest are cut up into meat and sent off to market.

But it's not enough to talk about the appalling conditions in many pig farms, because there will always be some state-of-the-art facilities where pigs are treated better.

What needs to be said is that no matter how clean, no matter how sanitized, no matter how bright and sunny and surrounded by rolling green hills these pig farms may be, the violence they perpetuate against sentient beings is always unjust. The end result is death - violent death - whether the facilities are pleasant or horrific.

Alas, the Humane Society - as wonderful and heroic as it often is - missed a golden opportunity to make that statement in its video showing the appalling conditions at a Smithfield facility. The HSUS video even praises Maxwell Foods and Cargill for being "gestation crate free."

Which is why Smithfield's response - in the form of a cheery and optimistic "Morning-in-America"-type video - represents an effective, although hokey, counter-argument.

They wouldn't have such an easy time responding to a more principled Animal Rights position. Being voices for the voiceless requires that we adopt that position and argue it over and over and over again, until we're blue in the face.

1 comment:

  1. You write: "Do human beings have the right, even under the best and most idyllic of circumstances, to transform sentient beings into food?"

    I suspect the Humane Society didn't ask that question because it (as an organization) seems to well and truly reflect the general society's contradictory and ambivalent attitude toward those animals without as much technological power as humans.

    And, as long as the real questions aren't asked, sideshow debates can continue to obscure the real issues and discomfort (and probably guilt, regret and chagrin) can be avoided and postponed.