An Ethically Upside Down World

In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer observes an inversion of values when it comes to one of the greatest disgraces of the modern world, concentrated industrial farming. The worse the conditions on a factory farm, the better for profit. “In the world of factory farming,” Foer writes,

expectations are turned upside down. Veterinarians don’t work toward optimal health, but optimal profitability. Drugs are not for curing diseases, but substitutes for destroyed immune systems. Farmers do not aim to produce healthy animals.”[1]Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Back Bay Books, 2010), 184.

The factory farm is where sick not healthy animals are raise; it is where imperfection is the aim using drugs and genetic peculiarities nature could never abide; it is where perversity at every level now counts as normality.

if a corporation abuses a billion birds, the law will protect not the birds, but the corporation’s right to do what it wants … It’s crazy that the idea of animal rights seems crazy to anyone. We live in a world in which it’s conventional to treat an animal like a hunk of wood and extreme to treat an animal like an animal.[2]Foer, Eating Animals, 93.

In this world of inverted morality, symptoms of suffering are responded to with even more aggressive deprivations that cause more suffering. Animals lose their body parts through blame-the-victim mutilations because they do not quietly conform to torturous confinement. And if you don’t like what happens on factory farms, you are not welcome to disagree or find out more. Ag-gag laws protect criminal behavior, while those seeking to uncover criminal behavior are labeled criminals.

Those who speak out in the upside down world, the activists, are the outsiders—distrusted, mocked, and in some cases called terrorists. Whole societies have adopted misconceptions and false labels concerning both products and people against those products—thanks to government and meat industry propaganda. A docile public, happy to dismiss any challenge to its embedded prejudices, is led along to perceive animal activists as troublemakers. In her book The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals, Jenny Brown, the co-founder and director of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, details how she used to work undercover to film animal abuses in stockyards. She writes,

I was terrified someone would find me out—would see that I was an enemy because I had a camera and a heart.”[3]Jenny Brown, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 138.

What has human society come to, when mainstream culture, along with its leaders, corporations, and legal apparatuses, automatically regards the compassionate as the enemy, their message as something to be stamped out?

Empathy, when in evidence, tends to be selective or misplaced thanks to attentional bias. Unreal beasts, made entirely of special-effects—such as an ET or King Kong—induce more empathy, sorrow and tears than billions of nonhuman animals trapped in feces encrusted cages or ammonia choked sheds for a lifetime.

Paradoxically, the suffering is hidden out in the open. Signs of it are everywhere, only not truly seen by the people who quietly shop, donate, vote, buy and eat in a way that tacitly condones animal exploitation and ecological damage. Exploitation even for the most trivial desires is all seen as normal, as natural, as necessary, as educational, and as a right. This is how ethically upside-down the world has become.

The degree to which cognitive dissonance operates is testament to the enormity of the ignorance. Acknowledge there is a fundamental moral aberration at work and you invite conflict with the mainstream. Question the complicity of others in the inverted moral hierarchy and everyone gets uncomfortable. Disconnect, avoidance and detachment is the default, such that the suffering of nonhuman animals paradoxically stays invisible while in evidence everywhere.

Perceptions Right Side Up

Becoming aware of and seeing the “evidence” requires a mental recalibration, an adjustment of perspective to see things the right side up. Vegan skeptics, keenly aware of the upside down world they inhabit, see the greed driven morality humans live by as having created a totalitarian nightmare for nonhumans—that is, human societies rule over animals in a manner no different to history’s examples of fascism or slavery, where a dominant group of humans has ruling over other humans.

Yet most people simply cannot see it. As writer and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer famously wrote in Enemies, A Love Story,

in their behaviour towards creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.[4]Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972 ), 257.

Singer returned to this theme again and again, just as his character Herman does in Enemies, identifying parallels between “might is right” fascist ideologies and the everyday dictatorship of humans over animals. Singer’s Herman directly compares the Holocaust to the ongoing animal exploitation holocaust, writing that “what the Nazis had done to the Jews, man was doing to the animals.”[5]Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 145. In the short story “The Letter Writer,” another of Singer’s characters thinks to himself,

What do they know – all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world – about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.[6]Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982 ), 271.

Like so many before him, Singer recognized that victimizers behave as if entitled and justified, and they appear in many guises. Even in eating there is tyranny, for every meat eater “ upholds with every bite … that might is right.”[7]From an interview quoted in Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002), 198. Later writers and activists who have voiced this idea have been inundated with protests from stunned and outraged religious and secular commentators alike. These reactions, however, only demonstrate a widespread ignorance of what is an old idea.

Embedded traditional prejudices of privilege and entitlement prevent critics from grasping such notions. They have absorbed beliefs of entitlement based on traditional falsehoods and might-as-right practices going back to Abrahamic religions. Religions have long justified as normal what from another objective angle is a perversity. They downplay animal suffering and sentience because that threatens the fundamental conceit of anthropocentric superiority or “naive self-love,” as Freud called it, and complicates theological explanations of evil.

Thus to preserve their delusion, the religious must maintain an aberrant worldview that is ultimately against nature and even common decency. A comical example of this is Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, former archbishop of Bologna and one-time contender for the papacy, who believes that

the modern Antichrist, identified in the Book of Revelation as a seven-headed beast, was most likely now disguised as a philanthropist supporting creeds like vegetarianism, animal rights or pacifism.”[8]“Cardinal: Antichrist is a Vegetarian,” in BBC News, March 6, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/668048.stm.

Apparently, the last thing this world needs is more compassion, pacifism and skeptical inquiry. Such is the endgame of religions when taken to their inevitable totalitarian extremes. Such is fascism when its privileges are threatened.

While the influence of such religious nonsense has declined in more enlightened societies, traditional religious ideas live on, culturally embedded and accepted by even educated and rational people, by even those that have dismissed religion. The sense of normality that disguises the tyranny over nonhuman animals allows most people to live their lives oblivious to the suffering around them. In their own minds, they are kind and morally upstanding. Yet threaten trivial matters of privilege like taste or clothing choices, and you will see these very people defend it with what amounts to a might-is-right ideology. It is a demonstration of how the effects of a religious heritage, with its enormous sense of entitlement, remains ingrained in cultural thinking.

Mocking the Messenger

Many of these goodly citizens deride animal advocates and vegans, as if they were anti-Christs. Because of cultural conditioning, distrust and suspicion generally greet those promoting vegetarianism or those with “unorthodox” attitudes toward animal exploitation. Point out barbarism against nonhumans and you may get the puerile response that we deserve what we have because we are at the top of the food chain, or you will get some absurd naturalistic fallacy.

What was true hundreds of years ago is still true now: you are asking for trouble if you challenge the animal slavery of the upside-down world:

Alas, the very attempt could not fail to encounter the ridicule of the mob, the obloquy of the sensual, and the sneers of the unfeeling. The advocate of mercy would incur the reproach of misanthropy, and be traduced as a wild unsocial animal, who had formed a nefarious design to curtail the comforts of human life,— Good God ! Is it so heinous an offence against society, to respect in other animals that principle of life which they have received, no less than man himself, at the hand of Nature?[9]John Oswald, The Cry of Nature; or, An Appeal to Mercy and Justice on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals (London: J. Johnson, 1791), 43-44.

Is it not a strange irony that apostates from the world of animal killing and meat orthodoxies should be cast as rebels, when their diet represents an advocacy and conviction of moral rectitude, when they avoid animal products not only in the name of moral progress, but also to advance human rights, social progress, and civilization?

Still today animal advocates and ethical vegetarians and vegans are anathema to dominant cultures based on monotheistic religions because of incompatible political, social and moral underpinnings. Still today ethical vegans commit “secular heresy,”[10] Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 294. for which they are derided and ridiculed—including by so-called free thinkers, skeptics and atheists. The religious and skeptics alike mock or dismiss animal advocates and vegans as a radical threat. But what they actually dislike is the questioning of mainstream inverted morals and hypocrisies. They feel an implicit criticism directed at them by the mere presence of a vegan.

The position that abstention from meat has always put its exponents in, without their having consciously sought it—that of questioning the validity of the foundations of society—is inevitable. It is these questions, nagging and insidious, which society has always resented; irritated too by the unspoken moral superiority of the practitioners of vegetarianism, its first defence is always ridicule.[11] Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 294.

Ethical vegan are used to being called holier than thou from defensive omnivores. The following from Orwell’s 1984 captures the spirit of what vegans actually hear: “And you consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?” If you come to question the excuses and evasions, you have the choice of either remaining a hypocrite or matching moral beliefs with action. Most people resent that choice terribly.

It is not just zealots that contribute to myth-based values and policies of the upside-down world. It is not just the extreme exploiters—the unfeeling and uncaring, the pathological or sadistic—that dismiss or aggravate the plight of exploited nonhumans. It is the moderate everyday person too, including the everyday secularist and rationalist, who quietly thinks, donates, votes, buys and eats a certain way. They take an overweening sense of entitlement as deserving. They adapt their thinking to dispel dissonance. While quietly complying to social norms, they prevent change and give consent to the status quo. While quietly shopping, they vote at the checkout and ensure a knife is stuck in another throat.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York: Back Bay Books, 2010), 184.
2. Foer, Eating Animals, 93.
3. Jenny Brown, The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 138.
4. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972 ), 257.
5. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 145.
6. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982 ), 271.
7. From an interview quoted in Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (New York: Lantern Books, 2002), 198.
8. “Cardinal: Antichrist is a Vegetarian,” in BBC News, March 6, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/668048.stm.
9. John Oswald, The Cry of Nature; or, An Appeal to Mercy and Justice on Behalf of the Persecuted Animals (London: J. Johnson, 1791), 43-44.
10. Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 294.
11. Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 294.

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