Thursday, November 14, 2013

“There Is No Way I Am Taking My Children to Free Birds This Weekend.”

“The patriarchal perspective views ethics as a means of social control, and animal liberation as a matter of taming our ‘naturally’ exploitative dispositions toward animals. This view ignores the taming of compassion and outrage that proceeds every day as part of the business of exploiting animals. In this society people are domesticated, trained through external rewards and punishments, through myths and lies, through instilled fear and ignorance, to disconnect from animals, especially from those animals designated ‘game’, ‘livestock’, or ‘guinea pigs’.

So animal liberation is not so much a taming of ourselves as it is a refusal to be tamed into supporting anthropocentrism….”
– Brian Luke
Part of this weekend’s Our Hen House podcast was a discussion of the movie Free Birds (I wrote about an evangelical review of it earlier). The hosts of the OHH podcast – who, unlike me, have seen the film – have an intelligent exchange about the negatives (inaccurate history, a missed opportunity to expose children to veganism combined with apparent product placement, confusing storylines) and potential positives of the movie. They talk about how its potential to provide a moral learning experience* probably depends on the context in which it’s viewed. If children see it with others who will listen to their concerns and can inform them about ethical alternatives, it’s possible that it could be an awakening. If they see it with people who treat it solely as light entertainment and mock or dismiss concerns about turkeys, that’s much less likely.

They also discuss an article in Slate by Dan Kois: “There Is No Way I Am Taking My Children to Free Birds This Weekend.” Kois recognizes the movie’s potential to lead people to rethink the morality of eating turkeys (and possibly other animals), to consider “that the things they eat have lives and dignity, and maybe you should consider eating plants instead.” Precisely because of this recognition, he’s determined – even as “a parent trying to raise ethical children,” as someone who recognizes that “there are way more great reasons to be a vegetarian than there are to be a meat-eater” and who would support his children if they became vegetarians – to keep them from seeing it:
[T]here’s another, darker part of me that can only think of how much I do not want Thanksgiving to culminate in my children’s realization that I am serving them the hero of the movie they just watched—a movie that is about that hero’s quest to stop his species from being killed and eaten by humans. Nor do I want Thanksgiving dinner to be a litany of tears as my children watch their parents slice up lovable Reggie (voice of Owen Wilson) with an electric carving knife, place his flesh upon a platter, and devour it with gravy and stuffing.

…Now, I love Thanksgiving! But there are a lot of people to please and a lot of food to cook, and two loudly protesting children do not easily fit into that. Should I take them to Free Birds, I fear my older daughter is likely to steal the turkey and throw it into the woods, and her sister will sit bravely at the table, sad tears streaming down her face as she forces herself to eat a single bite of poor Reggie. I’ll be forced to face my own hypocrisy, which is no one’s idea of a fun Thanksgiving. It’s already tough enough to explain why we watch enormous men give each other concussions on the TV!

Forget it, Hollywood. Make a children’s movie extolling vegetarianism in May, featuring cows, or in August, packed with a cast of adorable Pacific salmon. Heck, make Chicken Run 2: Attack on Tweedy’s Farm. But don’t blow up our Thanksgiving. It’s complicated enough as it is.
Coincidentally, just before reading these articles about Free Birds, I’d read Brian Luke’s excellent chapter** in Animals & Women (1995), “Taming Ourselves or Going Feral? Toward a Nonpatriarchal Metaethic of Animal Liberation.” Luke suggests that traditional animal rights approaches are premised on the assumption that humans’ inherent, “natural” tendencies toward other animals are callous, hostile, and violent, or at least that our emotional connections to animals are inconstant and undependable. So those who promote these approaches (he’s discussing chiefly Peter Singer and Tom Regan) tend to think of a positive ethics toward other animals as one that tames those natural “uncaring dispositions” and base instincts*** through rational rules that form the basis for projects of social control.

Luke argues, in contrast, and quite correctly in my view, that “the supposition of human antisociality toward animals is very dubious.” Our acceptance of the oppression, exploitation, and killing of nonhuman animals is not a natural inclination but is produced through our ongoing socialization into the system. In fact, he rightly suggests, the existence of such gargantuan and expensive efforts at concealment and indoctrination attests to our caring about other animals. If we truly lacked sympathy, this elaborate factory of compliance wouldn’t be necessary. “Suppose,” he asks,
as do James Serpell and Andrée Collard, that compassion for animals is a natural, normal, and healthy part of human life. We would then expect institutions of animal exploitation to protect themselves from compassionate human opposition through an array of unnatural, abnormal, and unhealthy mechanisms. This is exactly what we find. [citations removed]
Luke describes “highly developed mechanisms for forestalling the development of sympathies for exploited animals as well as powerful mechanisms for overriding (i.e., preventing us from acting on) any sympathies that might remain.” Ag gag laws are currently the most vivid political incarnation of “an industrywide effort to dim our awareness of the suffering behind animal farming,” which also includes euphemistic language, manipulation via advertising and public relations, and “educational” efforts to convince people that the consumption of animals and their secretions is necessary for human health.

Mechanisms to subvert or override our compassion and moral agency, both rewards and punishments, abound in the culture. Socializing children so they’ll consent to the system is extremely important, and this happens at all levels, including in families themselves. Parents offer ideological rationalizations for consuming animals in the form of religious myths or other false claims about animals. They ridicule children who conscientiously choose not to eat animals, treating them as selfish and disruptive. They force their children to eat meat. (It’s noteworthy that atheists who strongly object to the religious indoctrination of children are generally quiet about their socialization to participate in the system of animal exploitation.) They tell other parents, as A. Breeze Harper recently described, that exposing children to the truth about the suffering involved in animal exploitation is unnecessarily “traumatizing” them.****

All of this political and cultural work “shows that human resistance is always a potential threat to the continuation of the animal exploitation industries…. In fact, sympathies are so dependable that every institution of animal exploitation develops some means of undercutting them.” (Of course, these techniques for subverting our sympathies have effects that bleed over – sometimes literally – into our relationships with other humans.)

Animal liberation, then, isn’t a matter of “using reason to override some innate indifference to animals” but of “overcoming institutionalized barriers to the expression of our deep connections with animals.” It’s an act of dissent, in which we develop as moral agents through the “freeing of caring agency” from the bounds of social programming. In allowing our relationships with other animals to be guided by “knowledge, integrity, and moral self-determination” rather than accepting the habits and myths of the culture of exploitation, we reclaim our autonomous moral agency. Animal liberation is human liberation: rebellious, self-determining, and expansive.

It’s interesting to read Kois’ article - presented to the readers of Slate presumably in an attempt to garner understanding and support from others in the dominant culture (which it has) – in this light. His decision and rationalization offer a great illustration of how difficult it is, even for parents who recognize the indefensibility of eating animals and are concerned with their children’s moral development, to break free of the patterns that perpetuate the system.

I believe that Kois does want his children to become autonomous moral beings – he suggests he would be proud if they did become vegetarians, and there are hints of pride also in his description of their hypothetical responses to seeing the movie. But when it comes down to it, he regards their moral awakening and hypothetical acts of resistance as unacceptably disruptive, to the point that he thinks it necessary to avoid their even being faced with the knowledge that could potentially lead to such choices. His story sadly illustrates Luke’s point: that our sympathy for other animals is by and large the default condition, that this is recognized and feared by those who benefit from the system of animal exploitation, and that the system can only be sustained through the deployment of diverse mechanisms to interfere with the development of our autonomous “caring agency.”

We often play our roles in maintaining oppression unconsciously. Because Kois is so thoughtful and honest about his motives, he calls attention to all of the many ways we obstruct children’s moral and political growth and movements to end oppression. I hope Kois continues to think about and question his choices, and changes his mind about denying his children this possible realization. If nothing else, I hope his making his concerns public leads some others to reconsider similar decisions.

(As I was completing this post, I noticed that Vegan Feminist Agitator had also written about Kois’ article. I’ll close with her conclusion, aimed primarily at other parents but applicable to anyone:
When we raise our children to believe that their values are adorable and endearing but ultimately burdensome and naive, we impose upon them cynical notion that is as much a fallacy as it is profoundly unfair. We do the same thing to ourselves and each other when we are so frightened of change and the unknown that we limit ourselves and one another to these tiny little boxes. Why should it be like this? Compassionate living is expansive and empowering…. [W]e need to be modeling every day that we can live joyful, abundant lives as people guided by principles, that it is not at all a sacrifice, so we can help to empower those who are intimidated by the idea of change. Yes, there are growing pains when we venture outside of our comfort zone, but a life hemmed in for fear of expansion is one that is far more painful. We need to tell the world that there is nothing to be afraid of when we choose to live in alignment. Don’t settle for or encourage anything less.)
* This is true despite the fact that, as they note, the turkeys aren’t portrayed as turkeys but as little humans.

** As usual, I do have some criticisms, particularly related to some of the arguments about medicine.

*** I’ll have a good deal to say about this in the near future.

**** Related to this, artists depicting animal suffering are told that their works are too disturbing for a “PG-13 society.”

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