“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” ~ Sir Paul McCartney.
There are horrors being committed in our names and for our benefit thousands of times each minute in feed lots, on dairy farms, in processing plants and in slaughterhouses across the globe. If Sir Paul is to be believed, if only we could see these horrors as they happen, then we turn away from those practices which necessitate them. If only we knew what was really going on, if only someone could lift our veil of ignorance, then the horrors would stop. If only it were true.
But we have no reason to believe it is true, and every reason to believe it is not. Glass walls would not cause us all to demand the doors of slaughterhouses shuttered; glass walls would just cause us to shutter our eyes even more against the horrors.
There are Glass Walls Everywhere
As I write this, hundreds of people have been killed by government crackdowns in Syria, Gadaffi’s forces continue to strike at rebels while NATO forces strike at his. In Africa, in 2009, as many as 700,000 people died from malaria; as many as one-in-six of all children who died there died from that disease. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that more than 10 million children die in developing countries from hunger and starvation each year.
The glass walls of 24 hour worldwide news channels and the internet make it possible for most of us living in the developed world to look upon these horrors. No-one need to think through any arguments about whether other animals have rights, or are enough like us to deserve our compassion in order to see and understand that our fellow human beings do have such rights and do deserve our compassion. But rather than look, understand and act, many, if not most of us, choose not to act to help our fellow human beings and instead we choose to turn away.
A Global Culture of Denial
In his book Moral Epistemology, philosopher Aaron Zimmerman asks us to consider whether it would be wrong to pass by without intervening to save a child as she drowns in a shallow pool, if we only pass by so as not to ruin a new pair of shoes. He hopes we would all answer that it would be wrong. But what is the difference, he asks, if “someone surfing online happens to have the Oxfam and Christian Louboutin websites open before her: clicking on link A will help save human lives, whereas clicking on link B will garner nothing more significant than a fancy pair of high heels”? Turning away from those horrors we can see and know is easy enough to do when our denial can be so efficiently clicked past.
On the streets of China, cats are routinely kept caged and displayed for prospective customers to assess. Prof. Tom Regan writes in the prologue to his book Empty Cages of an HBO program which showed how Chinese cooks skin and boil alive these helpless creatures, while those who purchased them watched in anticipation of their next meal. There are no walls, glass or otherwise, for these roadside slaughterhouses. There is nothing being hidden from view.
We Are Running Out of Excuses
Why do human beings choose to live in such denial? Could it be that we feel powerless to do anything about the injustices we see? Perhaps there is nothing any one of us can do about the repressive regimes in countries across the globe. Could it be that we have problems close to home and therefore are working to make matters right in our own communities? Maybe we are stopping to help those who are drowning in poverty and disease in our own back yards, unconcerned for the state of our shoes. We would click on the Oxfam link, but we are doing so much already. Perhaps that is all true. But in the case of nonhuman animals, we have no such excuses. There is not so much something that we must DO to help them, as there is something we must not do. We must only stop using them. When it comes to what we can do for other animals, it is as Lao-tsu said: “The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone.”
When current estimates are that 54 billion land animals alone are being bred, raised and slaughtered annually for human consumption, the idea that the level of carnage necessary to sustain such numbers could ever really be invisible is almost nonsensical. We refuse to see all that which we wish not to see.
It isn’t the case that if only slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. The modern industrialized world, with its televisions, telephones, and internet has no real walls between those people who want to know and the information that once was hidden. We don’t need glass walls, and it wouldn’t matter if slaughterhouses had them. We just need to open our eyes, look and then act to make things better. Even more importantly, we need to stop acting in ways which so clearly make things worse. Everybody should be able to see that.