Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Never Mind

People’s diets are changing. Not enough, but a fair bit: people are increasingly cutting down on meat (or decreasingly cutting up meat) and that’s grrrrrrrrreat. But I’ve still got a bone to pick. (Hah!)

Something that’s happened in my life more times than I can count is that someone explains to me that they’re eating less meat, not because they care about animals, but because of the environment.  (I say ‘more times than I can count’, but now I come to think of it, I remember every fucker who’s ever said this to me, and the look on their face when they said it.) And I always want to respond, Why? Why don’t you care about animals? Is it because you’re a knob? (I’m a great laugh to go to the pub with, and have loads of friends too.)

There is a conviction deep-rooted in our culture that humans and animals are fundamentally different, and that whatever the genetic and behavioural similarity between us, we can’t ascribe to them feelings that we would recognise in ourselves. This is considered the intelligent and objective viewpoint, despite the fact that it has all the logical credibility of maintaining that, when your eyes are shut, you can make everything stop existing.
"where's your hat mate?"

I read an excellent review by Francis Gooding of this book by Frans de Waal, which points out the similarity of emotional behaviours between humans and other animals. A favourite extract (from Gooding, quoting de Waal):

"Apes often greet each other by 'placing their lips gently on each other's mouth or shoulder and hence kiss in a way and under circumstances that greatly resembles human kissing'". For de Waal, 'Dubbing an ape's kiss 'mouth to mouth contact' so as to avoid anthropomorphism deliberately obfuscates the meaning of the behaviour'.

To acknowledge this gesture of affection for what it is - something we have all experienced (except for you, Billy No-Mates) - risks being held as a dewy-eyed projection of sentiment. A stupid fallacy: believing that experiences are defined by the fact that they occur in us, so a priori refusing to accept that they can be real in other species.

In Gooding’s words, our understanding of ethology has been skewed by studies which "set out to prove the scientists’ preconceptions instead of basing [their] conclusions on close observation". This striving towards ignorance has a clear agenda: to justify our treatment of animals, as if their consciousness is of no value. To excuse the most miserable cruelty because their pain isn’t the same as our pain, just like their love isn’t the same as our love. That’s why it’s ok to rip a calf from its mother and slaughter it, or keep it for a short life in a metal box. That’s why it’s ok to eat whatever you want, because it tastes good to you.

This paper that I read (heroic of me to read something so boring - I did it for you) is a nifty example of that kind of bad science. It makes the point that core ‘emotion states’ are a shared evolutionary feature, not just among mammals, and that these shared states manifest in various ‘characteristic species-type behaviours’. The authors base their claim on neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and observation.
Illustration of emotions as expressed across species (upon seeing your mum),
as found in Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

So far so good. The authors then argue that two things follow on from emotion states: behaviour and ‘feelings’: the subjective and conscious experience of emotion. We have no certain way to understand the latter in other animals, so according to the authors, their distinction between emotion states and feelings ‘frees us of the need to identify human-like feelings (or indeed any feelings) in other animals’. What they don’t explain, but merely take as read, is why it is necessary to  be ‘free’ of this need. Is it rational to assume that a shared trait suddenly fractures into total ontological difference, existence vs nonexistence, between us and every other species of animal, based on nothing but the fact that we understand ourselves, as if there could be nothing else to understand?

Talkin bout species? Talkin bout specious anthropocentric arguments, am I right?!!!

One reason for wanting this distinction is unpleasantly suggested in the phrasing of the final sentence in the article, which compares scientists that research the ‘elusive property’ of emotion ‘in humans and those working on less complex but more experimentally tractable model systems’. My italics.
Image result for hello clouds hello sky

So at the risk of coming across a bit hello-clouds-hello-sky, what I want to say is that animals are incredible and complicated and sensitive and amazing, and often in ways that are directly relatable to the way we are. Features that scientists have historically claimed are unique to humans (tool use; self-awareness; empathetic perspective taking; episodic memory - that is, awareness of time; ability to use language) are time and again proved to be shared by different species, and not only mammals: crows, for example, have evolved a capacity for individual inventiveness, just like the apes that we are, because they faced the same challenges to survival. The real foundation of our ‘objective’ structure of ontological isolationism is nothing but ignorance, an ignorance that many of us gain from preserving.

There is an unknowable aspect to other animals, much as there is to Tories, but this shouldn’t be a reason to set limits on the spectrum of our empathy. What we do know (and, if we look, can often see quite clearly) is much greater than what we don’t know. They have emotions, they experience suffering and its obverse. I can’t see any excuse for overlooking this. It should be no more acceptable to say ‘I don’t care about animals’ than it is to say ‘I don’t care about humans’.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Meat the Packers

It’s not much to my credit, but I’d never given a thought to the welfare of people who work in the meatpacking industry until recently, when I read this harrowing and gross article. It describes a stressful, abusive culture, where workers report being denied access to toilets during shifts. This industry has been notorious for its abuses for over a century - certainly since Upton “Funk” Sinclair published his hyper-depressing novel of alienated labour, The Jungle, in 1906 - though, I admit, this had passed me by.
Within the last decade, similar reports have been made about meat-processing firms in the UK (for clarity, meat-processing firms are the ones where animals go in, and denuded salmonella- and ecoli-ridden mislabelled polyfillered corpses come out, and you eat them, you weirdo). In 2010, the EHRC released a report that detailed exploitation of migrant employees, who are less likely to seek redress; health and safety violations; verbally and physically abusive working environments, and, again, refusal of toilet breaks during shifts. Seriously, meat-guys, just let people go to the toilet, sheesh.
More recently, in 2015, the Guardian published this report on the poultry industry, rehashing the old formula of punitive conditions, abuse of rights, poor hygiene, strain and exhaustion. Some poultry barons got in a flap, claiming this report was not representative, but the way that the same types of abuse recur over years and across continents suggests that these problems are endemic in an industry which relies on “the product”, as employees call it, being processed on a vast scale, extremely quickly.

(All this is without addressing the psychological damage done to workers by being made cogs in a killing machine, more on which later …. )

I’m chary of comparing humans to animals, mostly because people find it insulting & I am a woman of extraordinary politesse. But it’s hardly surprising that an industry for which sentient creatures are fodder should treat the dignity and well-being of its employees with equal indifference. They are fodder too. As Keston Sutherland writes in an analysis of Marx’s language, capitalism is cannibalism. Labour is reduced to Gallerte, a jelly of extraneous meat, bone and tissue: workers’ time and energy, “brains, muscles, nerves, hands,” are ingredients in the production process which must be obtained cheaply and used economically to maximise profit.
I don't think you're ready for this jelly.
(As a point of interest, The Jungle nauseated its readers with accounts of the filthiness of meatpacking, based on Sinclair’s research. The one aspect of his descriptions never to be substantiated was that workers had been known to fall into the pork grinder and join their flesh with the pigs’, to be eaten by unsuspecting members of the public. Invention or not, the idea is irresistible simply because it finishes the picture, makes the missing link. In the grinder, “product” and labourer become one, as they are: in buying anything, we pay for the making as much as for the thing itself.)

There’s a flip side to my reluctance to compare humans and animals - there is a danger that in doing this animals are reduced to a metaphor for human suffering. But they are the real deal: helpless, with absolutely no potential to challenge their exploitation; totally unable to protect themselves from industrial structures; devalued. Almost no cruelty is considered beyond the pale in a meat industry whose ethical regulations are weak and go virtually unenforced. When it comes to suffering, animals are the real deal.

Another flip side (grease the pan, boys!): While I hate what they do, it would be unfair not to see the workers in the meat industry as victims. They’ve got to earn a crust, same as we all do (apart from my boss, a lazy fat-cat who sits on her arse all day). The work that they do is not just physically dangerous, and demeaning (toilets toilets toilets); it has been linked (by Jennifer Dillard) to Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress, a disorder resulting in nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia, dissociation, amnesia. You can bang on as much as you like about how nature is red in tooth and claw, but most of us are not freakin’ White Fang; violence reverberates back on the perpetrator, in various psychological forms.

So, victims, yes. But Dillard also links the presence of meatpacking industries to increased local rates of violent crime. Cruelty to animals is a psychopathic trait signifying reduced empathy; meat-processing essentially hothouses violent behaviour. It follows that the effects of brutalisation within the industry will bleed out beyond its confines. Most meat-eaters are able to separate their personal kindness from the horrors of the production line; for those unfortunate enough to be on the factory floor, the reality must be much messier.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The apersonal is the political (your Dave is problematic)

The ranks of the dead
   A sure-fire winner in any argument is to say, ‘I don’t care’. This sentiment remains frustratingly acceptable in debates about vivisection in particular (it’s the ultimate standpoint of Prof Tipu Aziz on this interesting radio programme), and pretty much defines media (non)coverage of most animal welfare issues.
   Even among really excellent, self-critical thinkers, there tends to be an assumption either that animals don’t matter at all, or that they are far, far down a priority list so long that it becomes binary, divided into what does and doesn't matter. This binary in turn becomes oppositional: anything that advances humans is good, and animal interests must not be allowed stand in its way; time and energy given to the protection of animals is time and energy taken away from a more worthy cause.
   As far as I’m aware, there’s no orderly shopping list of actions to eliminate suffering worldwide. The instrumentation of injustice tends to be systemic, and the effects intersectional*, and in many cases there is no opposition between animal welfare, environmental and humanitarian agendas. Mass livestock farming, for example, tortures and destroys animals on an oceanic scale, but the environmental devastation it causes is likely to get messy for humans in the near future, even here in the loveable west. Looking out for animals is an integral part of global progressive movements, not some kind of Marie Antoinette-ish dilettantism.
   But where there actually are competing interests of humans and animals (notably in the case of medical research, until science progresses) - I’d say that it’s bad to the point of evil to categorically dismiss any harm done to animals provided humans benefit. Forms and scales of suffering are comparable between species - pain isn’t an exclusively human property. I don’t deny that victims can be ranked and prioritised, nor do I question (for now) the social contract that compels us to value humans most. I’m just saying that animal concerns shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand - the scale and severity of harm felt should be given due weight, and thought given to whether humanitarian ends can justify cruelties that most of us wouldn't want to imagine.

   There are orders of suffering and, as discussed below, some are worthy of privilege. But this principle shouldn't be used in service of the binary outlined above, or in any other way to invalidate entire groups because they’re not top of our list.

“A Private Matter

   If you have the stomach for it, I’ve got some beef with a parallel and related binarization of suffering: that of the concrete over the abstract, the individual over the many, the case study over the graph. As much as I don’t care for “I don’t care” as a comeback, it’s not always better to reduce problems to what we are able to care about. 

This week, David Cameron has learnt to his visible discomfort that his privacy isn’t as sacrosanct as he thinks it should be. The fact that the prime minister initially thought of his dodgy tax-avoidance as meriting the electorate’s delicacy is symptomatic of his class arrogance, and also of a doublethink regarding politics and private finance that is not exclusive to members of the cabinet. The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.
   Some of Cameron’s defenders have claimed, weakly but not implausibly, that he was trying to protect his family from embarrassment. Few have bothered to respond to this: Cameron’s family loyalty obviously cannot trump his accountability as Prime Minister. But I'm sure that Cameron would dogmatically put his family’s wellbeing, and privacy, above anything - and until now he has quite successfully presented this as a virtue, not a moral limitation.
   In fact, Cameron and his family have publicly lived through perhaps the most unspeakable of personal tragedies: the loss of a child. It feels and, probably is, incredibly vile to mention this at all, because in the ranks of suffering children have a special status. That kind of loss is untouchable, and it feels unacceptable to bring it into partisan discourse. Privacy serves here as a protection of the child and of the family’s grief - this is not public property
   But, uncomfortable as it is to attack him on this, Cameron has repeatedly brought his bereavement into his political statements, and used it to blur the neglectfulness of his government towards families who care for disabled children without the support of massive personal wealth. Cameron cannot be unaware of the way that his programme of austerity has targeted people with disabilities, including children. To pretend that he can relate to parents hit by his policies seems like the height of hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy which it feels like a violation to address. Reverence for individual examples of suffering is a silencer; this can be abused.

Je ne suis pas ...

   As a tad bit of a utilitarian, I’ve been thinking occasionally about what makes a child’s suffering worse and more important than an adult's. It’s one of those things that it seems stupid as well as a bit tacky to analyse, but here goes. It’s not just that children are helpless - so are many adults - and innocent, by which I mean a combined lack of understanding and power - which animals have par excellence. And it’s not simply that they have a lot of potential life left, and so their loss is greater when they die - it’s not like we lose sympathy for chronically ill children with shortened life-spans (unless we’re an old-school Nazi, which we aren’t). The privilege of their helplessness and innocence comes from the fact that it’s transitory: they aren’t adults, but they will be adults, and are valued for a positive absence. The special status relies on them being one of us, but not yet.
   I would not and could not for a moment dispute the special status of children, in life and in suffering. But in political discourse there’s an extent to which this regard itself has to be ring-fenced. The exploitation of the special status for children can lead to grotesque hypocrisy.

   When Aylan Kurdi died many of the expressions around his death felt offensively tasteless, none more so than the adults who lay on a beach dressed as him. This was crass and presumptuous because though of course we should identify with refugees, who are dehumanised by distance and anonymity, we cannot ‘je suis’ the death of a little boy - we are not him. We don’t have that innocence. Another eyesore was a mawkish cartoon of his soul floating to heaven on angel wings, a child as cute as he is dead - this published in the Mail, that famous defender of migration rights. Why pity a child, when you can’t pity the adult that the child could have grown into? And why pity one child, when you can’t pity thousands? Why should greater magnitude drive tragedies further down our priorities list?

   Relevant, timely or conveniently bite-sized examples of suffering have their uses in forging the emotional responses that allow us to form ideas of justice, and shape our politics. But focusing on the particular can skew perceptions, and lead to woolly, self-indulgent thinking, and hypocrisy. Suffering should be contemplated in broad and utilitarian terms, weighted not according to who or what is suffering but, where possible, by scale and degree. The problem is the harm done, not the victim.

* I feel indebted to Ash Sarkar, who has been very pithy on systems underlying intersectionality

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Get thee behind me, hipster

Millennials come in for a lot of flak, what with being incoherently blamed for misfortunes imposed by take-the-money-and-run capitalist boomers etc, but if you ask me our one unforgivable fault is a tendency to get cute. Thus we cutely spend our time debating whether Emma Watson should appear on our ten pound notes alongside the motto illegitimi non carborundum, then in May when the Tories get in we’re all like :’(

One of the many minute things to grind my minute gears in recent weeks has been this bit of aw-shucksery from the Guardian:
The centrepiece of a roast is usually a giant hunk of meat dripping in its own juices. A monstrous piece of animal that you now have full dominion over. You’re setting an example for the rest of the world. You are all-powerful now, and all the creatures of the Earth must tremble before you, lest you cook them as well.
I know, it’s meant to be tongue in cheek. But it’s not really ironic, because it does really suggest that eating meat makes you feel powerful, and, recognising the idiocy of that, doesn’t question it, but treats this grotesque thought process as an adorkable part of a gratifying culinary experience.

Courtesy of the Observer

The violence of this attitude might ring a bell with readers of Carol J Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, along with a sicklier grace note. Meat is objectification: something that’s been dominated and extracted from consciousness or agency, the object having more value because it once had consciousness and agency which was taken from it. In a nutshell (which is how a hipster would probably serve it), meat represents much of what is despicable and odious in masculinism, but also, because it’s food, has a feminised and domestic facet that can appeal to ‘new men’, who tie their big beards behind their pinnies and experiment with ways of making their base sense of entitlement look most palatable. Not that women don’t do this: I think that for women too interactions with meat can combine masculine and feminine, and sexual, motifs in a particularly self-indulgent way. Possibly the most hateful example of this is Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession by Julie Powell, a journey of unnecessary self-discovery via the mutilation of corpses.

3 victors in a 'trying to look like a burger' competition

Artisanal butchery is not down to earth, it’s a retrograde affectation. Think of the lumbersexual, of the Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall on his photogenic smallholding, of TV chefs proving their authenticity by executing lambs live on camera. “It’s the natural order, people have always eaten meat,” says the straw man. This aspect of the meat conversation is bullshit: people have always been murderers, rapists and genocidal despoilers, but that doesn’t make it ok. And since it’s increasingly obvious not just that we don’t need to but that we mustn’t indulge in this killing, the last thing we should be doing is fetishizing it, allowing it to seem naughty but nice, or even (gawd help us) sexy.

As a final mention, just because I think it’s worth saying, animal issues are not isolated from other liberationist movements. As Adams points out, violence inflicted on animals is violence that will, in some form, be visited on oppressed humans; it belongs to the same paradigm of objectification and entitlement. First they came for the pigs, but I was not a pig so I said nothing. Then they came for me ...

Thursday, 20 August 2015

My Vegetable Love

    Reading the Guardian at the moment feels a bit like speaking to a “left-wing” relative and realising that she doesn’t realise that her views are somewhere to the right of Sadiq Khan. But cheers to it anyway for publishing Jeremy Hance’s review of Brilliant Green by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. 

    Hance’s article got me thinking about plant sentience and behaviour, and made me much more aware of the complex ways plants negotiate and interact with their environments. They have (at last count) 20 senses as opposed to the human 5; they are able to communicate within and between  species, cooperatively and aggressively; they register and respond to being damaged, and dying.

Some of my friends - Tree looked depressed, so I gave him a beer.

    Allowing for some semantic give-and-take, we can say that plants feel pain (also that they are dickheads, see below).The former idea can be a sore point for vegetarians and vegans who get ribbed about cruelty every time they eat a salad. As Hance points out, plants have evolved not to be individuals in the way animals are - Mancuso conceives of single plants as ‘colonies’, many of which are designed to be eaten, or at least to survive the odd nibble. And, of course, plants are so ontologically different from animals that it’s not easy to ascertain what pain is to them.

    That said, it is undeniable and of interest that plants do feel. They send out distress signals when attacked; they deliberately set each other on fire (lookin at you, eucalyptus); someone once told me that flowers scream at rival species, like the bodysnatchers. I have included a 1914 account of a carrot being tortured below this post, for anyone who wants to feel as weird as I do.
(spoiler alert)

    That’s all fairly creepy and opens up visions of a sentient and suffering universe that might encourage those so-inclined to stop up their moral ears and think “anything goes”. And on the flip-side there’s a risk of turning into some Avatar-watching pantheist (kudos to a film that thinks it can mask its crass racial stereotyping through cunning use of the colour blue). But a more curious and even respectful attitude to Auntie Flora might be a good thing, because 1.) plants make the planet habitable, and that’s a bit of an issue, and 2.) I think being, in principle, is worth something, if only in the sense that destruction shouldn’t be unconsidered or gratuitous. Attentiveness to things is a bit of a trendy concept, but a good one. Philosopher Simone Weil wrote that attention presupposes love, which I believe, though being attentive does not entail anything as alienating as soppiness, so it’s a good starting point in unfamiliar ethical territory.

In case you were wondering, mate, I am not going to stop eating my green brethren. We understand much more about the suffering of most farmed animals than about the suffering of plants. Harm felt by animals is harm we can understand, unless we choose not to. Comparing humans and animals (especially other mammals) makes endlessly more sense than comparing animals to plants, on account of the shared genetic material and all that. But comparing plants to Donald Sutherland, it turns out, makes the most sense of all.


"In a room near Maida Vale there is an unfortunate carrot strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. Wires pass through two glass tubes full of a white substance; they are like two legs, whose feet are buried in the flesh of the carrot. When the vegetable is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate level which actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the carrot. A pinch near the right hand tube sends the beam seven or eight feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it far to the left. Thus can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot."

(Extract from Sir Jagadesh Chantra Bose's article in Nation magazine, quoted in The Secret Life of Plants, Tompkins and Bird)

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Having it large with Nigel Farage


I had a dream about Nigel Farage last night. Essentially what happened, minus details, was that I went to a party at his place and, after initial hostility, unbent to his view that he really wasn't that bad once you got to know him; the dream ended with him holding me tenderly against him in a paternal hug. Before any low-minded types start jumping to conclusions, I'd like to say that the hug was entirely chaste, with only, at most, a vestigial erotic frisson. I woke up with some lingering warm feelings towards him, but cured them by looking at his photograph.

This dream was not (as the low-minded might say) related to the state of my psyche. It was about you, England. It was about the reasons we may sink into Farage's embrace. To the sensitive dreamer, watching Newsnight is like eating a piece of bad cheese, and I was probably influenced by a particular vox-poppin' fresh who had been featured the previous night, saying that he voted Ukip because they 'answered his questions' in a way that no other political party did.

Of course, the thing about Ukip is that they don't really answer anyone's questions, they just point away from them - literally away: Farage's answer to all our questions about welfare, unemployment and poverty is 'foreigners', and his answer to most other questions is 'beer'. The recent success of Ukip could be put down to them tapping into deep anxieties, but in both their media image and their policies it seems that what they primarily address is our need not to think about our problems. Window posters for the local elections said 'I'm voting Ukip. No more leaflets, thank you'. They are a party you vote for to express embattled impatience with everything. Every time I look at a Ukip manifesto I age ten thousand years, but in abstract the party's vibe is pretty tempting to those of us who basically hate everything and don't want to think.


If the theme of this post is 'Not Thinking', rather than 'Fantasy Liaisons with Reactionaries', then I can manage a tenuous link to a vegetarian issue. The recent heavily-processed kerfuffle over halal meat being served in the country's two most hallowed institutions - Nando's* and Oxford University - was, as many have pointed out, not about animal rights. There would never have been a big scandal if a secular abattoir was neglecting to stun animals before slaughter - it's the fact that Muslims did it that really freaks people out. This outbreak of halal horror is tied up with the Trojan-horse idea that the UK is going to be taken over from the inside by something that is not itself (even though the place has never been culturally homogeneous, but whatever).

The point I'm gradually getting to is that two things that have been pointed to as consequences of foreign invasions - unemployment (one of Ukip's focal points) and and cruelty to animals - are fostered by long-standing structural faults and iniquities in British society. You could say that these issues are being used as a smokescreen for xenophobia and racism, but it's also true to say that xenophobia itself acts as a distraction from whatever's rotten in the UK. 

There is no self-contained safe place to scuttle back to, and if we feel threatened by outside influences we should look at ourselves and see what kind of utopia would be left if we created some kitsch fantastical hermetically-sealed Middle England. But, as Nigel came to me and told me in a dream, it's easier to go around sticking pitchforks into straw men.

*ok, it's South-African

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Something Special

"Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.
In a voice that she will know:
'Margaret! Margaret!'"