It has long been my contention that we are able to do what we do to animals because we are culturally conditioned to feel nothing for them as a group. I am quite certain that the vast majority of us have very intense responses when we see or hear about specific instances of animal cruelty—a calf dragged from its mother’s birth canal with a tractor; two sick, emaciated dogs chained in an abandoned lot; a cat hanged by a noose in a tree; a pig beaten in the head with a hammer—but we have no qualms about milk in our cereal for breakfast, pork chops for lunch, and steak for dinner, products resulting from nothing less than cruelty and suffering. We feel empathy towards an individual animal, and make grandiose moral pronouncements about how that animal should be treated, but once that animal is turned into a product, our empathy and fiery indignation drops to absolute zero.
This is interesting, wouldn’t you say? No one would teach a child that stealing is wrong, but that if you steal, you deserve the full fruits of what you’ve stolen. Yet this is where we find ourselves when it comes to the enslavement and slaughter of animals. We should not industrialize their lives and commodify their body parts, but since we do, we are welcome to it.
One of the mechanisms that allows us to sidestep our otherwise intact ethical imperative is what feminist author Carol J. Adams names “the absent referent.”
Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist. Animals’ lives precede and enable the existence of meat. If animals are alive they cannot be meat. Thus a dead body replaces the live animal. Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food. (page 66)
In short, in order to eat meat, we need to: raise live animals, kill them, rename them, forget them.
Adams uses the phrase “absent referent” to denote the rather strained mental position commodities made from sentient creatures capable of thought, social organization, emotion, and pain occupies. What we call “meat” is still that creature dismembered, but by calling it “meat,” it is no longer so. The absent referent is a euphemism of the intellect that bids us fill our stomachs with the flesh of our companions.
It constituents operate around us unceasingly. So I plan to return to this topic for a while to show real world examples. I’m not going to go out of my way to find stuff. It’s not a witch hunt or a conspiracy theory. I really don’t have to think in that way at all. I just have to grab the examples I see every day. I think that you will begin to notice them as well and may even begin to ask yourself, why is this considered acceptable?
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum. 2011. Print.
Carol J Adams: <http://www.caroljadams.com/spom.html>.
McWilliams, James. “How Conscientious Carnivores Ignore Meat’s True Origins.” The Atlantic (July 2011). <http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/07/how-conscientious-carnivores-ignore-meats-true-origins/241828/>.