The following is a speech I had the honor of delivering today during the Los Angeles International March to Close All Slaughterhouses:
Slaughterhouse. Abattoir. Killing floor. These names have served as bloody metaphor, analogies of annihilation put to use to describe and decry human carnage. Because we have always understood how terrible it is to slaughter another sentient being. Of course the slaughterhouse is not just a metaphor. It is an all too real entity, unseen by most of us but the last place seen, smelled and experienced by every terrified animal who, as Robert Grillo of Free from Harm puts it was “a beautiful someone brutalized into no one.”
Sir Paul McCartney, among other things, is famous for saying, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” I’ve always found that rather naïve. I have long held the opinion that there are people, perhaps many, who would readily plunk themselves down before the glass wall of a slaughterhouse, watch the process of violence and brutality that turns someone into something and then happily consume the product of that violence. And I have, unfortunately been proved prescient in supposing such a scenario; I’ve recently read about—and perhaps you have as well — two slaughterhouses, or “packinghouses” as they are euphemistically called, catering to meat-loving hipsters, one in Minnesota and one in Vermont, where viewing windows have been installed; any one who calls in advance can witness the process: from the captive bolt shot to the head, to the hoisting up by the legs and the splitting of the carcass, to the removal of the hide and the insides. Parents have even brought their children, in order for them to learn “the whole story of where their food comes from.” The owner of the Vermont Packinghouse was quoted as saying that the window was installed to “spark greater respect for animals, for meat and for meat industry workers.”
It’s a brave new carnist world. In this world, the world of meat loving hipsters, locovores and urban farmers, the trend is knowing all the details – “knowing” your food: knowing where “it” comes from, knowing how “it” was raised, knowing how “it” was killed. Because, well, it’s so important to know, you know. Not that that knowledge will lead you to end the violence and the slaughter and become vegan. No, the trend is towards “humane” confinement, “humane” ownership, “humane” mutilation, “humane” slaughter – and an Orwellian perversion of the language.
In 1906 Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle was published. It remains, over a hundred years later, a powerful work of socialist agitprop, a fictional yet fact based account portraying the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants toiling in Chicago’s meat packing plants. Slaughterhouse work today, still dependent upon immigrant labor, is the most dangerous job in the United States. Safety measures are routinely ignored. The animals keep coming, hundreds every hour, and the production line, or chain, must never stop. More and more, faster and faster. In the midst of the bloody chaos, workers slip, fall, lacerate themselves and others. And those innocent beings the knives were meant for are relentlessly herded in with no escape, no way to turn back. And nothing designed by Temple Grandin can diminish the horrors awaiting them. Because they know. They know.
And those meat loving hipsters, they can talk all they want about greater respect for animals and for those whose job it is to take their lives; they may be devoted to their uber-transparency; they may believe that a model of smaller scale, local operations is the way to go; but as long as demand for animal flesh and animal secretions continues unabated in this country and around the world, the big slaughterhouses, those without viewing windows, will stay in business to meet that demand.
They continue to do animals violence because they can, because animals’ lives do not matter to them, except as they serve their own desires. Non-human animals are viewed as less than us because they are different from us. They suffer, they die because of our speciesism. Slaughterhouses are physical manifestations of that speciesism in service to the profit motive of capitalism. The slaughterhouse is a human constructed place that is best viewed as just one manifestation of an ideological construct. Within this larger context we are compelled to look at all places of non-human animal exploitation and abuse and not just those connected with animal agriculture: circuses, marine parks, vivisection labs, – the list goes on. Anywhere, any place where humans break the bodies and kill the spirits of sentient beings, those are places of violence – violence sanctioned by speciesism.
Perhaps Paul McCartney simply overstated his case. Let us hope that there are many who would be so repulsed, so horrified, so sickened by the view inside the slaughterhouse that they would be compelled to declare, “Enough! I will no longer be an accomplice to this. I will no longer pay others to do what I could never do! My eyes have been opened and I can see my own reflection staring back at me in the glass.”
When we march to close all slaughterhouses we march to open eyes, to confront our fellow humans with the terrible truth of the violence inherent in what they eat, what they wear, how they entertain themselves, what medical research they support. We march to open hearts and to encourage others to fit their actions to their professed ideals of kindness and compassion. We march to open minds to imagine a time when slaughterhouses will be a horrible thing of the past.
Our march is just a small part of a big fight, a continuing struggle against systems of oppression and exploitation; against commodification; against corporate greed. We fight for the liberation of all animals, human and non-human alike; and we struggle against those who use their power to deny that liberation. Through this struggle, as we fight together to bring about a kinder and more just world, we find our own strength, our own power. We must never lose sight of this. We must never give up hope of reaching a critical mass of people ready to take non-violent action, who refuse to cede power to the powerful; who refuse to say, “This is just the way it is. There is nothing much I can do about it except to order the vegan burrito.”
Do we march our aspirations for liberation into their own slaughterhouse? No, we must fight on, until we close down all slaughterhouses for good!