By Scott Korb:
We must remember that when it comes to our relationship with animals, managing their supposed fear and dread of us—presumably to mitigate both their suffering and our guilt—is not a new proposition. We’ve been doing it, or so we have always imagined, since the beginning. If humanity was understood to inspire fear and dread in animals as we hear in Genesis, we must also have been understood to be capable of recognizing those emotions. This recognition—or, better, this reckoning—is the very basis of the compassion that makes us human and should shape our relationship with animals. On the other hand, there’s no place for compassion in a utopia like Isaiah’s; there’s simply no need for it. And if we believe that the best humanity is capable of is deeply felt compassion—a tenet shared by the great religions of the world and our great secularists alike—then there’s no place for humanity in a utopia. The choice is clear: we either live in the world we have, or we build a lonesome world where we don’t belong.
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Nowadays, our sense that animals fear us and the notion we have that some may actually dread their deaths, like many of us do, goes a long way to support arguments against eating them. This is particularly true because modern factory farming—which had no premodern counterpart—enacts a kind of brutality against animals that one can call properly sinful. Think Perdue and Tyson, Cargill and ConAgra, who all produce food that is magically and marvelously inexpensive. Eating from these modern farms requires living without the sympathy we learned in the aftermath of the Deluge—after forty days and nights living cooped up with that whole world of animals. It requires allowing ourselves to believe we still eat of Eden, a mythical world devoid of fear or dread, without remembering that in the beginning there was also no death. Today we must remember: animals in factory farms—99 percent of the animals we eat, according to Jonathan Safran Foer—live horrible lives and die horrific deaths.
When we come face to face with so many of the animals we eat, it seems impossible not to ask again and yet again, Who do we think we are? After finishing up with Coetzee in my class, most of the students agree it doesn’t matter who we think we are: who we should be are vegetarians. That not all of us are says nothing about the rightness of the cause, only that most of us are too weak and too stuck in our ways to stop eating animals. But this is basically where we started, a place not so different than where I once lived as a self-important vegan—above the fray, away from sin and the pain of the world, or so I thought. Today this is absolutely no place I ever want to end up in. That place I used to live in doesn’t really exist.
- Via Melissa McEwen