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Friday, April 22, 2011

Dehumanizing work

This week, Tom Philpott, Grist Magazine's senior food and agriculture writer, covered the latest Mercy for Animals (MFA) video to surface from an undercover investigator working at a cattle farm --- this time at a Texas calving operation for the dairy industry.

The video shows in gross and intolerable detail the unspeakable cruelty to baby cows. Philpott aptly observes that
MFA and the Humane Society's constant coverage of these types of operations demonstrates that "...animal abuse is a feature, not a bug, of factory farming."

My question is why is this cruelty a feature and not a bug? What makes people abuse these animals in unspeakable ways? Surely the factory farming industry doesn't seek out people who have "enjoy abusing animals" listed under their hobbies right next to "crossword puzzles" on their resumes. So what is it?

This is where my background in genocide studies comes in handy.

While receiving my
Masters in Genocide Studies, one of the issues I was interested in was why do normally good people do terrible things (ie: the Rwandan neighbor who becomes a murderer in the midst of a genocide)? Or why does a perceived-evil person save lives (ie: the reformed Nazi Oskar Schindler)?

Throughout my studies, I read a lot of materials from seasoned sociologists, psychologists and historians on how people "become evil." One of the best answers I could find was in an experiment where "normal" Americans were put in a situation and essentially assumed the role they were given. The infamous
Zimbardo Prison Experiment attempted to examine prison life, and what was supposed to last two weeks, had to end after only six days due to sadistic behavior from the participants who were expected to play the role of the "prison guards." If this sounds familiar, it is because the photos from this scary scenario look just like those taken in real life at Abu Ghraib.

Other examples I found compelling were the memoirs and accounts I read and heard from survivors of genocides (not just victims, but perpetrators and bystanders as well). Once upstanding and civic-minded Jews in Europe were confined to a ghetto, they took on criminal behaviors that were the result of starvation and humiliation. Likewise, young men enlisted into the police battalion were ordered to kill innocent civilians during the war and they did so.

Were these people born to kill? Were they born sadistic? Numerous studies demonstrate that they were not. Rather, they became killers, criminals, or sadistic individuals as a result of surrounding events and their circumstances.

So what is it about factory farms and consolidated slaughterhouses that cause ordinarily good people to commit such horrible abuses of animals? (Please note that many slaughterhouse and factory farm workers in the U.S. are immigrants who came from their homes in other countries to work in the United States.)

I think the cruel behavior of factory farm and slaughterhouse workers comes from a combination of the above-listed examples. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes,

"...Slaughter is dehumanizing work if you have to do it every day." Temple
Grandin, the animal-handling expert who's helped design many slaughterhouses,
has written that it is not uncommon for full-time slaughterhouse workers to
become sadistic.

The fact that workers are exposed to mass death every day, coupled with the very nature of their job, leads to a cruel and demoralizing situation.

According to a
Reuters article that highlights the research and work from Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, these jobs are often, but not always, performed by illegal immigrants who don't have access to health care or legal advocates. And because many workers don't speak the same language, and turnover is roughly 100 percent annually, unionizing is nearly impossible. Injuries are prevalent due to the pressure to produce more food at lower cost, while the workers are actually making less.

And a 2004 report by
Human Right Watch, Blood Sweat and Tears, found that:

Because many of the workers are undocumented or have family members who are
undocumented, fear of drawing attention to their immigration status prevents
workers from seeking protection for their rights as workers from government

Meat and poultry industry employers take advantage of
these fears to keep workers
in abusive conditions that violate basic human
rights and labor rights.

I often asked myself during my studies if I could be capable of killing. While I repeatedly told myself I wouldn't and couldn't, numerous sociologists and psychologists say otherwise. And I was talking about people. Imagine if it were animals.

Are these workers evil? Are the USDA Inspectors who watch, inspect and ultimately approve of this cruelty also evil?

I don't think so, but I know the system is. And until we start giving the people the rights, respect and compensation they deserve for taking a life to feed others, they will continue to do unto others as they have done unto them.

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