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Mind what you eat

By Scott MacInnes - posted Friday, 9 June 2017


London is full of chickens on electric spits,
Cooking in windows where the public pass.
This, say the chickens, is their Auschwitz,
And all poultry eaters are psychopaths.

Peter Porter

Whenever I see chickens on spits in take-away shops, I am reminded of Peter Porter's disturbing poem Annotations of Auschwitz.

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I am further reminded of JM Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello. The central character, Elizabeth, also draws on the Auschwitz comparison: "Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an [industrialized food production] enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of."

In his recent Papal Encyclical Pope Francis warns us: "Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people."

Elizabeth Costello says it has already happened: the stockyards showed the way; it was from them that the Nazis learned how to 'process bodies'. Peter Porter could have used the image of the cattle truck to equal effect.

In the novel, JM Coetzee makes sure his central character is justly criticised for her crude, insensitive and offensive comparison. It is a reminder of how careful we need to be in the way we speak of such matters. However, it can be argued that the identification of certain disturbing features in common – if done respectfully - can illuminate both horrors, without in any way suggesting they are morally equivalent, which clearly they are not.

Elizabeth Costello goes on to point out some of the common features of moral failure.

The horror is that the killers [at Auschwitz] refused to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else…

In other words, they closed their hearts. The heart is the seat of a faculty,sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another…

[Let us] return one last time to the places of slaughter [of our factory food animals] to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh haulocaust, yet as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. We do not feel tainted.

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Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has argued that this form of disavowal actually comes at a great cost. We see footage of horrendous animal suffering on the news. We know intuitively that something is seriously wrong but feel so overwhelmed that we cannot face the full reality of it or our deepest feelings of shame about it. In disavowing that reality, we create a dislocation in our inner world. We cut ourselves off from that part of us that instinctively does care. We lose our integrity.

Rather than help us deal with this problem, the dominant culture exacerbates it by actively encouraging our denial, avoidance and disavowal. This 'culture of uncare' no longer serves us: it serves the 'business as usual' mentality of those who benefit most from the current system.

Take one, particularly egregious example: last year's ABC 7.30 Report on the live animal export trade. It shows animals suffering in appalling conditions.

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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