Who Could Stand the Sight? The Politics of Transparency in Factory Farms
If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarian-Paul McCartney
As Americans, we have embraced diets that are products of our resources, culture and history, and include mainstays like meat, grain, and dairy. Livestock have become a centerpiece of the American diet, not only by providing meat, but also by yielding milk and its many related dairy products including butter, yogurt, and cheese. Since its boom, meat has achieved a special role in the American diet. Like dairy, wheat and corn, it is a product of our agricultural heritage, and has become a beloved symbol of American wholesomeness. Meat companies, on the back of industrial-scale domesticated farm animals, have become a multi-billion dollar business. The industry advertises heavily in order to protect its lucrative place in the agricultural economy and has even secured government subsidies to ensure its continued prosperity. While many people happily contribute to the success of the industry, most have also never been exposed to the gruesome, emotionally taxing sight that is slaughter in an American factory farm. I argue that it is the opacity behind which American slaughterhouses operate that affords the industry lasting power and success.
This paper, as a preliminary matter, assumes that factory farming represents an abhorrent tradition that has no place in a moral society. Animals should not have to undergo lives of torment in pens only slightly larger than the animals themselves just so humans can derive some sensory pleasure from consuming their flesh. Because this paper is about the politics of transparency surrounding factory farming and not about whether factory farming is immoral, I will not spend much time debating the ethics of factory farming itself, and instead I will operate under the assumption that it is morally wrong. Next, I will briefly establish a framework for a minimum standard of proper transparency based on that put forward by Archon Fung in his paper Infotopia: Unleashing the Democratic Power of Transparency. The paper will then examine the structure and politics of opacity in factory farming as a deliberate corporate shield — veiling the consumer from the animals to be slaughtered, and even within that, walling off industry workers from the act of killing itself. This paper then will determine how factory farming fits into Fung’s framework. Further, this paper examines a possible solution to counteract the industry’s opacity and achieve moral learning within the relevant social groups. Finally, this paper will conclude with a broader reflection on the politics of transparency and its relationship to consumer choices.
The transparency framework that Fung establishes in the beginning of his Infotopia is by no means an exhaustive approach in determining robust and democratic transparency. Rather, it represents a requisite minimum of transparency to satisfy our interests. Therefore, I will be considering the following principles as part of an evaluation of transparency in factory farms. There are four central principles. First is availability: “information about the operations and actions of large organizations that affect citizens’ interests should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public.” Second is proportionality: “the amount of available information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations jeopardize citizens’ interests.” Third is accessibility: “information should be organized and provided in ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information.” Finally, there is actionability: “the social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that allow individuals and groups to take action… .” These four principles describe a framework I will return to after having described transparency (or lack thereof) in the factory farm.
A shuttered reality
The animal agriculture industry is enormous. Each year, more than 69 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption: about 189 million a day, 131,250 a minute. Intensive animal farming more commonly known as factory farming contributes around 50% of all meat production worldwide and 99% in the U.S.. And it does so in a much more efficient manner; in some slaughterhouses, an animal is killed every twelve seconds (Pachirat 4). But how many of those animals, and more particularly animal deaths, do we see?
There is a reflexive impulse of the individual to distance herself from the operation of those factories and willfully ignore their abject cruelty, shifting the burden of moral confrontation and consideration to farm workers (to the extent it happens at all), operating out-of-sight. In other words, if we don’t see it, it’s not our problem. When the actual work of slaughter is divorced from meat consumption, when it is out of sight, we are not forced to morally reflect on it, and it is out of mind. As in other industries (industrial clothing manufacturing, prisons, etc.), the unspoken social compact then is often to segregate the “dirty” work production from the beneficiary of the product.
Additionally, the meat industry advertises prolifically and funds studies and research extolling the benefits of consuming animal flesh in order to protect its lucrative place in the agricultural economy. Contemporary images of meat production often emphasize idyllic, bucolic settings with “happy cows” in contrast to the squalid conditions of the factory farm. The Cargill corporation alone spends over $1 billion on advertising per year to further this image. This gross manipulation of the consumer further occludes consumer choice in the matter. But it does not stop there; some of this opacity is codified in law.
Legislative bodies, supported heavily by the meat industry, have passed on multiple occasions, bills that serve to preserve this opacity. For instance, On March 17, 2011, the Iowa State House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 66 to 27, HF 589, which makes it a “felony to gain access to and record what takes place in slaughterhouses and other animal and crop facilities without the consent of the facilities’ owners.”Laws like this one, collectively referred to as “ag-gag” laws, serve to prevent the undercover filming or photography of processes within the factory farm, thus blocking even the most proactive individual from broadcasting animal rights abuses. Certainly, there is something objectionable to a process being legal yet barred from scrutiny so its legality cannot be questioned.
Some individuals, such as State Senator David Hinkins who supported an ag-gag law in Utah, believe that public documentation of factory farming practices is simply the result of “vegetarian people who are trying to kill the animal industry.” However, it is clear that these investigations can have lasting impact on meat companies’ profitability. For example, in 2011, a Mercy for Animals investigation at Select Farms in Kamrar, Iowa, one of the biggest pork suppliers in the US, reported on abuse including but not limited to: castration without painkillers and inhumane gestation crate conditions. After the investigation was publicized, Costco, Kroger, and Safeway dropped Iowa Select as a meat supplier. Obviously it was not just a few irate vegetarians on the fringe effecting change, but instead widespread consumer pressure that made the difference.
I argue that is because it is in the interest of morally upstanding citizens to be informed about their dietary choices. But in order for people to be informed, the industry has to be transparent; this is a prerequisite for moral knowledge and moral decision-making. Without any knowledge of what goes on in slaughterhouses, how can we make these decisions? To illustrate this, I will introduce an analogous situation, one that also exposed immoral practices, in which transparency inspired us to act.
Argument by analogy
In late 2003, reports surfaced exhibiting graphic human rights violations at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Photos showed evidence of sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and other forms of physical and mental humiliation. Finally, people were forced to confront the inhumanity of a particular aspect of the American-backed military operation. Principal Bush political strategist Karl Rove suggested that the consequences of these images were so great that “it would take decades for the U.S. to recover from them.” The conditions in the prison viscerally shocked many and prompted relatively swift corrective action. Transparency forced Americans to confront and take moral responsibility for what had been previously happening out of sight.
The conditions within modern-day American factory farms are comparably horrible and arguably worse. Routinized torture and abject living conditions make up the entirety of the animal’s life. However, just like Abu Ghraib, the factory farm is insulated by distance, so the atrocities that are commonplace behind the walls are not well known to most Americans. The factory farm and its squalid animal pens, like Abu Ghraib, is also a prison but “cannot be named as such as the normative dictates of anthropocentric common sense disable this transposition: the zoo is not a prison, it is a zoological park; the animal pen is not a prison, it is where livestock is quartered.” Livestock in factory farms are treated as mere means to an end that is efficient production. An employee who refuses to shove an electric prod into an animal’s anus to slightly increase the speed by which the livestock are slaughtered, is likely to be reprimanded (Parichat 148). However, just like Abu Ghraib, the factory farm is hidden, so the atrocities that are commonplace behind the walls are not well known to most Americans.
Walls within walls
It is not just from the general public that the slaughterhouse attempts to shutter itself. Even within the walls of the slaughterhouse there are internal divisions that serve to compartmentalize the different stages of slaughter. It is hard to say which of these divisions are deliberately concealing, but the overall effect is that most slaughterhouse workers are protected from the act of killing itself. Of over 800 workers on the kill floor, “only four are directly involved in the killing of the cattle and less than 20 have a line of sight to the killing.” In fact, as Timothy Parichat describes, the compartmentalization of the slaughterhouse is such that “It is possible to spend years working in…an industrialized slaughterhouse that slaughters over half a million cattle per year without ever once encountering a live animal much less witnessing one being killed.”
Even on the kill floor itself, there is a concerted effort to keep the physical act of killing hidden. This is illustrated by a further division on the kill floor: the dirty side and the clean side. The dirty side is where work is done while the cattle’s hides are still attached and the clean side is where the work is done after the cattle’s hides have been removed. The “dirty” workers and the “clean” workers are segregated even when on their food or bathroom breaks. The dirty workers, the ones who deal with the act of killing and other processes involving the animals while they still have their form, the ones with blood on their hands, are explicitly sequestered from other workers. Dirty workers are kept out of sight and the “violence of turning animal into carcass is quarantined amongst the dirty side workers,” and thereby kept out of mind.
We have seen this strategy before. In In Our Name: The Ethics of Democracy, Erich Beerbohm discusses how in firing squads, often not all of the members had live rounds, thus allowing individuals involved in an arguably immoral act to not take individual moral responsibility for the death. Each member of the firing squad is not likely to have been individually causally responsible for the death. This is a convenient psychological escape, but certainly they all share moral blame for their contribution to the act. Similarly, even the slaughterhouse worker who does not perform the actual act of killing does contribute and support the act itself. The illusion of a lack of responsibility — separation of the consumer from the production process, sequestration of factory farm workers, and dummy rounds among firing squad members — are fostered by a framework that represses transparency.
As discussed above, what is needed is a framework that compels transparency. The purpose of the framework is to ensure that these institutions are organized in a way that is “just and democratic in that it enables individuals to protect their interests and, collectively, to control the organizations that affect their lives.” It is clear that factory farming does not satisfy any of our framework conditions: availability, proportionality, accessibility and actionability. Regarding availability, factory farms, undoubtedly related to our interests because they produce the food we eat, have not provided information about their operations. Relatedly, factory farms have actually gone to great lengths to prevent the public — and even their own workers — from accessing this information. If the citizen’s interest is to be able to make morally informed decisions about her dietary choices, then her interests are very much jeopardized by factory farms. Proportionality, on the other hand, would entail information sufficient to satisfy our interest — obviously this is not the case. And as for actionability, because of deliberate information suppression tactics employed by factory farms, any information gained is less actionable than if we were permitted to broadcast and disseminate this information freely. In fact, factory farms have successfully lobbied to have laws enacted that foreclose actions being taken to investigate their internal processes.
Now imagine if the occlusion, both literal and figurative, were to be replaced by transparency. Instead of taking comfort in the assumption that operations in slaughterhouses were carried out as humanely as possible, people would have to watch the worst of it — to witness, at least through some medium, the torture and subjugation that the animals they eat go through for their entire lives just so the consumer can derive momentary sensory pleasure.
When the photos of abuse from Abu Ghraib surfaced, many of us were forced to confront them head-on. Our moral sensibility was shaken, and it was no longer possible (or at least more difficult) to turn a blind eye to moral horrors that servants of our own government carried out. And the response was visceral and immediate. This is because the impulse to link sight and political transformation is strong. Sight, it appears, can subvert “physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distance in order to produce social and political change.” After Abu Ghraib, we became not only horrified, but also ashamed of even being associated with the conduct that had been carried out.
My solution, then, is the so-called glass-walled slaughterhouse. We citizens who care about the suffering of animals at the hands of industrial agriculture should do everything that we can to expose to the public what goes on behind the walls of the American slaughterhouse. Supporting and even participating in undercover investigations of slaughterhouse conditions carried out by organizations like Mercy for Animals and PETA is an effective solution to subvert moral distance and change America’s intensive animal agriculture complex. So, private resources should be allocated first and foremost to this cause: first further investigation and then transparency through media.
The actual mechanism with which this campaign can be most effectively carried out resembles that of the anti-smoking campaign. Once more footage is acquired, we inundate the public, through billboards, commercials, and other media, with images depicting the gruesome nature of factory farm slaughter that many Americans support. Just as the anti-smoking campaign is apt to utilize shocking images to deter Americans from smoking, we use the shocking, though routine, to compel people to morally confront and reflect upon animal slaughter.
Breaking the distance barrier
Over 8.5 billion animals are killed for food each year in the United States. That is a lot, but big agriculture has done a great job of sequestering the slaughter. Slaughterhouses normally operate in rural, isolated locations behind walls. Usually “a small minority of largely immigrant workers” carries out the killing itself. Additionally, many us employ a kind of moral blindness that allows us to divorce ourselves (both physically and mentally) from the consequences of our dietary choices. Once we are finally in physical contact with meat, it no longer bears any resemblance to its animal form and we don’t see it as a once sentient being.
Advancing the media inundation strategy is an attempt to penetrate this opacity by breaching zones of confinement on the implicit or explicit assumption that “once those breaches are created, a “reign of opinion” rooted in outrage, pity, disgust, sympathy, compassion, solidarity, shock, horror, or some other emotive response will lead to political action in the service of their desired goals.”
The glass-walled slaughterhouse, a euphemism for the undercover investigation and distribution of media exposing internal processes in slaughterhouses, is an attempt to combat the power of distance and the numbing effect of intractable numbers on human emotion. The inhumane practices of slaughterhouses (no other country slaughters its animals as brutally) are not currently a source of moral outrage, I argue, because they are occluded. However, if we were forced to confront these practices, many of them would come to a halt. By figuratively opening up the American slaughterhouse to public scrutiny, we force people to make an active moral decision of whether they want to support such an industry instead of a passive one borne of ignorance and shielded from reality.
Increased exposure to real investigatory evidence of abuse in slaughterhouses will incite emotive reactions. But something more than transparency is needed; transparency must cause the acknowledgement of some moral wrongdoing, and thereby galvanize action. There are many of us who are aware of the moral miscarriages inherent to factory farms, but still do not act, exhibiting a kind of cognitive dissonance.
The missing link in the causal chain that helps achieve moral learning — the acquisition of moral knowledge,” and subsequent action — is honor, or more precisely the fear of losing it. The hope is that, as Anthony Appiah says, like slavery or foot binding, one day, “people will find themselves thinking not just that an old practice was wrong and a new one right but that here was something shameful in the old ways.” In The Social Epistemology of Morality: Learning from the Forgotten History of the Abolition of Slavery, Elizabeth Anderson states that “a social group can be said to have learned a moral principle and hence to know it only if the principle is operative within the group.” She goes on to say that this requires not that “…every member personally believes it…” but that the morally realized principle “…shapes discourse within the group…” and that disputants are “liable to censure or even social exclusion for calling such convictions into question.” In order to achieve this moral learning there has to be some function that spurs action.
Honor has been argued to be instrumental in converting factual knowledge to moral learning — forcing us to do away with our cognitive dissonance. There is a deep concern with how others perceive you and the actions that you take. If we were forced to see what happens to our meat before we eat it, we would have to justify our behavior not only to ourselves, but also to others. We would have to justify our complicity with and support for the industry.
With animal consumption there is a cultural norm that we have to overcome in order to achieve moral learning. There an invisible belief system, supported by our culture, that conditions us to eat animals, as if it were the obvious thing to do, where meat-eating “is the dominant ideology, a doctrine considered to be a given, not a choice.” But many cultures once had this belief about slavery or the subjugation of women as well and as we have seen, honor can change this.
At first, transparency would mainly inform consumer choice. The pictures and videos might persuade some people to stop eating meat, or to buy it from a more humane source — perhaps only a handful. “Of course, changes in personal attitudes often translate into expanded public debate.” These people may then support laws for more humane treatment of farm animals. As time goes on, more and more people would have to justify their behavior, on a daily basis, as smokers do to their peers, children, family members etc. If the normative shift were significant enough to achieve moral learning, those who still supported factory farming would likely begin to experience some form of social ostracism — as smokers now do. If enough individuals publically condemned our treatment of animals in factory farms, those who continued to support it would start to be seen as inhumane, insensitive, or even dishonorable people.
If the images of Abu Ghraib had never surfaced, nothing would have happened and those abuses would likely still be going on. Perhaps one day, we will think of factory farming in this way. The question is ultimately: what is worse? Showing people what’s going on or existing in a world where it is going on and keeping them in the dark about it so they become complicit in it? Or, worst of all, allowing it to go on and leading people to believe it is a humane practice, when in reality it is not?
When we consider the history of products with powerful profit-driven lobbyists, we see that it can take an army to debunk the status that they have in our society. Far from transparent, factory farms are given special license to be deliberately and even dangerously opaque. Thus, given its ensconced position as a hyper-promoted agricultural commodity, it is likely that the truth about industrial meat production will remain immured and invisible. But, we as citizens with an interest in being moral are obligated to do what we can to uncover the truth and broadcast it so people can decide based on the truth.
Factory farming is hidden from view, not because it is a danger to all of us, but because transparency would likely mean moral and emotional reflection. Meat companies do not want this. In reality, factory farming is a brutal practice that is at odds with our morality. However, because industrial slaughter remains hidden from the majority of those who feed off such labor, it is ignored. By inundating the public with images of torture and abuse in the process of slaughter, we force them to confront the moral consequences of their diet. Eventually, moral outrage will become the norm. Behavioral and political change will follow. This solution could represent a way in which we can effect impactful behavioral change that condemns rather than supports factory farming.
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