Do No Evil: Denial by Perpetrators of Normalized Violence Against Animals (Part 2)


In my last post in this series I discussed Stanley Cohen’s concept of the “atrocity triangle”—atrocities have victims, perpetrator(s), and bystanders who did not intervene or even went along with the atrocity. In the case of animal suffering, there are far more bystanders than perpetrators, but the perpetrators enable and enact the abuse and so they are of particular importance to understand. If no one worked in slaughterhouses or puppy mills or researched on animals, then much of the atrocities other animal species experience would cease to exist.


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A popular adage in the animal protection movement most commonly attributed to Sir Paul McCartney is, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.” But if that is true, then how can those working inside slaughterhouses be willing to engage in such work? Cohen argues that both bystanders and perpetrators engage in denial. But how can it be that someone engaging in killing animals can deny what they are doing?

Cohen outlines a number of types of denial in which perpetrators may engage, and some help explain humans’ willingness to commit atrocities against animals. Occasionally, a basic denial of knowledge may be the case. Officials may be able to deny (be it a literal, interpretive, or implicitory denial) that failure to create more federally protected land is not hurting animals, or that killing homeless animals is the best way to deal with companion animal overpopulation. However, in most instances of normalized animal abuse this is clearly not the case, such as a person who kills an animal in a slaughterhouse, designs an animal experiment, or forcibly impregnates an animal, is physically engaging in something s/he cannot deny.

Two other types of denial appear to be at play—denial of responsibility and moral indifference. Cohen outlines a multitude of ways in which individuals deny responsibility. These denials occur in everyday practice and, in the case of animal atrocities, some of these ways that workers distance themselves from the abuse they enact are culturally accepted and normalized stories.

One way that seems of particular relevance is the idea of “necessity” or “self-defense.” Take the animal researcher, for example; s/he may feel s/he is doing the necessary “dirty work” to save human lives. Even though animal tests rarely produce useable results of relevance to ameliorating human maladies, and may even produce results that harm humans, the researcher may suffer a denial that what s/he does is crucial to helping people. This denial allows for the design and implementation of gruesome experiments and the fact that researchers are socially compensated with comfortable salaries reinforces the denial.

But what about the workers who don’t get a high salary—the lab technicians, or the people who kill animals on fur farms, or the slaughterhouse workers who are in immense physical danger at work and receive low pay? What makes them complicit in the system and how is it they engage in egregious violence against animals?

Here again the “necessity” argument emerges, particularly in the case of slaughterhouse workers. As Eric Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation describes in detail, many slaughterhouse workers are extremely exploited and are put in a position where the choice not to work in the slaughterhouse may seem untenable. However, even in the most extreme circumstances, these workers must find justification to engage in their work.

Cohen highlights the work of Herbert C. Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton, in Crimes of Obedience. They find that subordinates have three ways they legitimize violence enacted out of obedience—they were given orders by someone in authority, they dehumanize the victims so they sit firmly outside of their moral universe, and/or through routinization, where each repetition of the action makes it easier to engage in the next time. All of these seem to be at play in the case of industries in which workers hurt or kill animals for a living.

All these factors come alive in the Gail Eisnitz’s book, Slaughterhouse. Eisnitz interviewed slaughterhouse workers. Through their stories, it is clear that at times slaughterhouse workers come to see the animals they kill as mere objects that must be conquered, rather than sentient beings. Under pressures by superiors to work faster in dangerous conditions, they will do things they might have thought unthinkable at other times in their lives. And as the job becomes daily practice it also becomes more normal.

Of course, not all people react this way. Walter Bond, currently in jail for an arson at a sheepskin factory, attributes watching the brutal killing of a pig by other workers in a slaughterhouse he worked at as the impetus for him to take illegal actions to economically cripple a business that engages in animal slaughter. Bond’s reaction was intense and it was a rejection of what he saw. However, most people in that position will learn to quietly acquiesce and eventually come to accept the torture around them and even become a willing part of it.

Dehumanization can be violent in slaughterhouses, as highlighted by a number of accounts in Eisnitz’s book. However, this dehumanization and cognitive distancing can manifest in less obvious ways, which is likely what is occurring in areas such as zoos or pet stores that sell dogs from puppy mills, where individuals working in the field might even claim to be “animal lovers.” Ellis Coulter and Leslie Irvine’s research with children in 4-H helps us understand how this happens. In 4-H children are expected to care for an animal and then, at the end of the year, sell that animal to be slaughtered. These children actively learned how to control their emotions and distance themselves from animals so that they could feel comfortable and even righteous in selling their animals to slaughter.

Over time, children in 4-H learn to control their emotions and attachment in a number of ways. In the early years, children describe being heartbroken when the animal goes to slaughter, but through experience they learn ways to mitigate this. They learn to distance from the animals emotionally, for example, by not naming them. They also don’t think of the animals as friends anymore, but as “market animals,” and justify this shift through a “redemption narrative.” This redemption narrative involves discussion of the money from the sale of the animal, highlighting that it will be used for their college fund.

This is similar to Cohen’s concept of violence for “necessity.” If there is a greater good that people can use to justify their actions then all guilt or responsibility is absolved. Unfortunately, in a society such as ours that places significantly more value on the comforts and preferences of humans over the lives of other animals, these justifications are easy to construct and maintain.

What is clear is that there are a multitude of factors at play that allow individuals perpetuating atrocities against animals to deny the true nature of what they are doing. The only reason they so easily get away with this is because, as a culture, a majority of people do not question atrocities against animals, and actively demand it by eating animal flesh, supporting animal experiments, taking their children to circuses and zoos, and wearing furs and skins such as leather, among many others. In the next post I will discuss the role that denial plays in how the majority of people become bystanders to this animal abuse.

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