Sunday, October 18, 2015

Against Our Way of Celebrating Thanksgiving

[Canadian Thanksgiving is over for another year; American Thanksgiving approaches. The piece below--a short work of speculative dystopian fiction rather than a conventional essay--is not specific to either one of these. The year is 2215, and the gniebs now control earth; the gnieb who is the author of the essay below is addressing the issue of what moral status should be accorded the creatures who were once themselves the dominant species on the planet---the humas, as they are now referred to.

The story was published recently in The Navigator. ]
Oct 20, 2215

I know this will be an unpopular argument: I want to speak out against something we have come to accept as part of our community values, as part of our traditions of sharing.

Some may say the matter I bring before you is a trivial one, one that pales beside the great issues of our day. Scientists warn that our “progress” has put at risk our great forests, our waterways, our atmosphere—indeed, almost every part of our environment. Increasingly, we are told that a war involving the entire planet is a real possibility. In the big picture, you may say, can it seriously be suggested that the condition of our food animals is an issue meriting our attention?

This is where I beg to differ. Rest assured, I am no extremist: I make no call for the food animals to be “freed” or for we gniebs to eat nothing but plants. There is simply no case to be made for radical views of that sort. That’s an obvious point, perhaps, but let us not forget the evidence on which it is based. Following the conquest, test after test after test established beyond a doubt that the intelligence level of gniebs is far above that of humas—so much so that it would be ludicrous to suggest that humas be accorded the same moral status as gniebs. And of course no responsible person does suggest they be accorded such status: I mention all this merely in order to make it abundantly clear that, in what I am about to say, I am no extremist. Though I will in a moment be defending the “interests” of humas—I would not for a moment suggest they be accorded “rights.”

These preliminaries dispensed with, let me go directly to the main point. If there is one thing in this culture on which all parties may relied on to agree, it is the value of community—and of sharing. For neighbors to show respect and consideration for each other—to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to work together to keep neighborhoods clean and safe for our children, to support local initiatives as much as national and international ones, to extend a welcome to families new to the neighborhood. And, of course, for gniebs of all backgrounds to gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. That is for us a central ritual—a ritual that honors our shared history and all that we share in our national community, that honors as well the community that goes beyond national borders, and that honors the sanctity of life itself.

There are of course those who believe that the values of individual striving are more important than those of community—but no one is against community, no one is against sharing. The left will always put a different twist on the idea than does the right, of course. To those on the right the values of community and of sharing are more a matter of tradition; those on the left put more emphasis on sharing as a form of egalitarianism. But no one is against sharing per se.

I declare myself here and now to be against one form of sharing. I am opposed to the very foundation on which our tradition of Thanksgiving dinner has come to rest. More specifically—and I do want to be specific—I am opposed to the cruelty that underlies our treatment of the humas, whose consumption has become such a central part of our ritual of sharing at Thanksgiving.

When we conquered this planet all those centuries ago—and in the process, it seems safe to say, saved the humas from extinction—we gniebs were faced with a set of very difficult questions. Perhaps the most difficult was how to deal with the humas, who had themselves been so dominant for so long. Should we simply consign them wholesale to oblivion, as they themselves, whether through negligence of through willful slaughter, had often consigned their own inferiors—from Beothuk to Bo to Bororo, from auk to passenger pigeon to rhinoceros. Or should we make a place for them in what would now become a better world—a world of gnieban values, of gnieban striving, of gnieban sharing?

We chose the second, of course. Humas were not subjected to wholesale slaughter. They were raised to be productive throughout their useful lives; huma life was put into the service of higher values.

But at what cost? Here it is essential to distinguish between the practices of our ancestors and those that have become prevalent in our own day. When gniebs first domesticated the humas we treated them well—virtually every authority is agreed on that point. (Too well, many might say.) Their lives might be taken and their blood spilled, but as a rule that occurred at the end of their productive lives—and/or in harmony with the natural cycles of harvest and of thanksgiving. Throughout their productive lives they were treated with dignity, even with kindness, in some sense as fellow creatures. They tilled our soil, they tended our crops—and, at the end of their productive lives, their meat graced our tables, and we gave thanks together for the sacrifice of their lives.

Is there anything that can equal the sense of true sharing that comes at Thanksgiving time? Family and friends gathered around the table to celebrate the season, and to give thanks for that sacrifice. Its value is deeply moral, but deeply spiritual as well—even those of us such as myself who belong to no organized religion can sense the spiritual significance of that sacrifice, that sharing. I may even suggest that such traditions extend to the animals themselves, the animals who share themselves with us. We cannot understand their gibberish, of course, but perhaps we may imagine their own gratitude—imagine their own sense of sharing themselves, in gratitude for having been given fruitful lives, lives without suffering. It is to honor that tradition, not to sully it that I ask you to remember how those humas in bygone days were treated throughout their productive lives—with dignity, even with kindness, as our fellow creatures.

And their milk? That is arguably a more complex question, but once the nutritionists weighed in and informed us of how healthful humas’ milk was compared to our own, we could hardly be blamed for arranging a system such as that which survives to the present day. (Humas themselves, of course, are known to have put into place a very similar system with a four-legged species that is believed to have become extinct not long before our arrival on the planet.) By removing the young from the mother, she may be induced to produce more milk, which the superior species may then consume. The young are of course the unfortunate victims of the process, but so long as their end is brought about quickly and without cruelty, there can be no ethical objection—any more than there can be any reasonable objection to ending any huma life quickly and without cruelty.

The problem with all this—at long last I come to the main point—is that we have not held to these values. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Under the name of “tradition” we bring to the table humas that are nothing like the humas of old. I leave to one side the matter of taste—though I confess I can find nothing in the taste of today’s factory farmed huma to compare with the sweet and slightly gamy taste that I can still remember from when I was young. But it is not taste that should concern us—it is morality. Readers may not wish to know the truth, but know it they should. Today’s humas live lives that are hideous to contemplate. They are no longer to be seen in the open fields, of course, where robotic devices now perform almost every task once assigned to humas. We no longer see them. They live behind closed doors in vast sheds, cramped, confined, and generally in chains; it is only for their milk and flesh that we value them now. The udders of those bred for the dairy industry—their breasts, as once we called them—are painfully distended as a result of the way we have bred them, bred them to produce more and more milk that can be sold at lower at lower prices. So too the bellies of those bred to gain weight quickly and reach the table as soon as possible; the weight we have bred into them is intensely painful to carry.

There is more, much more—I believe that most of you who are reading this may have some dim awareness of everything I'm speaking of, a dim awareness you would perhaps rather push from your conscious mind. I sympathize with your desire not to know the details; I do not want to paint for you an endless series of pictures of suffering animals wallowing in their own excrement—animals that are bound in due course for our dinner tables. It is enough to be aware of the general picture.

Once we know that, it is surely unconscionable not to take some action. To be blunt, it is unconscionable to continue to eat these products of cruelty. If we are to continue, on this and on every Thanksgiving, to glorify the harvest and to accept with grace the humas sacrificed at this special time, we must honor the traditions some of us remember from the time when we were young, when meat and milk were not the products of cruelty, when the traditions of sharing and of sacrifice did not entail needless suffering on the part of humas or of other animals, imposed through our own cruelty, throughout the full duration of their lives. We must return to the practices of the past—to a time when we could eat Thanksgiving dinner with a clear conscience, knowing we were consuming the products of kindness rather than of cruelty. We owe it to the animals; even more importantly, we owe it to ourselves.

“But what of the poor?” I hear some of you say. I own this to be a serious problem. If it is the case (as I believe it to be) that the mistreatment of humas has led to great reductions in the prices of animal foodstuffs, what are we do about prices if conditions for humas are ameliorated—if the efficiencies of breeding and of mechanization are rolled back, if the animals are allowed to lead more or less natural lives up until slaughter? If no other measures are taken, that could surely place an intolerable burden on the poor.

Of those who accept my case that we must address the cruelties that have become part and parcel of modern farming, there are no doubt a few who will say forget about the poor. They have only themselves to blame for their poverty, and they deserve no better. There are surely a few at the other end of the political spectrum who will say we should eat lentils and leaves, all of us, nothing but lentils and leaves; we should leave the humas and all the other animals alone. We need not adopt either of these ludicrous extremes: let me propose a sensible middle ground. Just as it would be unreasonable to insist we all get our protein from legumes rather than from meat and milk, it would be unreasonable to insist that the poor do so. But let us recognize that eradicating cruelty to humas cannot be done for free; the meat and the dairy products will all have to carry higher prices—and that, unless we provide subsidies, the poor will indeed bear that burden disproportionately. That, then, is exactly what we should do—provide income assistance to those who require it. Such subsidies will prevent the poor from slipping into worse poverty, while allowing the animals—the huma animals—to live lives that are no longer filled with endless suffering.

So there it is—a modest proposal for our families, for our communities, and for our world to depart from today’s traditions of sharing and of thanksgiving by returning to an older set of traditions, a set of traditions that did not rest, as ours does today, on an unacknowledged foundation of cruelty.

No, this is not so important an issue as that of how to avoid war, or how to save our environment from destruction. But if we are to judge ourselves as superior to the other creatures—morally superior, not simply more intelligent—then we must listen to our better selves. We must refrain from unnecessary cruelty. We must reject the false tradition of sharing that is reliant on that cruelty. We must return to the great traditions of sharing and of sacrifice that were once the foundation of our society. We can—and we must—re-establish gnieban society on that great tradition of true sharing.

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