If slaughterhouses had glass walls

Paul McCartney PETA

“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarians.” This quotation from Paul McCartney is the basis for a 13-minute PETA video narrated by Sir Paul with some pretty graphic slaughterhouse footage. PETA is betting that once you know the truth about slaughterhouses, you’ll go vegetarian or vegan. This is also the philosophy implicit in a lot of vegetarian information campaigns ranging from gentle to graphic — Vegan Outreach pamphlets, the hour-long video “Earthlings,” and Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. But is it true? If slaughterhouses really had glass walls, either literally or metaphorically, would we all be vegetarian?

This question is complex and tougher than it sounds. This is not about slaughterhouses literally having glass walls, but about the fact of animal suffering in slaughterhouses being apparent to everyone. We need to imagine something like a “slaughter cam” with cameras pointing at the killing floor in all slaughterhouses, with video available for free on the internet and in public libraries.

There is a widespread assumption implicit in most vegetarian campaigns that if people really understood what was going on in a slaughterhouse, they would go vegetarian or at least want to go vegetarian. All we have to do is provide the necessary information to enable them to make the transition. Interestingly, the meat industry seems to share this assumption; they try to suppress this information by making it more difficult for animal activists to get inside slaughterhouses and video what is going on.

But this assumption really means that humans are naturally compassionate to animals, and so are naturally vegetarian. That humans naturally feel compassion for animals is a significant and debatable point worthy of some further discussion. Michael Pollan would deny it, but it explains the whole animal rights debate and why the meat industry is so concerned with the spread of information about slaughterhouses.

If slaughterhouses really had glass walls (literally or metaphorically), it isn’t obvious what the impact would be. Not everyone who acquires this knowledge about slaughterhouses responds in the same way. A husband and wife will sit down to watch Earthlings; the wife may go vegan, but the husband will demur. Slaughterhouse workers are obviously very aware of what happens to animals, but most slaughterhouse workers don’t become vegetarians. Open-air meat markets in some countries clearly indicate the reality of the death of animals, yet people in these countries eat meat. How do we account for these different responses?

Humans seem to instinctively resist the killing of animals. Those who eat meat despite knowing where it comes from have become desensitized to killing, or are evading or rationalizing this fact in various ways. Meat-eaters are in fact what Carol Adams calls “blocked vegetarians.” If slaughterhouses had glass walls, people could still eat meat and block out the implications — but it would be a lot more difficult to do so.

Blocking is probably not necessary for sociopaths or psychopaths, or people who have certain kinds of anti-social personality disorders, who literally feel no sympathy for others, human or animals. However, for the rest of us, it would seem that the blocking process is necessary in order to eat meat. Both the information campaigns of animal liberation activists and the counter-narratives spun by the livestock industry are responding to the same dynamic.

There are other costs here besides increased advertising or political burdens for the meat industry. Because humans have an instinctual resistance to violence (either against other humans or other animals), the legitimization of the slaughter of animals creates societal costs. The most obvious costs are the effects of slaughter on slaughterhouse workers.

Violence has an effect not only on the victim, but on the perpetrator, even (and especially) when this violence is socially sanctioned, the phenomenon of “perpetration-induced traumatic stress” or PITS, described by social psychologist Dr. Rachel MacNair. This happens in the case of soldiers who kill in wartime, police officers, executioners, animal shelter workers who have to euthanize unwanted animals, and slaughterhouse workers.

These people often feel ongoing stress from having to participate in acts of violence. The stress of having to kill animals is a key reason that the turnover rates in slaughterhouses are so high. Society approves of this killing, but human instincts regard it as a deeply repugnant act. To maintain this arrangement it’s best just not to talk about or draw attention to this contradiction, but to repress awareness of it. Low pay and the high injury rates for slaughterhouse workers are also key factors, but even these aspects are related to the need to conceal the realities of slaughter from the rest of society.

The effect of giving this social approval to violence is, obviously, that it encourages violence. Primitive humans hunted animals extensively, and this is sometimes cited as evidence that killing animals is natural. However, as author and psychologist Steven Pinker documents in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, such primitive societies were also very violent with respect to other humans.

As societies have advanced, two things have happened simultaneously: (1) the fact of animal slaughter has become more and more distant from the ordinary workings of society, and (2) levels of human violence against humans have steadily and dramatically declined. This doesn’t prove that these two phenomena are necessarily related, but it is very suggestive. Instead of killing being a communal activity, as in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, killing animals became a more specialized occupation increasingly segregated from other occupations. Today it is a private occupation that is almost never discussed and to which access is strictly regulated.

At the same time, crime rates have fallen and wars have become less frequent — a key point in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Part of the reason for this decline in violence against humans, I would argue, is that we are not exposed to nearly as much violence in the first place. The saying attributed to Tolstoy, “as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields,” is quite appropriate here.

So if slaughterhouses had glass walls, would we all become vegetarian? Not necessarily, but it would certainly help. What the glass walls would really do would be to raise the societal costs of slaughtering animals. The trauma of violence is something that once unleashed, can be to a certain extent contained and repressed, but never completely disappears. Bringing this violence to light is an essential component in ending it.

8 Replies to “If slaughterhouses had glass walls”

  1. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly. It would also help, to make people understand how we participate, when we paid someone else to kill the animals for us. Also is very mean to pay some one else to do this, meanwhile we enjoy and dis-associated at what cost we this meal came about.

  2. Thank you for your post. A most worthy and unfortunately ill covered topic, the importance and sacredness of each individual life and consequence of killing that life. It is however coming up in some circles and the counter to the topic is, “know your food” movement. With this individuals/civilians are going to farms or events and killing their “dinner.”

    I do not see this as noble by any stretch, nor does it do anything to enhance the respect of that life, neither would having glass walls in slaughter houses. In fact I believe it would do/does the opposite. All it would serve to do, both individually and collectively, is further acculturate and normalize the violence by exposure and therefore desensitization. Studies have shown (brain scans and testimonials) with each act or even exposure to violence&slaughter, each incident deadens our empathic ability and further desensitizes. Witnessing the violence is crucial yes but in very limited and very targeted presentations/contexts to avoid making it ubiquitous/monotonous such as it once was in society.

    The removal of slaughter from our sight allowed for our natural empathetic state of repugnance to be more fully experienced/return but ironically it also serves our cognizant dissonance with “out of sight.” The balance of exposure to the violence and safe healthy distance must be calculated carefully. If we look at the none stop stream of undercover videos exposing horrendous cruelty, they have done an amazing job at waking up society but are also now becoming white noise, the videos and their presented context (ie terms used such as factory farms rather than animal ag, specific acts of abuse rather than objectification etc) have set the bar so low that anything would be an improvement (campaigns proclaiming “success” cage free win), it has become the status quo at the lowest possible rank, that is the unintended consequence. It left the door open wide open to side step the morality of taking a life under any circumstance for the -mass marketing of “humane” slaughter, small farms vs factory, know your dinner and so on. I believe more focus on the individual capacity for life (yes animals do have a interest in their own life), and the consequence of taking that individuals life. Without doing this we cannot truly help the masses without raising the concern for the individual. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, this shows that the concept of “glass walls” for slaughterhouses is quite slippery. What we really want to do is to convey the reality of animal suffering. For some people visual depictions (“Earthlings”) or verbal statements (pamphlets) is sufficient. For others, it isn’t, and it may simply further desensitize them, as you point out. But society pays a cost for this desensitization, in the form of the likelihood of increased violence.

  3. There are some people are so galvanized by learning about the “meat” industry that they are instantly motivated to go to any length to transition to a vegan life-style. And there are some who can’t be convinced to care. Between the two extremes, I suspect that there may well be a sizable group who would consider changing their dietary habits, perhaps even feel they would even like to, but think it would be too hard. The idea of giving up all meat products seems so daunting as to be impossible to those people and so they dismiss it out of hand. Although longtime vegans may feel that meat analogs and other processed vegan foods are not ideal, it seems to me that the increased availability and visibility of these products in grocery stores can only help. Transitioning is a real learning curve, and this is especially so for people who are not used to doing much cooking. I think we need to support any movement in the right direction.

  4. It is the 64 Dollar Question, trying to figure out what prompts some people to strive for the compassionate ideals embodied in veganism, and others not. IN this, Melanie Joy’s work about meat eating being widely viewed as natural, normal and necessary comes to mind; and especially so when one thinks of the range of responses there are to graphic information about conditions on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. Seeing the horrible realities is unsettling for a lot of people – some are prompted to go vegetarian or vegan; but others, perhaps due to firmly entrenched ideas about meat-eating being a natural and necessary state of affairs, will look to assuage their conscience by consuming different sorts of ‘happy meat,’ hoping to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. And there are of course the many who simply block the information, rationalizing that the videos of animal atrocities just cherry pick the worst atrocities, or that it’s just animals who are dying, or it’s too bad but that’s the nature of our Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest world.

    It seems that one of the paradoxes of delving into the vegan lifestyle is that even as alternatives to eating meat increasingly flourish in the mainstream (think faux meats in the supermarkets, and vegan entrees available at an ever growing number of restaurants), the meat eating mindset is still firmly entrenched. The information is out there – nutritionally, folks like John McDougall, Caldwell Esselstyn and a host of other vegan doctors have demonstrated that meat eating is Not necessary, end even detrimental for optimal health; Keith Akers and others have shown that spiritual luminaries from Christ to Tolstoy, Gandhi and Cesar Chavez practiced vegetarianism and compassion toward animals; Rita Laws has shown that the diet for many Native Americans was, widespread cultural mis-perceptions notwithstanding, if not vegetarian, then highly plant-based; groups like PETA, Mercy for Animals and Compassion Over Killing have helped expose the cruelties inherent in animal agriculture; and an increasing number of studies point to the benefits of eating lower on the food chain in a world with limited resources and a fragile climate. And yet, the vast majority continue their meat eating ways.

    Sometimes it does seem like all that is needed is more information – if people could just be exposed and open to considering the interlocking spiritual, ethical, environmental and nutritional pieces, how could they Not become vegan? And yet, a relative few do. The more I’ve thought on this, the more it occurs to me that the whole concept of speciesism is very much at work here. By way of illustration, one of my daughters is participating in a semester at sea program, sailing hundreds of miles through the Pacific, visiting a number of island nations, studying other cultures, examining issues of sustainability and other high minded topics. And yet little thought seems to be given to the paradox of examining sustainability, looking in awe at a pod of whales or school of dolphins, and being thrilled to haul in mahi mahi for the humans’ gourmet fish tacos. Leave the fish for the porpoises or whales, or just for their own life? Not so much.
    And it seems like the overarching answer to why comes back to speciesism. The trumpeted principle of sustainability really isn’t all that high minded when you get right down to it. A part of it is about saving eco-systems and healing the planet, but an equally large part seems to be wanting to sustain the humans’ desire for and supposed right to pursue adventure and pleasure along with tasty ‘food.’ Help preserve ecosystems and heal the planet by just saying no to eating fish (or meat/cheese)? Sadly, it doesn’t even seem to be on the radar. Hop on a boat loaded with cutting edge scientific equipment, gaze in wonder at beautiful sunsets and amazing scenery, and keep exerting the humans’ god given right to exert dominance over nature, as opposed to pursuing a compassionate stewardship or truly responsible kind of dominion. And even though he can be as abrasive as he is inspirational, I can’t help but think of a line in a Gary Yourofsky talk (and articulated by countless others) that the removal of humans from the planet would benefit other species tremendously, while the removal of lots of other individual species would spell ecological catastrophe. It’s not to say that humans Should be removed, but the observation does beg the question of how we approach the natural world, and what our rights are in terms of such questions as resource extraction and animal exploitation. And as long as we think that our intellectual and technological prowess puts us at the pinnacle of life itself, we will likely allow our calloused hearts to continue sowing problems.

    1. Yes, exactly. The process of the whole human population of the planet going vegan seems to be a collective psychoanalysis experience. We need to acquire a collective insight about a blocked or repressed emotion (our own repressed compassion for animals). Psychologically, we need to deny what we are doing to animals because that would negate our self-image, as nice people surrounded by “barbarians.” Actually, the nastiness in the world is mostly our own (human collective) doing.

      If slaughterhouses had glass walls, it would not lead to instant collective enlightenment for everyone, but it would increase the numbers of people who do have the insight. This creates a positive feedback loop, as a greater number of people with the insight means we will reach others still in the darkness, which leads to an even greater number of people with insight, and so forth. It could snowball rapidly, especially if the sense of social disorder (which our own human collective violence is mostly responsible for) starts to break down our self-deceptive self image.

  5. I have been carnivorous all of my life. This video and my two dogs which I bought 2 years ago have changed me. I am now two weeks in and am extremely surprised how enjoyable and healthy I feel not eating animals. They are intelligent, do have feelings and I can no longer be part of this genocide. I am kind of feeling as though I have been set free. My main concern now is avoiding those foods with hidden animal products.

    Thank you very much – you have changed me for the better.

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