Recently I’ve been following a very interesting documentary series by the BBC on Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp and factory killing plant. The Nazis were responsible for the deaths of millions and millions of people, not only Jews but also political opponents, Slavs, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, and so on. (As I noted in a recent column, prejudice toward one group frequently coincides with prejudices toward an array of outgroups, a phenomenon known as generalized prejudice).
Make no mistake, it is very difficult to watch such documentaries. Although I am a prejudice researcher, I am continuously amazed by the overt hostility exerted toward others, and by the “ingenuity” of the perpetrators in their efforts to develop increasingly “efficient” means to carry out their crimes. The fact that I continue to be shocked by this history brings us to the point of the present column: our brains are very adept at pushing such negativity to the back of our brains, and moreover, at encouraging us not to turn our attention to it in the first place. Such negative treatment of others is unsavoury, offensive, and unpalatable. It is no mistake that disgust-relevant words so aptly describe our moral reactions to these atrocities.
But turn to such atrocities we must. Over and over and over again -- keeping such images fresh in our minds. The associated questions must also be kept fresh, not only “why” did the Holocaust happen, but the equally disturbing question why did so many people do nothing to stop it? Well, we need not look only to the past for answers. Such killing factories exist, all over the world, likely within 50 miles of your house, tightly enmeshed into our economies.
I’m referring, of course, to our highly industrialized animal husbandry and slaughtering facilities. In the US alone, around 10 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption per year, and this number excludes fish or sea animals (Joy, 2010). We obviously don’t like to think about exploiting animals, and our minds and social cultures naturally play several clever tricks for us (e.g., referring to pigs as pork, cows as beef, and sheep as lamb or mutton). It is no coincidence that meat is carefully packaged in stores to remove, as much as possible, reminders that these were living, sentient creatures, and that we dine on their muscle and other body parts. It is, at some level, highly aversive to us to treat other creatures this way, so we do our best to look the other way.
Yet these animals are subjected to truly horrendous conditions, including (but not limited to) having their offspring taken from them, being packed in tight and unnatural conditions, being drugged, having teeth/horns/claws/beaks removed without anesthetic, often raised without access to daylight or fresh air, barely able to stretch or move, having throats slit and being left to die. This list goes on and on, and I encourage you to do your own research into this topic. My point is that we routinely turn our attention away from our horrendous exploitation of animals because, at some level, our moral gauges remind us that we know better. And we do. Humans are capable of tremendous empathy. But we are also able to turn off our empathy to circumvent the negative feelings and guilt that arises when we recognize the true extent of our human natures. We especially turn it off when we ourselves contribute to the problem (e.g., animal exploitation; climate change).
The true horror of the Holocaust does not concern its historical rarity, but rather how it speaks to a very dark part of our collective psychology. This point was made poignantly in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“The horror! The horror!”). Our minds work overtime to suppress and keep our flaws and negative natures out of consciousness. Our good nature does not like to think about our dark side; our modern lives make it increasingly easy for us to push reminders of our dark nature aside in the interest of pushing our self-interests and the economy forward.
Yet we are, in our core, empathic creatures. As famously noted by Paul McCartney, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian”.
Help yourself to tear down walls and put up your own windows. In an age of unprecedented access to information, it is no longer tenable to perpetuate horrors on the grounds that “I didn’t know”.
For more on this topic of the link between human-animal relations and human prejudices, see my past column.
References and Suggested Readings:
Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2010). Exploring the roots of dehumanization: The role of animal-human similarity in promoting immigrant humanization. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 13, 3-22.
Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows: An introduction to carnism. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.