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Gregory Fried

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Braai Day se ma se p**s !

Can rocks be wronged? One reason to say no is that rocks don’t have feelings. If you break a rock, you cause no suffering to it. You might be doing wrong to others – like anyone who might use or enjoy it – but not to the rock.

 

The situation seems different for conscious beings. Whatever has feelings – in particular, whatever can suffer – can surely be wronged. And we are doing wrong when we cause suffering that is extensive, avoidable, and undeserved.

 

If you agree, then please consider the fact that every year, tens of billions of chickens, pigs and other animals are killed on factory farms. During their lives, they may be separated from their mothers after birth, be crammed into living spaces so small they cannot turn around, experience only aggression from their frantic fellow animals, and endure other circumstances that many people find distressing even to read about. And here I have a dilemma: my subject requires that I mention some of these conditions, but I dearly do not want to put you off from reading this. So I have put more details in a separate paragraph that I have placed after the conclusion of this piece. I hope you decide to page down and read it, but if you choose not to, I hope you go on reading anyway.

 

The animals in factory farms can suffer. Their behaviour, anatomy and physiology are all evidence of that. It appears they can experience a range of negative feelings, such as anxiety and fear, and they can clearly feel pain. So they can be wronged. Are they in fact being wronged? The suffering inflicted on them is certainly undeserved. It is avoidable: there is nothing necessary about factory farming practices. And it is unimaginably extensive, in its nature and quantity; no respite, from birth to death, for many thousands of millions of animals every year. So we are not merely doing some wrong to animals. This is a vast wrong, and it goes on and on.

 

I find this hard to face, because it is so horrible. I suspect that factory farming maintains itself partly by committing wrongs so great that we turn away. We care for our dogs, and ignore their fellow mammals in factory farms. We read books about happy farm animals to our children, and we drive past the long, windowless buildings off the highway. We take the kids to a petting zoo, making sure that the children handle the lambs and chicks gently, but the billions of their fellow creatures in factory farms get none of our attention. We are touched to learn that mother pigs sing to their young while nursing, or that hens cluck softly to their chicks before they are born, and that they chirp back to her and to each other from inside their shells.  And when we enjoy the cooked body parts of animals on our plates, we prefer not to think of the cost, in pain, of our meat.

 

In a world that receives much of its produce from such tremendous suffering, there are many occasions for grotesquely inappropriate displays of sentiment. Take National Braai Day. Desmond Tutu is the patron of the organisation Braai4Heritage, which urges us all to have a braai on Heritage Day. At a press function in 2008, Tutu said, ‘It’s a fantastic thing, a very simple idea. Irrespective of your politics, of your culture, of your race, of your whatever, hierdie ding doen ons saam…Here is one thing that can unite us irrespective of all of the things that are trying to tear us apart.’ Asked what vegetarians should do on National Braai Day, Tutu said, ‘They can stand and watch’.

 

Much of the meat that will be consumed on National Braai Day will come from factory farms, but any talk of the suffering en route to the braai seems to be off the table. We are to listen to Jan Braai’s views on lamb – ‘The lamb loin chop is a member of the braai royal family’, as he remarks in his latest book – but to point out that lambs identify their mother by her bleat, while sheep can perform sophisticated cognitive tasks, is to be a spoilsport. Are we not true South Africans, then, if we won’t have the lamb chop and pork wors? On the contrary: anyone who believes that consuming factory farmed meat together is a source of pride has very low standards. And since I am as South African as you are, let me sum up my point in a sincerely South African way: Braai Day se ma se p**s!

 

Here’s a different suggestion. If we want to be proud of our country and ourselves, one way to do it is to show some care for our fellow creatures, and reject factory farming. Many of us already display concern for some animals – if they’re our pets, for instance, or fellow primates, or very large, or scarce, or beautiful. But animals can be wronged even if they are none of these things. Two months after his speech in favour of Braai Day, Desmond Tutu spoke in support of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s campaign to stop the killing of whales. He said: ‘Are we surprised that we have lost a sense of the worth of human life, when we kill so carelessly?…This [campaign against the killing of whales] warns us that we are slowly ourselves committing a kind of suicide. If it is not a physical suicide, it is a moral and ethical suicide. For our own sakes we need to recover our humaneness, and our humanity. It is time to say no, no, no! to the killing of whales.’ Whales differ in many ways from chickens, cattle, pigs and other factory farmed animals. But these creatures all have in common the capacity to suffer. To regard our killing of some animals as moral suicide while treating the pain we inflict on others as being of no moral concern is a mistake.

 

Attention to human interests adds to the wrongs of factory farming. For example, factory farming is hugely wasteful of environmental resources, can pass on disease and undesirable chemicals to meat-eaters, and pollutes the atmosphere. There is much more to say, but this piece has focused only on the wrongs done to the animals themselves.

 

Note that I have argued against factory farming without taking a position on many questions in animal ethics. Do animals have rights? How much consideration should be given to their interests, in comparison to human interests? May humans ever raise animals in order to eat them or experiment on them? Is it acceptable to kill animals if one does not cause them to suffer during their lives? I have also said little about the many abilities of animals, emotional and cognitive, beyond their capacity to suffer. There is plenty of writing on all these topics. Much of it reveals that our everyday attention to the treatment of animals is completely inadequate. But in this piece, for the sake of focus, I have not dwelt on these questions. Here I want only to argue that if any creature that can suffer can also be wronged, then we ought to reject factory farming.

 

I hope that future generations will be appalled by our treatment of animals in factory farms. I hope that they regard those of us who turn a blind eye exactly as we deserve. But even now – to return to Desmond Tutu’s jocular suggestion for vegetarians – people who decide to pay moral attention to the way we treat animals will indeed stand, as we braai, and watch. They will watch us, and they will judge.

 

 

 

Below is the part that may be difficult to read. Seeing pictures or watching footage is worse.

 

Many factory farm animals experience conditions including mutilation of body parts (beaks, tails, teeth) without anaesthetic, breaking of bones due to inactivity and overcrowding and aggression from other distressed animals, imbibing of anaesthetics to keep them alive for enough time, protracted periods without food or water on the way to the abattoir, beatings from abattoir workers to keep them moving, and finally a slit throat, or – if they have been missed out on the killing line, or are still alive after being wounded – being dropped into vats of scalding water while conscious.

 

 
 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    September 22nd, 2013 @15:33 #
     
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    Thanks for this piece, Greg. People need to think about these things. And how scary to think that this is the one piece of heritage we supposedly share in this country: the common ability to treat animals poorly, and to put food in our mouths without a thought for where it comes from ...

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  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    September 22nd, 2013 @20:10 #
     
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    I lived in Hong Kong for almost a decade but it was my year in China that brought me face to face with what we usually try and ignore. I'll never forget the sight of four sturdy men dragging a pig to the corner of a courtyard to slit its throat while its friends were being murdered in another corner. These pigs sounded like women being murdered and tortured. And it took FOREVER.

    Also not much fun seeing dog carcasses all over the show. Not that Asia is necessarily worse or unique in these practices, it's just that it feels infinitely more hidden in the West. J M Coetzee writes so beautifully about this, comparing the way we turn away from abattoirs to the way people turned away from the Holocaust. What intrigues me is how many cities are designed to keep these practices well hidden and out of sight.

    I do wish that high school students could be taken on regular outings to abattoirs. If they can be taken to mortuaries and sewage farms (which is the case with Gr 11 St Cyprian's students) why not abattoirs?

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 23rd, 2013 @06:08 #
     
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    Thanks for the comments, Maya and Anne. I completely agree with you both.

    Anne, your pig story is haunting. And when one tries to multiply it - to think of the many billions of animals that endure lifetimes and deaths in factory farms under conditions horrible just to describe - the imagination fails, I think. It's like a horror movie - a hidden hell for billions of creatures - but it's real.

    And yes, outings to abattoirs and factory farms might well change opinions. I was once at a talk about animal ethics, and a member of the audience said something like, 'Suppose I say that I just don't care about the suffering of animals. What can you reply to that?' The speaker then showed a few minutes of footage taken secretly at an abattoir, and asked the audience member if he still wanted to pursue the idea of not caring. He didn't. And that was just video footage, not direct experience.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    September 23rd, 2013 @08:23 #
     
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    Thanks for this Greg. We're changing our buying habits after reading this. FYI, there is a braai world record attempt taking place tomorrow. The idea makes my skin crawl.

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  • <a href="http://rachelzadok.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rachel Zadok</a>
    Rachel Zadok
    September 23rd, 2013 @10:08 #
     
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    Playing devil's advocate here, as you know I agree with you. What do you say to those who argue that factory farming is a necessary evil to feed the growing population? What about the poor, surely they can't afford to buy organic free range meat? Or fresh vegetables?

    As I said, I'm playing devil's advocate. I know you have well-researched reasoned arguments and I always find myself getting het up in conversations about the evils of factory farming when those who are for argue that without it, millions would starve. I want to file your comments away for future use.

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 23rd, 2013 @10:53 #
     
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    Rachel, factory farming is vastly wasteful of resources that could be used to feed people directly. Far more of us can be sustained by the amount of food grown on a plot of land than by the number of factory farmed livestock that can be raised on that food.

    Also, factory farmed meat may sometimes appear to be cheap, but that is because some of the costs are passed on as damage to the environment, for instance as increased greenhouse gases. Ultimately, we all have to pay.

    I am certainly no expert on these matters - my concern here was to argue that factory farming does wrong to animals - but there is plenty of material from highly reputable sources on the costs to humans. Here's the New York Times, for example:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 23rd, 2013 @11:06 #
     
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    Sally, thanks for the feedback. I hope that some people might hesitate to celebrate Braai Day with factory farmed lamb and chicken breasts, but I think many won't, even if they feel uneasy.

    For one thing, it's a very uncomfortable topic. The position advocated here - which is not new, but has been presented by many, many other people who have written on this issue - asks us to admit a gulf between our behaviour and our views on what is right. The ultimate foe, so to speak, is not the factory farming corporations. These institutions require our consent, even if it is merely silent. The foe is ourselves - and who wants to admit that?

    On the other hand, if individuals are ultimately responsible for the the way animals are being treated, this also means that individuals ultimately have the power to bring about major changes.

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  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    September 23rd, 2013 @21:35 #
     
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    Hey Greg. Jonathan Safran Foer writes very compellingly on the topic – you've probably read his book "Eating Animals". It should be compulsory reading at school. The young are so much easier to reprogramme ...

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 24th, 2013 @09:37 #
     
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    I still need to read that, Maya. I've heard that it's excellent. Foer is still active in this area - he has been offering live e-sessions with audiences on the topic.

    The book I've most recently read on animal ethics was excellent - succinct, compelling and highly accessible. It's Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction by David DeGrazia (Oxford University Press, 2002). I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a brief introductory work on this.

    By the way, while my article has found a positive and courteous response on Bookslive, its reception was very different on Health24. Helath24 asked to abridge the article and post it, which they did, and it attracted a rambunctious set of comments! If you're interested, it's at http://www.health24.com/Lifestyle/Environmental-health/Animals/Braai-Day-se-ma-se-ps-20130923

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  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    September 24th, 2013 @12:01 #
     
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    I bought 'Eating Animals' over a year ago but resisted reading it. So it's now lying on my bedside table and I'll start reading it tonight!

    In the meantime I picked up a copy of 'Boyhood' by JM Coetzee at the library yesterday - I read it years ago - and lo and behold on the very first page, he writes:

    'At the bottom of the yard they put up a poultry-run and install three hens, which are supposed to lay eggs for them. But the hens do not flourish. Rainwater, unable to seep away in the clay, stands in pools in the yard. The poultry-run turns into an evil-smelling morass. The hens develop gross swellings on their legs, like elephant-skin. Sickly and cross, they cease to lay. His mother consults her sister in Stellenbosch, who says they will return to laying only after the horny shells under their tongues have been cut out. So one after another his mother takes the hens between her knees, presses on their jowls till they open their beaks, and with the point of a paring-knife picks at their tongues. The hens shriek and struggle, their eyes bulging. He shudders and turns away. He thinks of his mother slapping stewing-steak down on the kitchen counter and cutting it into cubes; he thinks of her bloody fingers.'

    I love the way he weaves animals into his writing ('Disgrace' is a prime example) and somehow he catches me off-guard because I'm not expecting an 'animals rights' book....

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 25th, 2013 @07:53 #
     
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    Anne: Wow. I'd forgotten that too.

    It's interesting to think of novels which feature animals on their very first page (whether or not their welfare is under consideration or regarded as salient).

    Here's the opening of Lorrie Moore's novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?:

    'In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood, he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by light; they've grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy nights. Me, I'm eating for a flashback.'

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  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    September 25th, 2013 @11:55 #
     
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    I've eaten brains! They taste like marrow of a bone, sweet, with crunchy bits in - unforgettable and unlike anything else I've eaten... From an ecological, financial and nutritional point of view, I'm all for eating the whole animal, if it's going to be eaten at all, then there's no waste.

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 25th, 2013 @12:32 #
     
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    Interesting about the taste, and (I think) a highly memorable passage too.

    I should mention that I think there are excellent reasons, apart from suffering, not to eat animals at all. For one thing, it amounts to taking their lives - everything they have - for our meal. But I'd need to say much more to argue that eating meat is never justified, and this article is far more focused: it deals only with factory farming, which covers a great deal of meat production and seems to me very clearly a moral evil. I was interested to see that most of the commentators on Health24.com feel very differently, though. The sense that anyone who challenges their habits of food consumption is intruding on a private choice is strong. (Whereas I think that a choice which supports a bad institution is apt for criticism.)

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  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    September 25th, 2013 @13:29 #
     
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    Greg, I was a vegetarian for a long time but I ditched it in Asia as it was just too complicated. I now rarely eat meat although I have to confess to visiting McDonalds about once a month for a cheeseburger, sweet and sour sauce, fries and a coffee. I'm high for HOURS after - all that SUGAR and COLOURING and MSG - from what I can gather the 'meat' used in their burgers arrives in frozen liquid form.... I'm addicted to the rush and I don't con myself that I've had a 'meal'.

    I looked at the Health24 link and I wonder whether it's ever useful debating in that way as it seems to polarize the debate even more. When people are ready to drop denial and to embrace reality, my experience is that they usually find their way and that when people feel they're being 'preached to' it just puts their backs up.

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 25th, 2013 @14:46 #
     
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    I think the question of how social change occurs is really interesting and important. How do people 'find their way', as you say?

    I do think dialogue is one route. Some people, even those who choose not to comment openly, may question what might have gone unchallenged for them before. As for preachiness, I agree that it's helpful to be conscious of one's tone, while still arguing for a clear view - in this case, that factory farming greatly wrongs animals. Some people will regard that claim alone, no matter how it is expressed, as undesirably preachy; but that kind of objection shouldn't be off-putting.

    Of course, Jan Braai and Desmond Tutu advocate the patriotic virtues of Braai Day without perceptible concerns about a preachy manner.

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  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    September 25th, 2013 @15:22 #
     
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    Dialogue and articles like yours are very helpful, I agree. I'm just wary of online debates with the kind of punters that chose to comment on health24 but yes, I guess there are all those 'silent' readers that may benefit.

    Finding one's way? I think of the vegetarians I've met over the years. The chain-smoking vegan I dated in CPT in the early 90's who was sanctimonious, preachy and draining. The Canadian neighbour I had on Lamma Island who used to vent on about the cruelty of murdering animals as she sat next to me on the ferry every morning. Exhausting! And then one of my closest friends in HGK who only revealed about a year into our friendship that she didn't eat meat - OK, she did have BBQ's and guests often brought meat - so that threw me off (btw 'braais' and 'ubuntu' are not unique to SA - they're universal!) but I was stunned to realize one day that she was a discreet vegetarian. And then I was intrigued and asked her many questions.

    There are lots of books and video footage about the topic and again, I'm delighted at how many of the teenagers I work with are genuinely interested to find out more - it does help if it comes from them though - and poetry and creative writing and extracts from short stories that broach the topic discreetly are often useful ploys!

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 25th, 2013 @19:50 #
     
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    Sanctimonious, preachy and draining? But that was me! Oh, wait, I wasn't a chain smoker.

    Some of those characters you mention sound like no fun. In their potential defence, though (and I don't know them, of course), the sense that an endless multitude of creatures are locked away, more all the time, their suffering largely unknown or ignored or even regarded as a joke, can create a suffocating feeling of horror.

    It sounds like you're doing great work with your teenagers.

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  • Anne Townsend
    Anne Townsend
    September 25th, 2013 @20:11 #
     
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    Look, I may not speak to some of my exes but I do tend to remember their names.

    No, that wasn't a dig at you. Not sanctimonious at all.

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  • <a href="http://gregoryfried.bookslive.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Greg</a>
    Greg
    September 26th, 2013 @03:52 #
     
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    I know - I was just kidding.

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  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    September 26th, 2013 @22:31 #
     
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    I think it's great that your post went up on Health24, Greg. You would have known beforehand that the reaction would be unkind – and places where the reaction will be hostile, well, that's exactly where a piece like this needs to be. Sometimes, when faced with an idea that is new, foreign, radical to them, people will react with vehemence. Out of pure shock. But ... the seed of a new idea, something they could never have imagined for themselves, has been planted. And people can only get somewhere once they've imagined it, you know? Imagination comes before change.

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