By Karen Davis, PhD,
President, United Poultry Concerns
“Share the fact that you are an animal lover.”
– Advice to farmers depopulating their animals.
There’s love and there’s “love.” There’s humane and “humane.” There’s euthanasia and “euthanasia.” There’s euphemism.
According to Merriam-Webster, “Euphemism derives from the Greek word euphēmos, which means ‘auspicious’ or ‘sounding good.’ The first part of ‘euphēmos’ is the Greek prefix eu-, meaning ‘well.’ The second part is ‘phēmē,’ a Greek word for ‘speech’ that is itself a derivative of the verb phanai, meaning ‘to speak.’ Among the numerous linguistic cousins of ‘euphemism’ on the ‘eu-’ side of the family are ‘eulogy,’ ‘euphoria,’ and ‘euthanasia’; on the ‘phanai’ side, its kin include ‘prophet’ and ‘aphasia’ (‘loss of the power to understand words’).”
Speaking of farmed animals, euphemism is the cover-up equivalent of the mass burials of these animals in the ground or the stomach – their “euthanasia.” Call it collusion, conspiracy, complacency or corruption, a pact between agribusiness and the major news media guarantees that the animals will not truly be seen, heard or empathized with. A stock photo or video clip of a piglet “nursery,” a “meatpacking” plant or a “poultry processing” plant does not enlighten a public content to let industry and the media interpret the meaning of these images. See, for example, Meat Plant Closures Mean Pigs Are Gassed or Shot Instead and Millions of Pigs Will Be Euthanized As Pandemic Cripples Meatpacking Plants.
Though current society seems to have forgotten that the word “euthanasia” means, literally, a good death, or to die well – exemplifying a “loss of the power to understand words” – there’s a kind of implicit social agreement that this term can magically relieve us of culpability for inflicting horrible death and atrocity on innocent nonhuman creatures.
Yet there is awareness of the real meaning of euthanasia, as is evident in the fact that we do not call mass-killing, live burial, suffocation, throat-cutting, gassing, paralytic electric shock and the like “euthanasia” in the case of ourselves. Speciesism is not a mere abstract concept. It’s the wellspring of our attitude toward nonhuman animals. It determines the fate we subject them to and our language of justification.
I’ll wager that once the coronavirus news cycle has passed, the sympathetic attention being paid by the media to the plight of “meatpackers” will dissipate. For the animals, nothing will change, since the major media have shown them no mercy, compassion or acknowledgement to begin with. The occasional op-ed or letter to the editor expressing sorrow for our animal victims is overwhelmed by the standardized coverage. An example of the rare exception is Our Cruel Treatment of Animals Led to the Coronavirus.
An article in the Progressive Farmer, Hard Decisions: How Consumers View Mass Depopulation, in which I’m cited, draws attention away from the euphemistic use of the word “euthanasia” as a synonym for the mass-extermination of “livestock,” focusing instead on how to manage the negative publicity of “mass depopulation.” An industry representative is quoted: “producers should expect to see visuals hitting the news and social media that will be shocking.”
Actually, this prediction is what has not happened. Farmers needn’t worry that the major news media will blow their cover. Or that “visuals,” if shown, would shock a public worried about having enough “meat” on the table – a worry amped up by the media. As for social media, these outlets seem mainly to attract those who already care strongly one way or the other.
So what’s a farmer to do? Advises the industry representative: “It’s okay to share that this is an incredible crisis for you and your family just like it is for families all around the world. Share the fact that you are an animal lover and have dedicated your life to spending more time with animals than humans. Remind people you are just one person in a community of farmers all dealing with this heartbreaking reality.”
But what, for the farmer, is the “crisis,” the “heartbreaking reality”? It can’t be what the animals are being put through, since for them a terrible death and its attendant pain and terror await regardless. More to the point, the “crisis” is the loss of income, the “waste” and disposal of animals whose purpose, from the farming perspective, is to become a marketable product.
Back in the days when I attended farm animal “welfare” conferences, I used to wonder, listening to the speakers and watching their slides, “Do they honestly, personally believe that the filthy, cobwebby, manure-filled buildings, cages and related contrivances of cruelty to chickens constitute welfare?” To what extent, I wondered, did self-deception figure in the professional deception that relies on euphemisms, including that the captive birds are “happy,” “content,” and “singing,” and that farmers “care” about their animals above the bottom line.
Currently, some animal advocates seek to turn agribusiness adversaries into allies in an effort to change the chicken industry from maniacally cruel to marginally kinder. The ultimate goal of this undertaking is to reverse the business of transforming plants into “chicken” by transforming “chicken,” so to speak, into plants. Real chickens in this remake no longer figure in the plant-based version of themselves or in the cellular meat version either.
This reminds me a little, inversely, of how in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, people seek to transform the goddesses of vengeance and retribution, known as the Erinyes or Furies, by giving them the euphemistic name Eumenides, meaning “the Kindly Ones.” A thing to remember about the Furies, though, is that they personify guilt and the pursuit of justice in the wake of murder and other crimes, so transforming them into “the Kindly Ones” amounts to a euphemistic subterfuge to avoid moral reckoning.
The carefully constructed obliteration of our animal victims from the coronavirus coverage shows how casually we turn our Furies into “Kindly Ones” where other species are concerned. In this instance, “the Kindly Ones” function as a disabled conscience. With our words of commission and omission we muzzle our guilt – the condition of guilt we refuse to feel. The animals are being euthanized – put to sleep – so we can rest easy and return to normal.