Monday, April 9, 2012

Coetzee : The Lives of Animals

"There are people who have the capacity to imagine themselves as someone else, there are people who have no such capacity (when the lack is extreme, we call them psychopaths), and there are people who have the capacity but choose not to exercise it" (133). 

Almost every topic we have discussed in this course has brought up the issue of responsibility and action. Sontag's analysis of photographs focused on the role of the photographer, the subject, and the viewer with regards to their participation in the picture taking/viewing process. The  act of torture raised questions about the responsibility of the torturer, the system which produced such viscous behavior, and of those aware that such instances are a common occurrence in today's military operations. And our final section is no different, introducing the responsibilities that are often neglected pertaining to issues of animal cruelty and the culture of slaughtering animals in todays society. 

Elizabeth Costello begins her lecture by comparing the concentration camps of the Third Reich to the treatment of animals in what she calls "production facilities". Costello claims that we lack the mental capacity to understand a mind other than our own, which explains how facilities of slaughter for human beings and for animals have existed throughout history. People living in areas surrounding concentration camps claimed to either have no knowledge of the cruelty around them, or explained that while they had ideas of what was taking place in these facilities, they did not jump to conclusions in order to protect themselves. According to Costello, "Only those in the camps were innocent", and all others were charged with the crime of treating human beings like animals. She ends her introduction by comparing the justification of killing animals for food with the killing of human beings for the production of soap and mattress stuffing. 

After reading the introduction leading up to Costello's main argument in the lecture I stopped to think about how I viewed the issue of killing animals for the production of food and other goods. I admit, I thought it was a bit overkill for her to compare the atrocities that took place in concentration camps to the actions that take place in slaughterhouses. Naturally I feel more empathetic for human beings, perhaps because I am one, or because I have grown up in a society that places me as superior to our animal friends. I have never challenged myself to understand what it means to be an animal, and have remained ignorant to my responsibilities up until now. I am troubled with the question of how I am to use this new knowledge. Many of the other topics in this course have brought up that same question for me, and Costello explains that our responsibility is to use this new knowledge, and to avoid being ignorant. Costello goes on to challenge the reader to "think their way" into the minds of others. As an author of fiction, Costello's books require her to create new characters with intricate detail. She explains that much like the way she thinks herself into the minds of these characters, we must think ourselves into the mind of animals. It is no longer acceptable to claim ignorance as a defense, because ignorance brings no punishment and no reaction, and without these results, the cycle will never be terminated. 

The last part of this lecture that I would like to touch on is a topic that I discussed in length in a course last semester, and that is the idea of possessing consciousness. In Religion and Disability Bio-Ethics we studied a man named Peter Singer who is famous for believing in assisted suicide and the right of the parents to cease life of their infant children if they do not possess the "will to survive". Singer claims that because young children are not conscious of their surroundings, they should not be considered human beings. In Costello's piece this same argument is brought up, comparing the idea that animals are not conscious of their surroundings, therefor it is acceptable to slaughter them. When the same argument is brought up about young children, everyone is quick to explain why the child should be saved and the animal should be killed. I think what Costello is trying to get at is the importance of treating both humans and animals on an equal playing field. She challenges us to analyze our own modes of thinking, and sets up a great introduction to our new section on the treatment of animals.



    This is a pretty interesting video on Singer's views towards animal rights, which I think lines up nicely with Costello's lecture. He touches on reasoning and the ability to suffer while comparing issues of abortion and animal rights.

  2. I share Natalie's concern about how I will use the knowledge I gained from both the Coetzee reading and what I will continue to read about animal cruelty in these next few weeks. Like Natalie, I've only rarely and half-heartedly thought about my moral and empathetic responsibilities to the animals I eat. I've never refused to eat a steak or chicken on moral grounds, but many of my close relatives are vegetarians. After talking to them, I learned that most of them made the decision after a combination of watching a PETA documentary, seeing grotesque photographs from slaughterhouses, and reading about animal suffering. Perhaps these documentaries and photgraphs are so effective because they depict the terrible suffering of animals at the hands of unfeeling and seemingly cruel humans. I've refused to watch these documentaries partly because I know how suceptible I could be to their messages. Costello makes a crucial point when she asks if we have something in common with animals whether it be-"reason, self-consciousness, a soul" (132). I think the majority of humans do sympathize with animals and while we would have trouble killing one with our own hands,it is easy for us to forget about and dismiss the horrible process of slaughterhouses. For me, the frightening part about reading about animal suffering and being affected by that knowledge is that "there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination," and while I've never been forced to really think about the animals I eat as having feelings and a soul, these next few weeks should make an impression on me. Costello makes us think about questions that we can very easily avoid in a global consumer society where we are separate from the animals we eat. She asks us to think about if we were the ones in the 'cattle-car' and if our families were captured, flayed, and sent to a Wegmans supermarket. The debate about eating meat is an impassioned and a philosophical one. We might argue that humans are omnivores and have the choice to eat meat, plants, or both. We could argue that animals eat each other and therefore it is natural for us to complete and take part in the food chain. As I was reading this piece, I thought about the movie Planet of the Apes and a world turned upside down where chimpanzees are our intellectual superiors and we are their prisoners. At any rate, Costello demonstrates that it is crucial for us to imagine what it would be like to be a captured animal.

  3. I agree with Natalie and John that this article presents us with a kind of knowledge that we don’t really know how to take but that is only because it is an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Nobody wants to really admit that they love meat and they want animals to die to fulfill their cravings. However, I do like meat, always have, and probably always will. I guess we will see how much this topic affects me. Regardless of the fact that I love meat I think this woman is crazy!! Maybe I am being completely insensitive but nobody has the right to compare the killing of animals to concentration camps. That was a time in history that still touches so many people around the world and to bring it up to compare your love for animals is wrong. I understand her argument and I know that she just wants her audience to understand the severity of animal slaughtering but to compare it to something like that is not appropriate. She says in her speech, “Pardon me, I repeat. That is the last cheap point I will be scoring. I know how talk of this kind polarizes people, and cheap point-scoring only makes it worse.” I do not think I was the right audience to read her speech because this “cheap talk” she expresses is what I have issues with her. If she wanted to send a message to me it needed to be in a more subtle form. I have many friends who are vegetarians and have strong opinions related to a slaughterhouse and animals and I always listen to their opinions. I would have to say my view towards animals have changed over the years. I wouldn’t say I am ready to be a vegetarian but I do second-guess meat choices sometimes.

    I reacted very poorly to Elizabeth Costello’s speech and she probably would call me out on only thinking with the human brain. That is not the case at all, I just did not like her approach. Listen I love animals and I do not want them to suffer or go through pain but am I a hypocrite by saying I also love meat?!? I have also never been to a slaughterhouse or exposed to animal suffering so I think if I would feel differently and have a little more sympathy for animals if I saw how much pain they endured. Actually I know I would and that brings us to Costello’s point about ignorance. Maybe I am ignorant and that is why I feel so strongly about Costellos strong opinions. I do think it is easier to continue to eat meat not knowing how it got into your kitchen but I do not want to be ignorant. I want to understand and be shown but not forced and I feel like Costellos approach to getting her point across is a little forceful and somewhat crazy. I am excited to continue to learn about this topic because I honestly am not all that informed and may have some ignorance to get rid of.