Back in January of this year, Julian and I went to see a screening of the documentary, Cowspiracy. The screening was held primarily to raise money for a group called, “The Slaughterhouse 7”, a group of activists who were arrested on November 6, 2014 after holding a protest at St. Helen’s Meat Packers here in Toronto where 600 cows are slaughtered every day. Six of the group had the charges dropped; one person’s is still pending.
I have tremendous respect for activists and I absolutely believe in and support the action of non-violent confrontation and civil disobedience because the status quo would never change if no one ever challenged it. I also admire anyone willing to be arrested for their beliefs, so long as their actions remain non-violent. That said, there was something they showed at the screening that night that made me think. I also didn’t agree with it and I’m still working out as to why but I hope to draw the beginning of some conclusion by the end of this post.
Prior to the screening, the organizers gave a brief outline of what happened on November 6, explaining how the activists sat peacefully outside, blocking loading dock entrances for over two hours and preventing delivery trucks full of live animals from entering the plant to be killed. They showed some pictures from that day and one was of an employee who worked at the plant and had come outside for a break. The worker wore a hard hat and a sleeveless one-piece jumpsuit, the kind you might see on a city hydro worker or a garbage collector. The employee, whose back was turned to the camera, was covered in blood. And I mean covered: his work clothes were covered, his hard-hat was splattered with it and his bare arms also had streaks of blood on them. It wasn’t quite Stephen King’s Carrie but it wasn’t far off.
It was a jarring photo and next time you tuck into a piece of store-bought meat, remember that it is only made possible because we as a society have made it someone’s job to slaughter live animals all day.
As the picture was held on the screen, one of the presenters pointed at it and identified the worker as “a murderer”. The point the person was trying to make is that the protesters were the ones who ended up being arrested and yet this person in the bloodied clothing was not, despite the obvious evidence of a recent and violent crime. It’s a valid point and I totally get it.
But would I call that employee a murderer? No.
Do I believe that killing animals is murder? Yes.
So wouldn’t that make that person a murderer? That’s what I’m trying to work through.
We as a society currently limit the term “murder” to that of a human taking another human life. Even in the worst animal cruelty cases, I’ve never read or heard the person who killed animals referred to as a “murderer”. A killer, yes, but not a murderer, even though those are essentially the same things. That night at the screening made me want to try to understand the actual meaning of both words and to explore how our society uses them both interchangeably and yet separates them as well.
My first reaction that night upon hearing the worker referred to as a murderer was that the phrase was too explicit. I felt it was misleading and potentially damaging; it was too black and white, too cut and dry, and I thought it could possibly polarize people to the animal rights movement.
For starters, the employee in the picture was a visible minority which is not a surprise nor an uncommon practice for workers in slaughterhouses. Canada relies on (or rather, exploits) immigrant and minority labour regularly to staff the work that no one in their right mind would want to do (“I want to work on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse when I grow up,” said no child ever). As I’ve stated before, people who work at slaughterhouses are not the problem; they are only one part of a broken, corrupt and capitalist system and are trying to provide for themselves and their families just like the rest of us. I refuse to make front-line workers the villains.
Secondly, if that worker is a murderer, than I am too. I worked in the restaurant industry for years where I shucked thousands of live oysters, boiled dozens of live lobsters, and even had to cut one in half one day while they were still alive at the orders of a Head Chef who was barking orders at the kitchen staff during a particularly busy dinner rush. It was long before I was a vegan but I remember it vividly. I remember hesitating for several seconds as I held the lobster in my hands and wondered what in the hell I was doing before plunging a 10-inch knife into the main body of the lobster, just above their head. The lobster’s tail and claws thrashed and curled repeatedly on the cutting board and I never forgot that. Seconds later, that lobster’s body was placed on a hot grill and ultimately served beside a 6oz piece of cow’s flesh for a meal that the customer has no doubt long forgotten. Vegan or not, I have a hard time forgiving myself for that one. I view that time now with tremendous regret. Had that been a puppy, my actions would be considered cruelty towards animals and I would be arrested and charged. But because it was a lobster on a menu, no one cared. But it was unimaginably cruel. And it most certainly was unnecessary. That lobster was alive and I witnessed firsthand how clearly they struggled to live.
This is where our view and treatment of animals is so inconsistent and contradictory but also where activists must be careful of the broad brush strokes. Did I kill the lobster? Yes. Do I consider my actions to be murder? Yes. Do I consider myself to be a murderer? I don’t know. I do believe that I actively and willfully participated in a murderous system during those years as a cook along with my 39 years as a meat and dairy eater. It’s a system I now reject but one I cannot erase or pretend that I was never a part of. Yet to call people murderers is, while not inaccurate, not entirely correct either. I’m just not sure it’s an approach I would personally take when addressing animal rights.
Of course it has occurred to me that what if I’m just rationalizing not only my actions but the actions of others? Am I simply spinning the truth of the situation into something it’s not to absolve myself? We do it with war all the time: we don’t call soldiers murderers as long as they kill within the context of war. Yet we call people who have been convicted of war crimes murderers. Is the line drawn and then crossed when intent comes into play? While every cow, chicken and pig that arrives at a slaughterhouse is certainly brought there with the intent to kill, because a worker is following orders and is within the context of a slaughterhouse, can they really be called murderers? Or are they killers? Or are they people following orders and doing a job? Perhaps they’re a little bit of everything.
Maybe that’s what I didn’t like about the worker covered in blood being called a murderer: the term implied that they were single-handedly responsible for the deaths of these animals and it placed the culpability entirely on their shoulders. Yes, they are willing participants in that they show up to the job everyday. But the company dictates the terms and requirements of the job and that job is to kill animals. We as consumers dictate the demand for dead flesh which is why there’s a company in the first place. We are all culpable in the end. We have all played a role in how animals live and die for food today.
All this said, I do believe that the definition of murder should absolutely be extended to include animals when their lives are taken. But in the meantime, I hesitate to call slaughterhouse workers murderers. I know what the activists meant when they said it but it’s not in the way most people would take it to mean and painting people with such a broad stroke marginalizes them further.
Bottom line is, until people see animals as living beings deserving of life, they will not see killing them as murder. And this why millions of them continue to die at our hands every single year.