I don’t hate the word “emotional” but I’m careful how I use it. The reason is because it’s a word usually associated with weakness, hysteria, and is often assigned to females, implying some out-of-control aspect of their response to a situation. What I’ve also noticed is that the word is sometimes used interchangeably to describe an overreaction even though having an emotional response and overreacting are not the same things. Related, yes, but not the same things. When people learn to restrain or control their emotions, it’s not that they’ve learned not to feel anything but rather they’ve learned to control how they display their responses to particular feelings. This can be a good thing if you’re hot-tempered (like I am) but unhealthy if it means suppressing something that is fundamentally wrong, such as people who work in slaughterhouses and have to basically die a little themselves in order to carry out a very traumatic job day after day. I suppose what I’m saying is that the term “emotional” is one I would use more were it not for some of the stereotypes that accompany it, including how it relates to one’s reaction to animal suffering.
One of the most feeble arguments and excuses used to dismiss or belittle the discussion around farmed animals and their treatment in agriculture today is that the topic of animal rights is considered an “emotional” one, suggesting that because it involves any degree of empathy, compassion, kindness or mercy, then it should be regarded as an issue we shouldn’t take too seriously or spend too much of our valuable human time on. I actually find this to be a fairly common response to matters involving any animals: Yesterday in the news there was a story about a kitten in Vancouver who received prosthetic legs after being rescued from neglect last year and found with both of his rear legs missing. Some of the responses to the story were eye-rollingly predictable: Do we really have the resources to justify this? How about working on some real world problems? And my personal favourite: “All this for a stray cat? That’s a waste of talent that could be used on a child.” As if providing one kitten with a pair of artificial legs automatically precludes a child with missing legs from getting any. I don’t know where we get this idea that because you help an animal, somehow human problems are suddenly being neglected. God forbid one animal’s need dare to threaten or upset our mighty position of importance on the food chain.
Is animal rights an emotional topic? You’re goddamn right it is (see what I did there?) and it takes practice, discipline and emotional maturity to talk about it in a way that will not get overtly personal, petty or destructive. And that goes for whichever position you may hold: animal rights activists regularly get attacked for being too emotional about the issues by people who are reacting with as much emotion that they’re accusing the activists of having! Their feelings on the subjects may be different, but their responses often come from the same level of emotional intensity.
But what I really wanted to address was the emotional response we get from seeing animal cruelty or witnessing animal suffering. The response from most people will either be repugnance, e.g., oh my god, I can’t look or empathy, e.g., oh my god, that is so sad. From the first time I saw undercover footage of animal treatment on a factory farm to the most recent viewing, my emotional reaction was the same: a mixed cocktail of horror, shame, compassion, sadness, anger and indignation. In fact, the reason I still watch undercover videos is to keep those emotions alive on a reactionary level. Head knowledge is great and I’m always reading something on animal rights but because I don’t “see” animal suffering except for the end result in the grocery store, I personally need the visuals once and awhile to help keep their suffering real on an emotional level. Because, I believe, it is the emotional that is key to changing people’s attitude toward animal suffering and what will truly open our eyes to it, especially the animals we’re eating. It’s what keeps me fired up anyway. In fact, for many children, it’s the emotional response they have to animals that connects the dots for them early on, when they make those associations from the whole animals they’ve seen to the ones on their plate, and suddenly the parents find themselves having to rationalize why it’s okay to eat a cow but not the family dog.
Tragically for the animals, emotional responses are not often considered to be logical, reasonable or reliable enough to warrant any consideration to their needs, wants or obvious suffering. As if seeing a bolt gun placed on a pig’s head and the trigger being pulled as they resist and squeal and shriek and foam at the mouth and struggle to break free needs more “science” or hard evidence that they are actually feeling pain and terror. As if seeing a chicken who is fully conscious hung upside down in shackles and run through water that’s been electrified before their throat is slashed shouldn’t give us too much pause simply because what we’re witnessing is daring to make us feel something other than detached indifference.
Emotional responses are key to our experiences as humans. They alert us to when things are wrong and provide us with the capacity for empathy. It is because we feel that we can then imagine how others might in the same situation or how we might feel in theirs. There is no reason that this capacity to experience emotions shouldn’t extend to animals or should only be used to identify with human suffering.
When it comes to animal suffering, there is nothing wrong with an emotional response. When we take the time to watch or read about the barbaric cruelty in which animals live and die every second of every day, we allow the truth of their situation to be revealed. When we see their blood, hear their screams and watch them die, our emotions can provide us with all the raw data we need to tell us what is really going on and why it needs to stop.