Earthlings traumatized the shit out of me–as was its intention. I have heard Earthlings referred to as ‘The Vegan-Maker’ and it’s true. I have never desired animal flesh so little. Congratulations, Earthlings. You are the most swiftly effective piece of propaganda with which I have ever been inculcated. And I’m thankful. Now if only I could get those swirling phantasmagoric nightmare images of euthanized kitties and ripped-open foxes out of my head…
The innumerably gruesome and presumably quotidian depictions of factory farms, puppy mills, animal shelters and inside-out cut-up fox carcasses freaked me out so much I wanted to write about it, and draw some parallels with gender, as well as discuss how we as a species scapegoat designated Others. Let’s go!
Here’s my makeshift bullet points to be touched upon in who knows what order:
- Parallels: idealism as objectification
- Displacement and evaded (wish-fulfillment) responsibility
- Flexibility and inconstancy of “human nature”
- The Enemy is Us
Torn out of its skin, a bloody carcass with boggled eyes is still alive and dazedly squirms. Unwanted cats are mercifully euthanized in their caretakers’ arms while less lucky household pets are gassed in a tightly packed shed. And then there’s the oceans of bloody dolphins who died trying to rescue each other alongside the children who are our symbolic surrogates strolling by, socialized to the normalization of suffering; it’s “human nature” to kill, it’s a “dog eat dog” world, women are for making babies, homosexuals are godless monster-demons….
Yeah. I read somewhere that we live in one of the few epochs in human history that hasn’t had close acquaintance with mass death. I find this movie so valuable because it brings us closer to what seems like an honest place in terms of the acknowledgement of death and acknowledgment of our own… death-dealing, our own complicity. After watching this movie, I have to consider my decision to sanction the slaughter of animals by eating meat since eating meat is a choice and no more “natural” than any other choice whose long history is mistaken for biology or “nature.” Having this choice is a HEAVY AND UNPLEASANT BURDEN which is why, if we know we have this kind of responsibility, we generally avoid it but the good part about having this choice is that with the freedom of information comes the opportunity for ethicality. Whatever one’s decision (and veganism is not The Answer, it’s just one answer of many) at least one now knows one’s choice is a choice based on facts and actuality, not shrouded mystery and euphemisms about “where meat comes from” and how animals are treated.
So! This movie depicts the constant violence that occurs out of consciousness, hidden behind anodyne food advertisements that depersonalize animals into food and not the tied up and tortured baby cows who suffer so we can eat veal. CRAP! I can’t believe I’m becoming that self-righteous person pontificating about the maltreatment of animals! I never thought it would happen to me! But here I am (the enemy is us)(and them)(and us)…
This is the most violent movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of Holocaust documentaries. And yet I think it so ethically necessary to watch this movie because it doesn’t condescend or stylize or minimize the intense unrelenting mass murder that is occurring when creatures that are smaller and weaker than us are needlessly and wrongly killed just so we can be kept ignorant enough to eat them without compunctions…
So I’m gonna try this vegan thing. Though I am no purist. I don’t expect people to radically change their lives as weirdly instantaneously as I seem to (possibly) be, but whatever choices people make about their food and by association, their involvement in the wold of ethics! and compromise! we should AT LEAST all be made aware of where our food comes from. I’ve been told plenty of factoids about ‘inhumane factory farm conditions’ but the actual visuals, gore and whinnying, screeching sounds, faces and bodies of pain are very… reifying.
Yeah, here’s my ungainly segue: In this movie, it is relayed that many male pet owners decline to neuter and spay their pets because it is “emasculating.” What fascinating, eerie and obvious parallels between the disinclination toward neutering one’s pets and the prohibition of birth control and abortion rights. In the human world, many men have historically limited women’s access to birth control and felt threatened (one might even say “emasculated”) by women’s ability to produce life.
MASCULINITY, O masculinity! (and by association: FEMININITY, O femininity!) Gender is such a tragically stupid-making enforced charade that seeps into our bones and makes us feel “threatened” by everything that calls into question the fakeness of the fakery! No one is all strong and stoic (i.e. “masculine)! No one is all nurturing and weak (i.e. “feminine”) Enough already! This totally artificial concept ruins lives and the lives of the poor animals (in this instance) caught up in the net of threatened and vulnerable half-people denied full access to all things strong, weak, stoic and nurturing!
So let’s say these pet owners like the IDEA that their pets/women can produce life. What a fun hypothetical idea, right? But how do we value life? Is life always a “gift?” Is it super special and magical if you don’t have adequate food, shelter, love and physical/psychological sustenance?
No. No, it is not. Without appropriate resources/conditions, life can be hell. You do not have the right to ENFORCE HELL on anyone and call it the magical gift of life.
My Gender Studies teacher once inquired of her adulatory class, what would it mean if we lived in a world where abortion was unnecessary? It’s the fantasy of a world where all children are wanted, the fantasy of a world where we are always loving and good. Where we are the heroes of our own stories.
Romanticism is a funny thing. These fantasies (people/animals are good) lead to restrictions (long live the constant procreation of people/animals!) set on enforcing the fantasy which lead to unwanted children and animals who–in the case of animals–get euthanized in shelters (if they’re lucky) and mass gassed and clubbed behind sheds and captured on secret cameras (… as seen in Earthlings) if they’re not.
In the case of humans, generally WOMEN get blamed for interfering with the fantasy. If men have big-hearted fantasies of a one-note loving universe, women fuck it up by being faulted and real, people who aren’t ready to have children or who have no money to support children or no access to birth control or they were raped or they don’t want to be parents or don’t want to be parents now or THERE ARE AS MANY REASONS AS THERE ARE PEOPLE, LET PEOPLE LIVE THEIR OWN LIVES, etc, etc.
Anti-choice dudes (and their sexism-internalizing minions), if you want to be LOVING, be loving. If you want to do over your bad childhood by creating a new childhood for a new child who will theoretically be happier than you were, then raise that child. DO NOT SADDLE YOUR FANTASIES ONTO REAL HUMAN BEINGS. But it’s complicated. Because this FEELING (scapegoating and responsibility-divesting) is universal. The issue isn’t to deny this universal desire to burden someone else with the work you want done but don’t want to do. The issue is to be aware of it! Be aware of your guilt! Be aware WE ARE ALL THE ENEMY. I mention men here because there are more male examples of violent impositions and scapegoating of less-powerful parties but this is only because men are assigned more power. If women had that power and equal amounts of ignorance, women would be that bad too. We are all equally culpable, some of us just have more opportunities to be obviously evil than others. But we all have it in us. And we all have the ability to DO BETTER.
So in sum: Idealism can be dangerously inhumane. The IDEAL of love ends up creating evil. By believing or wishing that we live in a magical land of love without responsibility (or that one’s faultlessly potent “masculinity” has the power to create that world, no work necessary), owners refuse to spay and neuter their pets. This creates incredibly hard lives for the creatures the owners think they are “saving” and begs the question: how do we value life? Is life “precious” if you don’t have enough to eat? Is it precious if you’re taken to a pound, tortured and ripped open while still alive? If life a “gift” if your parents are unable and unprepared to care for you? Life cannot be embarked ON A WISH that it be great and loving and full of rainbows without doing the WORK to make it so. Just because you love animals doesn’t mean you have the right to smother, suffocate and kill them with your “love.” Just because you wish your parents loved you and unconsciously wish to right the wrongs of your forebears by forcing women to bear and love the child you wish you’d been doesn’t mean you have the right to force separate autonomous creatures to live out your irresponsible fantasy for you. You want to live in a loving world? Be the change you want to see!! Volunteer, join a thing but don’t shove your idealism onto the real lives of people who are not you, who do not exist to fulfill your dreams. You are not involved. It is not your place. Your presence makes things worse.
Any IDEAL creates a kind of danger. Women are idealized as deities and then denigrated as demons! Any IDEAL is an extreme. We are NONE OF US all good or all bad. The OBJECTIFICATION of idealism disallows people/animals to be seen and treated as people/animals but like reflected fantasies of those viewing them. We are autonomous. We do not know each other. We do not even know ourselves (the unconscious!). But that’s OK! The lack of clear answers necessitates conversation and self-inquiry! The fairy-tale ideal of all-conquering love excuses responsibility and work. Love is not based on worship, assumptions or self-denial.
I am reminded of the anxiety of powerlessness (which afflicts me daily!) that can trigger a flight from responsibility and a cruel, totally normal conscious or unconscious desire to foist responsibility onto other parties. It happens! We’re cruel and unusual! THAT’S OK. If we are aware of our ability to be imperfect, we can change! If we believe ourselves faultless, we’re fucked. Without the ability/awareness to do something, the hard work is foisted onto designated Others. Others are scapegoats: non-men, non-whites, non-gender-conforming, non-heterosexual… or animals.
So, there are men who feel emasculated by neutering their animals; there are men who feel emasculated if “their” women exert control over their fertility/lives, etc. This fear of “emasculation” is an interesting one, as if “masculinity” (which doesn’t exist, which can be discarded, adorned, performed, deeply felt, etc.) can be LOST. If you fear losing your maleness, you probably fear women since women are the opposite of men in this bipolar Manichaean view of the world. If maleness is strong but easily vulnerable to attack and femaleness is weak, pathetic but can cause men to lose their maleness, then maleness is noble and blustery emptiness and femaleness is pathetic realness. What a horrible view of the world, this “battle of the sexes” idea that pathetic women are out to get vulnerable men! No wonder someone who subscribes to this idea wants to believe in a fantasy of love with conquest, a perfect love. This dog/cat/woman will create new life and it will be loved. I will be loved. There will be love. It will be better…
If you want to be loving, be loving. Don’t fuck with anyone else. Women must control their own fertility in the same way we all control our own food intake by not being force-fed. The fantasy of loving life without actualizing it or doing the work required is evil. It creates needless hardship and death.
“As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.” A good quote by Tolstoy. Obviously, there are infinite parallels between humans and animals. If you treat one group awfully, that doesn’t just switch off when you interact with another group. It’s all connected. I don’t call that ‘karma’; if something happens to me, it influences me and that influences my life and the people in it. Fact.
Anyone can commit good or evil acts, we are all malleable, all potentially guilty. I’ve many times disregarded the impact of suffering in the haze of “It’s human nature” and/or “this is how the world works” static defeatism that pretends to inevitability. We are constantly changing our ideas of the normal. There is no “normal,” only ‘socially acceptable.’ It is said in this film: If we all had to kill our own meat, we’d all be vegetarians; likewise, if we were all women–who said this?–abortion would be a sacrament which doesn’t mean there Would Be No Love, it just means children would be brought into the world when they were wanted and their parents were prepared. It is CRUEL to bring children or animals into the world without resources; a gift becomes a punishment if forced.
Also of interest:
About animals used for entertainment, the movie says: “We are intrigued by exotic things.” But of course. Except no one is exotic to themselves; exoticism requires a fetishistic spectator and lack of relativity.
From Teju Cole’s Open City: “Which Western publisher wants a Moroccan or Indian writer who isn’t into oriental fantasy; or who doesn’t satisfy the longing for fantasy?” Fetishizing the Other assumes the Other exists to provide a foil for you, the Normal, you who are the Everyperson unlike the “exotic” Other (a mystical goddess-woman, an unknowable outlander from ANOTHER CULTURE OMG!). This reminds me of the concept of “witnessing” in my ma’s psychoanalytic stuff. “Witnessing” is the humble, responsible understanding that while you cannot ever know what another person feels because you’re not them, you can still be kind and you can empathize. Otherizing, in social justice-speak is a kind of opposite of this: the self-centered assumption that other people are unknowable and hence not really people in their own right; they merely exist to highlight you. The Other is a dumb animal that doesn’t matter or someone or something that satisfies the longing for fantasy without responsibility. For as long as we objectify Others in the unconscious hope that they will somehow complete or complement or provide contrast to us we will forever be engaging in SPLITTING ourselves, thinking in all-or-nothing terms, not seeing the basic connectedness between all beings (while also being aware that we cannot know/read another).
Joaquin Phoenix’s calm/bombastic voiceover pleads for the welfare of animals in saying: “These are benign and innocent beings and they deserve better.” I am in disagreement with this assessment. We shouldn’t value things because they’re benign or “innocent.” We should value people and animals BECAUSE THEY’RE BAD, because we’re all bad, because good and bad are interchangeable and we’re complicated. If we don’t value ourselves we can’t possibly expect to value others. We must allow for the bad, accept the bad and by not denying or sanitizing the bad… ONLY THEN do we have the tools–the honest awareness of our culpability–to be good. Goodness is WORK, it isn’t any more natural than badness and it isn’t the sole province of ‘young girls’ or whatever. You like the idea of being untouched and innocent of experience? Great. Be an idiot but don’t force idiocy onto women. You want all creatures to be loved? Great. Love your children/animals–but in order to do so, get to know your own darned self. Think “love” is important? Don’t kill animals.
And the final thought…
Lotta talk about LOVE in this diatribe here I’m writing. I don’t usually roll this way: Throwing around the word “love” makes me sick but then again I just watched multitudinous animals die gruesome deaths so I’m coming around to seeing the potential of the word love to denote actual kindness as opposed to facetious bribes and hurtful insincerity! And I finally see the merit behind that old chestnut “love your enemy.” Why? Because THE ENEMY IS US. If we don’t love/put up with/get to know ourselves a little, we fuck up other people–and animals. Hurt people hurt people (see: awesome Greenberg movie review).
We are complicated and contradictory. We are complicit. We are villains. When we accept this, I think, then we’re finally getting brave enough to start working on being good.