Sentience Matters: Farmed Animals as Hypothetical Beings — A Thought Experiment

baby chicken in car

Our Fellow Drivers As the Analogs of Animals

by

Gabriel Gudding

We project onto our fellow drivers some variance or subset of deficiency: a malignancy, a stupidity, a naivety, a cognitive primitivism, an imbalance of emotion – even a subjectless egoism and a moral insufficiency. And sometimes just a flatness of being: such that when they are not malign or annoying or stupid, other drivers are to us simply drab, ignorable.

If at a stop sign our fellow driver delays too long, it’s as if he somehow becomes responsible for damaging a part of our datebook. If he broaches his turn too early, moves out of order, causes gridlock by the selfish insertion of his car into the crux of an intersection, or if he otherwise does this or that selfish thing to ensure his own timely departure from a tangle while deepening the entanglement of others, what does he become for us?

The being in the car becomes more or less stupid. And since the creature is somehow both mindless yet competent enough to drive, she has to be cunning; and as she’s cunning she must be greedy, impatient, and petulant. The driver, in short, becomes a jackass. And though she’s freighted with her own disability, and her car is anchored by the weight of the gargantuan idiot inside it, her automobile somehow moves. Eppur si muove.

And despite the fact that these idiots manage to fare forward, reverse, accomplish the turn, and are able, while piloting a shining 3,000 pound craft at great speed, to not strike my car or thunder onto someone’s lawn or burst through a store front, off a bridge, or smear children across a schoolyard – we still think them dense. Despite their being, in short, preternaturally skilled at least at avoiding that always potentiate cascade of errors that’ll result in the taking of life, despite their being human and in many cases able to afford cars far more expensive than ours, they are still base, stupid, and selfish. And how much patience must these drivers possess immersed in a clanking river of flat metallized beings? It has to be substantial, each one of them melded in by a funneled herd of imbeciles with whom she cannot communicate except by an occasional, desperate hand gesture, or the monotone blat of a horn. So even though the being piloting the vehicle has a strong measure of personhood, has a not insufficient modicum of patience, has a calendar, an appointment, a disease, a watch, a family, a conviction, an income, and certainly a mind, this driver whose face and body we cannot see, has a flatness, has an existential drabness, is stupid, an annoyance, an obstacle, a thing.

How is it that by merely cloaking the human body in sheet metal, hiding the shapes and movements of this person’s body and face, we can so readily animalize members of our own species?

Is that question not instructive? If we can with such facility do this to members of our own species, famed (among ourselves anyway) for our brilliance, by erecting a painted sheet of shaped metal between us, think about how easily — and how erroneously — we’ll do this to others who are hidden behind the varying shapes of their very bodies, their skin kinds, their fur types.

Consider how many cognitive and biographic characteristics we cannot perceive about nonhuman animals but know they must have. Think about the astounding things they can do and make, the kinds of courage and types of awareness they must possess, the pains and sorrows they must suffer, but for which we give them so little credit. And now consider how many characterizations we project onto those nonhumans who are most exposed to our brutality, farmed animals, who suffer under us in their supposedly foreign and unfortunate shapes, with their supposedly dim and uncaring minds, and whose worries and hopes are hidden even deeper in the cognitive shadows behind their brows.

We treat other animals like we do our fellow drivers: as flat and hypothetical beings. A hypothetical being is one that we can see exists but whose existence is insufficient in itself to merit full inclusion in our attentional space, insufficient because it does not to us have an interesting mind. And it does not have an interesting mind because it stands in the way of our wants. Instead of recognizing our chauvinism, we would rather fill the entire world with hypothetical beings who are outright mindless, dull and stupid.

We are, in short, stupid about the stupidity and beauty of others. We well know there is something in us that can reduce our study of others, whether human or nonhuman, to the contemplation of their outer shape and locomotion. Small things of the human body have for us a colossal algebra: furrows in the lips, skin around the eyes, pigmentation in the cornea, translucence of the hair, smells of the torso and throat, thickness of the adipose tissues, the depths of the muscles, shapes of and on the skull, sounds made by the body, and the way a body creates meaning in its movements and via marks made by its hands. These minute differences can often determine which of these beings are for us merely hypothetical and which are friends and family and lovers. Isn’t that astounding? And though it is an algebra that has nothing to do with the worth of others as beings with bodily and mental sovereignty, we allow ourselves to be ruddered by flecks of skin and color, such that the ridiculous clutter of small forces arrayed across even the image of a human face or a human body is irresistible to us.

After being vegan for now four years, I still marvel at how readily humans underestimate the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhumans. This capacity for diminishing the inner lives of other beings has of course a material and ideological purpose in our contemporary world. Dairy farmers, for example, rationalize the practice of stealing newborn calves from their mothers by insisting that cow mothers, as one put it recently, “don’t give a second thought to their calf once it is out of their sight. We as dairy farmers, on the other hand, put a lot of thought into calf care.”[1] The effortlessness and triumphalism necessary to ascribe apathy to a mammalian mother while declaring, “on the other hand,” to care more for that calf (a calf he intends to kill) than her mother is as shocking as it is stupid.

If we can occasionally glimpse that we are this stupid and this erroneously begrudging about members of our own species, I wonder if we could consider how selfish and inane we are when we knowingly put our own pleasures before the needs, families, horrors and sorrows of the other beings whom we refuse to see as fellow travelers.

[1] David Heim. “Calf Care Part 1: Why Do Dairy Farmers Separate Calves from their Mothers?”

http://heimdairy.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/why-dairy-farmers-separate-cows-and-calves/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Gabriel Gudding

Gabriel Gudding is the author of the books Literature for Nonhumans (Ahsahta Press, forthcoming 2015), Rhode Island Notebook (Dalkey Archive Press, 2007) and A Defense of Poetry (Pitt, 2002). His essays and poems appear in such periodicals as Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Journal of the History of Ideas, in such anthologies as Great American Prose Poems, Best American Poetry, and &Now: Best Innovative Writing. His translations from Spanish appear in anthologies such as The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, Poems for the Millennium, and The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry. His most recent chapbook is Literature for Nonhumans (New Orleans Review, 2014). He is an Associate Professor in the English Studies Department at Illinois State University.
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2 Responses to Sentience Matters: Farmed Animals as Hypothetical Beings — A Thought Experiment

  1. Wow!

    I’ve long but only very lightly considered this exact topic. Your own reasoning has saved me a bunch of work. Thank you.

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