søndag 2. juni 2013

Dreaded analogy...not so fast.

Here is Coetzee with another take on the dreaded analogy between animal cruelty and the Holocaust, this time in his own voice:
The transformation of animals into production units dates back to the late nineteenth century, and since that time we have already had one warning on the grandest scale that there is something deeply, cosmically wrong with regarding and treating fellow beings as mere units of any kind. This warning came to us so loud and clear that it you would have thought it was impossible to ignore it. It came when in the middle of the twentieth century a group of powerful men in Germany had the bright idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter – or what they preferred to call the processing – of human beings.
Of course we cried out in horror when we found out about this. We cried: What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like cattle! If we had only known beforehand! But our cry should more accurately have been: What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like units in an industrial process! And that cry should have had a postscript: What a terrible crime, come to think of it, to treat any living being like a unit in an industrial process!
Whether you accept this argument or not depends, at least, on whether you accept the premise that human beings and animals are similar in morally significant ways. (You may admit all the empirical similarities Coetzee draws on even if you don’t, but in that case you are likely to dismiss the moral analogy he draws on the back of these similarities as a non sequitur.) If you accept something along the line of Peter Singer’s idea of the expanding circle of moral concern, then you might concur that treating any living creature as a production unit is similar to treating human beings like that. The moral power of the analogy would presumably weaken as you move further and further away from origo, but as long as you don't overstep the outer boundaries of the circle, it won't loose all power. Inside the circle of moral concern, you can always describe such treatment as a violation against our common creatureliness, or something to that effect. I am prepared to say things like that myself. Though, I am not sure exactly what saying this amounts to. (Nor am I, for that matter, certain where to draw the periphery line.) But it surely entails that no living creature can be treated any way we please. However, the Nazis were not simply refusing certain living beings admission to our community of fellow creatures, they were denying certain human beings admission to our idea of a common humanity too; and that makes a (moral) difference, doesn’t it? On the other hand, one could, as Matthew Pianalto points out, suggest that this question is nothing but further evidence of our inherit speciesism.

Other important differences between factory farming and the Holocaust are also too often overlooked by people who are horror-struck by undeniable similarities. The Nazi crimes were not “merely” to treat living beings as units in an industrial process (nor was it merely to treat human beings this way); the aim of the Nazi’s was to exterminate certain human beings, to eliminate the Jews and to wipe the Earth clean of them. In this respect the (admittedly factory-like) Holocaust didn't much resemble factory farming. Extermination camps were launched as the final solution to the Jew problem. With the problem finally solved, the murders would have stopped too simply because there would have been no one left alive. The industrial stockyard aims at something altogether different: it aims for eternity. Factory farming is a perpetual enterprise, where animals are ceaselessly being brought into the world for the purpose of being killed, to paraphrase Elizabeth Costello. I agree with her that this is a significant difference (though I am not sure I follow her when she claims that factory farming therefore dwarfs any evil the Third Reich was capable of). The extermination camps and the industrial stockyard are strikingly similar in some respects -- in that they employ many of the same methods, for instance --, but the extermination camps were, unlike the modern stockyard, fueled by hatred for their victims and aiming for their annihilation. In this respect the Holocaust was more analogous to a merciless war on vermin than to the merciless meat industry.

Many people disagree with this “dreaded analogy” because (as I have pointed out in the preceding paragraphs) this is far from a perfect analogy; but then again, there is no such thing as a perfect analogy. A perfect analogy simply wouldn’t be an analogy at all. Finding differences doesn’t necessarily undermine the possibility of connecting the dots (that depends on the number and the character of the differences one is talking about). On the contrary, a non-perfect fit is a prerequisite for talking about an analogy between two subjects at all.

"The reasons why the Allies fought against Germany were complex, but many people believe rightly that the Holocaust itself would have proved sufficient reason," Raimond Gaita has written, but “no one can seriously wish to respond, to the slaughter of animals as though it justified taking up arms against farmers, butchers and people who work in abattoirs.” To this I would like to say: in one sense yes, maybe, but in another sense no. "Fighting" is of course a complex term with many applications. Hence there are numerous ways of fighting an evil. It may be true that no one is prepared to shoot and kill farmers and butchers (though, as I pointed out here, whatever truth there is in this, it is hardly of the empirical kind), but many people do walk the streets daily in protest against what butchers and farmers are doing; they write about it, talk about it; they refuse to be accomplices in the wrongdoings by boycotting their products, and try to convince others to follow their lead. Many people would be very relieved (though, perhaps not as relieved as they were when the Holocaust ended (but, then again, how to compare?)) if the horrific treatment of animals that Coetzee describes were to come to an abrupt end. Boycotting and walking the streets in protest is, of course, not the same as taking up arms, but may still be an analogous reaction.

What troubles me with expressions like “animal holocaust” or “eternal Treblinka” is not that one rhetorically bridges a gap between two kinds of horror, but, rather, that one steps too quickly from one to the other as if there were no gap there at all. Stuart Rachels does so with this one-liner. Seemingly blind to all the important differences, such rhetorical moves strike me as both insensitive and unthinking. That being said, I do not think it is impossible to connect the two phenomena in reasonable and non-offensive ways. Consider this quote by Wittgenstien:
Supposing you meet someone in the street and he tells you he has lost his greatest friend, in a voice extremely expressive of his emotion. You might say: "It was extraordinarily beautiful, the way he expressed himself." Supposing you then asked: "What similarity has my admiring this person with my eating vanilla ice and liking it?" To compare them seems almost disgusting. (But you can connect them by intermediate cases.) (Lectures on Aesthetics, II, §4)
Is this analogous (!) to our own question? I suggest that it might be. People may of course be divided over how many intermediate steps one needs (and what steps they must be) in order to make the connection, but if one can, through sensitive employment of intermediate cases, connect one's delight in someone's expression of sorrow with one's delight in eating vanilla ice cream, then, I believe, one can also, as Coetzee (to my mind not quite successfully) attempts to do, namely to draw the connecting line from people's horror in face of the Holocaust (the murdering of human beings on an industrial scale in order to get rid of them) to his own horror in face of modern food industry, where billions upon billions of living beings are being turned into production units in order to be slaughtered and used for food, without behaving disgustingly.

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