Vegan Men Say What? Comparing Human & Animal Slavery
“Negroes have no rights which the white man is bound to respect; they can be bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise, whenever profit can be made by it.”
Who made this statement? If you guessed the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, you are wrong. These statements were made by our U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in 1857. Today, just 157 years later, none of us accept that a person should be bought and sold like merchandise for profit. Yet many of us still believe it is perfectly acceptable to treat animals as merchandise and to kill them for profit.
How dare you compare people to animals? That is a typical negative reaction when one compares the treatment of animals today to slaves in the antebellum United States. Yet the disturbing parallels are unmistakable and arise out of the fact that animals today are considered to be the property of their owners just as slaves were considered to be the property of their owners.
Non-black Americans seem to be the most vocal in taking offense at the comparison of animals to slaves. Perhaps they have not yet read the works of black writers such as Frederick Douglass (a former slave) and Paul Lawrence Dunbar (the son of slaves). These men and many black authors have reflected on the similarities between human and animal slavery.
And if you still feel it is insulting to compare humans to animals, you are probably guilty of doing it on a regular basis. When is the last time you said (or thought) that someone is “eating like a pig.” Or that someone is a “dirty dog?” And it was not that long ago that we called black people “coons” and “apes.”
To treat someone “like an animal” means to treat that person poorly. Fortunately, with the exception of some racists, Americans now believe it is wrong to treat blacks “like animals.” But the treatment that we now know was wrong to inflict on slaves we inflict on many millions of non-human animals every day and we believe it is just fine.
The dictionary defines slavery as “a state of subjection.” This means to subjugate or to force to endure something unpleasant. Is there any real dispute that we subjugate animals in a myriad of ways and force them to endure all types of cruel and unpleasant acts?
The negative reaction of some people with comparing human slavery with animal slavery is that they think it diminishes the value of human life. It is just the opposite. If we can see the oppressiveness that enables us to perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on other living beings perhaps we will stop the atrocities against each other. With that in mind, here are some of the most obvious comparisons between human and animal slavery.
DESTRUCTION OF RELATIONSHIPS
Frederick Douglass writes in “An American Slave” that he never saw his mother more than four of five times, and each time it was at night and only for a short period of time. Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of slavery was the destruction of the family. Children in Africa were kidnapped and shipped to the United States without their parents. Slaves in the U.S. were sold at auction and children were sold separately from their parents. Husbands and wives were sold separately.
There are many examples of how today we destroy the relationships between animals. Hunters randomly shoot one of two waterfowl mates who pair for life. The surviving mate will often die from starvation while mourning. Similar to the kidnapping of children in Africa, we capture primate infants for display in zoos or use in laboratories.
If a female slave gave birth on a plantation she would have to nurse the white baby of her owners instead of her own baby. Similarly, today calves are separated from their mothers after birth so the calves will not drink their mothers milk. Instead we drink the mothers milk.
Antebellum racists denied that love existed between slaves. They said it was just “animal instinct.” Similarly, many people today deny that love exists between non-human animals. Life-long pairing is dismissed as “animal instinct.” Anyone who has heard the long and pained protestations of a mother cow when her calf is taken away knows it is the emotional cries of a grieving mother. And anyone who has lost a loved one knows that the pain continues long after the crying has stopped. How much worse it must be for a cow that is less verbal than a human.
The tragedy is institutionalized in today’s factory farming of animals. Baby chicks never see their mothers and the male chicks are immediately killed (they can’t produce eggs and therefore have no value). Baby pigs see their mothers only for a short time – while their mother is tied to a metal stall. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated so they continually have babies which is needed to stimulate milk production for human consumption. Male calves are immediately ripped away and used for veal production or killed. Females often have the same fate as their mothers.
Author Philip Hallie writes about how much of the cruelty to slaves was keep secret because the worst cruelty took place on isolated plantations and was concealed from the outside world. Secrecy of the abuse and cruelty to slaves was necessary to keep the institution intact.
What public industries today other than the animal industries are closed to the public? Most public industries give daily tours of their facilities However, the public is not allowed into the windowless factory farm buildings which are located in remote locations throughout the country. One such building will hold as many as 80,000 chickens. Slaughterhouses are also closed to the public. And if you try to enter an animal testing facility you will likely be arrested.
Secrecy is used to hide the animal cruelty of these profitable businesses. Most businesses have big glass windows. Not the animal industries. As Paul McCartney says, if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. Slave masters knew that secrecy was their best protection to maintain their power. The animal industries have taken a page out of their play book.
For hundreds of years black people were called “irrational” and this was used to justify their “protective custody” in the form of slavery and to justify their abuse. Similarly, some today assert that animals are not rational and this justifies their abuse.
Of course, anyone that spends time around animals knows that they are rational, perhaps more rational than humans. For example, a dog would never be so irrational as to intentionally inhale smoke! (Though they have been forced to inhale smoke by tobacco “researchers.”) Animals communicate with each other, and those of us with dogs or cats or birds know that they communicate with us. This does not mean that animals are the same as humans, but being different is not a justification for abuse. While we once justified the abuse of black slaves because they were different than whites, we now know that being different is no defense to cruelty.
Sadly, during the time of slavery religious doctrine placed “civilized” white Christians above all others and served as a justification for the subjugation of the “savage” blacks. Christians said that this subjugation was ordained by God.
Similarly, today many Christians believe that subjugation of animals is ordained by God. Christians today admit that it was wrong for Christianity to be used to support human slavery, but yet hold on to their mistaken belief that Christianity supports animal slavery.
If more Christians had taken the lead 250 years ago and stood up against human slavery they would have had been the moral leaders of their time. They have a second chance today to stand up and take the moral lead by condemning the animal cruelty that plagues us. Unfortunately, once again Christians are failing. Instead of leading they are following, and in doing so they have lost their moral authority.
The institutionalization of both slavery and factory farming can, in large part, be attributed to the profit-motive. The anti-abolitionists claimed that if slavery were abolished that it would bring down the economy of the entire South. Similarly, regarding the animal agriculture industry, C.W. Hume writes that “the fear of losing profits is the chief obstacle to reform.”
Profit is no justification for cruelty. Industries change and it is time for the food industry to change and eliminate cruelty from its bottom line.
TRANSPORTATION AND TREATMENT
It is estimated that only 15 million of the 35 million black Africans that were captured survived the Middle Passage to the New World. Slaves were “tight packed” onto ships, and in the absence of any sanitation or ventilation, death from illness and infection was routine. One historian wrote that “the slaves were treated like cattle.” Those slaves that survived arrived weak and emaciated and were fattened up in a “slave yard” before going to auction.
The comparison of the “slave yard” to the modern day cattle feedlot is obvious. So too is the comparison of cramming cattle into trucks and shipping them throughout the United States for days without regard to food, water or heat. The stress caused to cattle by shipping them under such conditions has a name – shipping fever – and kills hundreds of thousand of cattle each year.
Perhaps less obvious is that the conditions of the Middle Passage – pools of excrement and urine, cramped conditions, insanity, and acceptable mortality rates – is the blueprint for current day factory farms. For example, pigs are chained into narrow stalls for months and years. Chickens are stacked 5 tiers high in battery cages defecating on each other.
One pro-slavery writer in 1791 described the anti-slavery crusade as “the ranting of a handful of zealots.” But slowly over time the handful became many and slavery finally ended. Similarly, today many describe those who advocate on behalf of animals as ranting zealots (or worse). My hope is that as more of the secrets of the animal industries are exposed that the handful will become many and animal slavery will end.
What do Vegan Men Say? We say that if a Supreme Court Justice could be so wrong about how blacks should be treated, could we perhaps be wrong about how animals should be treated?
Doug Meier is attorney that practices in Colorado and writes this monthly column, Vegan Men Say What? If you are interested in reading more about Human and Animal Slavery, a must-read book is “The Dreaded Comparison” by Marjorie Spiegel (Mirror Books, 1997).
Doug Meier is an attorney who practices in Colorado the area of insurance bad faith and legal malpractice. He became a vegetarian 13 years ago and went vegan approximately 2 years ago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com