Let's start from a premise that temporarily sets aside the habitual justifications for the exploitation of animals. Off the top of my head, here are a few: the cynical we have always done it, the biological determinism for certain proteins or B-12 induced fear, the opportunistic and ultimately nihilistic but plants also feel pain!, the strange but animals will take over the world if we don't eat them, and many more specious arguments besides. Since violence towards animals remains both legal and socially encouraged, these arguments don't have the burden of being sound; they simply have to be in place as a psychic buffer or rationalization for those who prefer not to think any harder. Instead, for both sympathetic and hostile readers, please suspend all default settings and envision our world to be, in fact, a place where the confinement and exploitation of nonhuman animals is unavoidably unethical, ecologically catastrophic, and wholly unnecessary. What then?
This is very imaginable for those who already have an inkling that something is very wrong. For those prey to the many stigmatizations attached to nonviolent views towards animals, this will prove more difficult. But again, if not for the sake of billions of nerve-ended beings, then for the sake of this essay, please try. It would mean a world that is far more violent than you had previously thought: certain foods become veiny and cadaverous, fashionable coat trims turn into torn skin, milk becomes the liquid remainder of a mammal who mourns, eggs become artifacts from cramped, de-beaked conditions - and in general, the mass of bodies "produced" in economic efficiency become individuals who make it clear they prefer joy over pain and wish to continue living as best they can. In sum, your perceptions of violence would multiply to a frightening degree. And here's the kicker: you would come to find that almost every one else around you is somehow immune to your newfound heightened sense of violence. Like a "Twilight Zone" episode, the world is turned upside down. In what can only be a deep irony for the history of violence, you become Charlton Heston pleading for recognition in that species power reversal classic "Planet of the Apes." You're yelling about injustices, yet most everyone thinks you're crazy. It is this feeling I'd like to inspect.
Some say that this feeling is self-righteous (and it's possible that sometimes it is, which does not amount to a refutation). For the most part, however, I'd venture to say the feeling is one of overwhelming impotence - one that even the most ardent activist will have to occasionally repress so as not to go mad. This is why veganism and other forms of animal advocacy are so quickly feminized as so much softie, hippie squeamishness, or marginalized as sectarian and extreme. Real men hate being wrong or impotent! (But let's not essentialize: women can have these mentalities and habits too). Admitting helplessness and vulnerability is difficult for the realpolitik type, yet this feeling of impotence before reality is very real. There is a history to be written here, one that could define our contemporary situation quite well: the increasing inability to personally intercede in the world, especially where one perceives a wrong.
I felt this acutely the other day when researching the visual culture associated with animal liberation movements. I often find myself only a click away from a self-induced and viscerally painful affect before an image. After going through a number of videos documenting animal liberation operations, I suddenly came face-to-face with a calf whose body was being held in place against his or her will in some sort of contraption (I'll guess it was a him, since males cannot produce any additional surplus value in the form of flesh or liquids, so they are destined for veal hood). He was looking up in fear and pain, while another creature was striking him on the head with a steely implement. What made it worse was the slowness, the stubborn resistance of a thick furry head and hard bone underneath, which in such a futile and sadistic scenario only served to prolong the pain. He had a sweet muzzle and seemed unable to understand why he exists for this. I instinctively welled up and my chest hurt; hormones and a racing heart took off. I felt utterly helpless in my inability to reach into my computer screen to stop the blows from coming down, to reason with this more powerful human, or simply to throw my arms around this poor animal's neck as Nietzsche did for a horse being whipped in the streets of Turin in 1889 before going mentally ill for the rest of his life.
Again, the macho set will dismiss me as weak and unable to deal with reality. Yet I would posit the reverse: this empathy that overtook me forms the very basis for ethics and politics, which increasingly needs to take into account both human and nonhuman needs and desires in a novel and historic cooperation (it should always be kept in mind that the exploitation of certain humans often rests on their animalization; so it follows that if a mass movement against nonhuman animal violence were to be realized, it would also undercut the forms of human violence that take recourse to animalization; this future would consider human and nonhuman animals as protected in common dignity). As a fellow mammal, this little calf had eyes just like me, a limbic system terrorizing its insides (which in a mediated delay was now affecting my own limbic system), could look up at his abuser imploringly, and could scream and be crushed by a more powerful force. Above all, this little calf bore witness to a state of meekness shared by everyone I love, human and nonhuman, and everyone else I never need to love in order to think that they should never go through this experience.
If the painful affect of this reality were not enough, once you take a break from your default settings vis-à-vis animal violence you come to realize that it is all unnecessary and detrimental. It is a sacrifice for nothing much. What you are seeing is not a sacrifice for some ideal, for past gods or revolutionary progress, but simply one in the service of indiscriminate taste buds and financial gain. This will make your impotence and helplessness even more pronounced. Moreover, you would start to note the peculiar human sacrifice entailed in this scenario, including a pharmaceutical complicity between meat and dairy induced illnesses, human labor conditions that render its workers psychotic, and the ecological calamity of an industry of domestic animal production that produces a large sector of greenhouse emissions and environmental damage. You would find one set of animals (humans) confining another set of animals (domestic nonhumans) whose refuse threatens a whole group of other animals (wild nonhumans) from which, in turn, everyone's precarity is coming ever closer to being secured (no functioning ecosystem, no humans and most nonhumans). The world would become not only more violent, but more perverse and illogical.
Naturally, this feeling of impotence I'm describing applies to far more than our rapport and responsibilities to nonhuman animals: it serves as a fitting description for our many broken democratic processes when we feel cut off from popular representation or direct input, or a broken oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico no finger can plug up, or hearing about a gang rape on a public bus in India, or an eight minute pocket of time aboard a plane of sheer terror that we will probably never be able to imagine. The burden of assuming the world's unspeakable violence is often too much. This is rarely stressed, but I think it points to a compelling reason explaining why animal ethics and advocacy is often socially resisted. Yes, there are those who are so callous and narcissistic that the suffering of others will never matter to them (human and nonhuman). But for many, there is the realization that if they take this reality head on, then it will become too much to bear. And once this reality is embraced, it becomes far more than a mere lifestyle choice: it becomes a deep rooted ethical and political commitment (and we know very well how our societies based on planned obsolescence discourage these sorts of deep commitments). In other words, a possible obstacle to becoming more empathic and caring is knowing that one will have to assume, and to a certain degree take responsibility for, a corroding earth that many of us wish we could change by reaching into the image of the earth to make it less violent. You might worry about becoming misanthropic or overwhelmed in the process, but this should never serve as a justification to hide behind the cowardice and deficiency of your own age. The reality is we can act in ways that minimize this violence to varying degrees of directness: We can personally choose not to fund the many industries based on exploiting animals (large or small); we can urge concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO; factory farm) divestment, since like fossil fuel divestment currently underway, this would lead to a massive alleviation of environmental damage contributing to global warming (this would mean urging governments to cease subsidizing big-ag and pressuring those on the Forbes' billionaires list who profit off this animal suffering and ecological degradation - including the Koch Brothers, Ted Turner, and the Hilton family). We can try to persuade others that it really is as bad as we feared, and that if the word "humane" means anything it surely means not causing suffering or death unless it's absolutely necessary. Turn this what if into a horrified it's so ... and then act.