Humanity. This word has been perplexing me lately. The more I think on it, the more the word is losing its intended meaning.
The other day, Ryan and I were driving into Boston and listening to NPR. A story came on about the crisis in eastern Congo. A man and his family had just buried his young daughter, who had been killed by rebels. After the rushed burial, they fled the city of Goma with thousands of other displaced people. My heart broke for them and I thought, not for the first time, "What is wrong with people? Why are we killing each other?" I imagined what that would feel like. Burying your daughter. Fleeing your home. Not having any safety net. Why I happened to be born here and not in eastern Congo. What that child's parents are thinking and feeling at this very moment.
Morbid thoughts, perhaps. But as much as I like lightness and fun -- and my life is full of both and, in my opinion, both are necessary in order to do good in this world -- I do think it's important that we reflect on these ideas at the very least.
The story of this family is just one of millions happening in the world right now. Human and non-human animals are slaughtered every day. (With animals, though, it is 10 billion per year. And that's just land animals. In the United States.) We humans are capable of awful things. And what scares me a little, as I continue to age, is realizing that these behaviors aren't that unusual. I'd always assumed that, while there might be the occasional person with cruelty in their heart, most people were good. And now I just don't know. I want to believe we're all good, but there just seems to be so much evidence to the contrary.
Humanity, according to my American Heritage Dictionary, means, among other definitions, the following: "the quality of being humane; benevolence."
Humane, in turn, refers to someone or something "[c]haracterized by kindness, mercy, or compassion; marked by a motivation by a concern with the alleviation of suffering."
I don't see many other animals killing their own kind regularly. Sure, it happens here and there. But we don't put those animals up on linguistic pedestals and say, "Here is our model of behavior!" When you think about it, it's pretty audacious to imply that we are models of mercy and compassion. We even refer to mass murderers as "animals," when in fact non-human animals don't typically engage in such self-destructive behavior. We humans seem to have the monopoly on that one, don't we?
Do I think the majority of humans would kill others if given the chance? Not at all. Am I a "people hater"? No. I see beautiful kindness emanating from people every day. People in my life and in the world at large astound me with their gifts and brilliance. My students never fail to give me incredible hope and fill me with pride every day.
But I wonder at people who proudly proclaim they support "humane meat," (or who just eat any old meat) but who are not willing to find out if the treatment of these animals matches the behavior they hope is occurring. I'll save you the suspense. It's not. This is from one who hoped desperately herself that her humane meat came from happy animals. I did the legwork on this one, and the treatment of these beings is not, in my opinion, kind, merciful, or compassionate.
Here's some of what goes on at humane farms, slaughterhouses, hatcheries, etc. Male chicks ground up alive, gassed, or bagged up alive like trash. Animals in slaughterhouses who are very much alive as they go through "processing." Baby calves and goats taken from their mothers, often with their umbilical cords still attached, brought to market terrified, and killed. (We can't have them taking our milk and cheese.) Animals debeaked, detoed, dehorned, branded and castrated without any anesthesia. (Think on that a moment. They have nerve endings like we do. Imagine what that would feel like.) Cows forced to provide milk (while pregnant with their next calf), having their production wane after 5 years, and then being killed for hamburger meat. If this is what "mercy, kindness [and] compassion" look like, then I'd rather not side with humanity.
I could go on and on. And if I sound angry, that's because I am. There's always a bit of truth to stereotypes, and the "angry vegan" is no exception. When you see how awful people are to feeling, breathing beings; when you see the actual joy in people's faces with they do unspeakable things to animals -- you get plenty angry. Sure my life is terrific. And I'm a pretty happy person most of the time. But you can't help but get angry when you see what is really going on. And you can't help but feel angry when people put down one's choice not to participate and then laughingly joke about bacon, veal, and lamb just to hurt you. (And yet those same people would be incensed if you made them watch footage of how pigs, calves, and lambs got to their plate.)
I've talked with people who have gone undercover at slaughterhouses, hatcheries, and dairy farms. First off, these people amaze me. I could not imagine doing such work for so many reasons. But what's most remarkable about their work is that the awful footage they document is not an anomaly. It's everyday stuff. It doesn't matter when they go undercover or where. It's always there. Butterball has been exposed twice in the last year for incredible cruelty but in their press releases both times the company feigned shock and surprise that this was going on. Please. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice ...
I'm always hesitant to write such posts because I feel like I'll come off as thinking I've got it all figured out and that I'm lily-white perfect. If only. As Jo March beautifully stated in Little Women, "I'm hopelessly flawed."
But after seeing the things I've seen, I'm pulling the words "humane" and "humanity" out of my vocabulary for a while. At least until we shape up a bit. Or maybe I'll come up with another word to describe kindness and compassion. Maybe bovinity. You don't hear about cows massacring other cows, do you?
There seems to be an unwritten rule that eating meat is normal and to question it is socially awkward and a little rude. But if we're going to tout the word humanity, shouldn't we be willing to back it up with a good hard look at what we're supporting?
May the coming season of giving be filled with great bovinity for you and your loved ones. :) (Autocorrect is getting very antsy over that word.)
And may the word humanity ultimately reflect its definition.
If you want to learn more about "humane" meat, dairy, and eggs, listen to this podcast. It's very well done!