Thursday, November 29, 2012

Humanity vs. Bovinity

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!


  1. So very beautifully said. Thank you.

  2. Wow! Thank you once again for an amazing post. I try so hard not to be that "angry vegan" but, sometimes, I want to stand in the street and scream because I feel like I am beating my head against a brick wall to no avail. I get so discouraged and overwhelmed with all of the cruelty in the world and feel utterly hopeless. I, too, am a very happy person.......rather silly and goofy many would say, but some days I have to really fight to not be seething with anger over some new cruelty exposed in a factory farm or some callous remark made by some jackass. I love your word "bovinity" and am going to start using it.

    1. I've swallowed my anger so many times, Edward. And I often wonder how many people would actually continue to eat meat if they saw what happened to the animals first. I think meat eaters would be the minority. I really do.

      Glad to hear you are silly and goofy! That does help, doesn't it?

      Thanks so much for writing! (Who's in the picture with you?)

  3. That little guy in the picture with me was my dear, sweet friend Chewy. He was my coworker Anjy's baby and he came to work with her everyday. (Yes, we get to bring our dogs to work! I am lucky enough to share my homelife with 3 rescued dachshunds but don't bring them to work because they get upset if one is missing. And I would never get any work done if I brought all 3 to work!) He was a rescue that she saved from a severe neglect case. We did not know for sure how old he was but the vet thought around 12 when she got him. He had a lot of health problems from years of mistreatment but the last few years of his life were total bliss. He was very loved by a lot of people. Everyday he would run in the door to see me and sit by my side most of the day. Sadly, he passed away just 2 weeks ago from kidney failure. He was a special little soul and I miss him very much.
    On another note, you may have noticed that I disappeared from Facebook and the internet for a while. I completely deleted my Facebook account and quit getting on the internet after a very emotional prolonged battle of words with a hardcore carnivore/pro-hunting/"they're just animals so they don't matter" zealot. I am back now with a little tougher skin. I have to remember that I can't let people like her win and I have to be the voice for all of those animals.

    1. Chewy is adorable. I'm so sorry he passed on. What a lucky little guy to end up with your friend.

      Glad you took some time out to take care of yourself. It can get very very taxing always defending one's choice to not hurt anyone. Even when I ate meat, I always admired vegetarians and vegans -- it never would have occurred to me to argue their position to abstain from animal products because even then it seemed like the most ethically sound choice.

      I'm glad you're back though. It's so important to take care of oneself and then, when you're ready, be a voice again for the voiceless. There's a great Our Hen House podcast that delves into how to take care of yourself. (Ten Ways to Beat the Back to School Blues section) It's an excellent podcast, if you haven't heard it yet already!

  4. What a fantastically written, beautiful post! I haven't had a computer lately, making it hard to comment, but I've read this post several times on my phone and have enjoyed it every time. I never knew about that particular definition of humanity, but bovinity certainly seems a better fit...

    1. Aw, thanks Bobbie! Yes, I have to say the cows are way cooler and nicer than humans. We should all strive to be as great as cows.