am going to beg you. I am going to desperately plead with you. Let me say the word, and let me say why I’m saying the word, and then let’s have a discussion about it. I know that for some people, even to suggest that the word might apply to this case is tantamount to denialism. Just to have the conversation is to dishonor the victims. I realize, too, that I don’t strictly need this word, of all words, in order to discuss the subject. I have been advised that it is counterproductive: feelings about the word are so fraught that the offense caused will outweigh any good I could possibly do, and will cause me to be far less persuasive than I otherwise would be. And isn’t this about persuasion, ultimately? But I can’t help it: every time I examine the facts, I can’t stop thinking the word. If I’m being honest with you, and I want to be, I need to be able to tell you the question that I’m stuck on, and the question contains the word.

The word is “holocaust” and the question is this: “Given the amount of suffering and death that it entails, why is it improper to describe the mass slaughter of animals for human consumption as a holocaust?”

I appreciate why people react badly to any description of the loss of non-human life as a holocaust. One of the most disturbing features of the capital-H Holocaust was the dehumanization process. David Livingstone Smith, in Less Than Human, describes how a common prerequisite to atrocities is reconfiguring perceptions of a group, to make them seem not just metaphorically but literally “subhuman.” We all know that the Nazis described the Jews as rats and the Hutus describe the Tutsis as cockroaches. “Comparing people to animals” is such a common feature of organized brutality that any argument to draw parallels between animal-victims and people-victims can be seen as partly replicating the very thought process that led to the actual Holocaust.

Here is something animal advocates are often quite bad at expressing, though: “comparing people to animals” can either be intended to diminish the people or to elevate the animals, and these two thoughts are so dissimilar that even to call them both “comparing people to animals” is misleading. The version that elevates animals is perhaps more properly thought of as “comparing animals to people”: if you dehumanize a person by comparing them to a rat or dog, you are also implying that  there is something disgusting and worthless about rats and dogs. If those creatures weren’t considered “lesser,” the animal-comparison wouldn’t be an insult. It would be somewhat meaningless. Instead of encouraging us to “stop dehumanizing people by comparing them to animals,” animal advocates are suggesting that we get rid of the whole idea that there are Men and there are Beasts. Besides, our animal pejoratives aren’t even consistent. They’re based on weird folk-stereotypes only partially grounded in the actual nature of various species: calling someone a rat suggests they’re filthy, but calling them a squirrel means they’re hyperactive, and there are no particular connotations associated with other rodents like gerbils and capybaras. (It really is strange how a culture can assign expected anthropomorphic traits to each species: the nervous ostrich, the grumpy walrus, the industrious beaver, the clever fox, the lazy ass.)

It’s important to be able to clearly and carefully make the distinction between elevating animals and diminishing humans, but it’s harder to do in practice than it sounds. Utilitarians like Peter Singer get into trouble all the time when they make some appalling remark comparing disabled children with chimpanzees. I happen to think people are right to find this insensitive, because nobody can just willfully ignore the connotations that certain words actually have in practice, or the effect that these comparisons might have in a world where dehumanization is so dangerous. But in their intention, the utilitarians often mean to say that chimpanzees are as important as humans rather than that some humans are as unimportant as chimpanzees. How callous you find this remark depends entirely on what your pre-existing ideas about the value of a chimpanzee life are. We’re so conditioned to think that monkeys and pigs are our lessers that it’s hard not to hear these words as insults.

We all know, or at least we can all figure out with a moment’s honest reflection, that our dominant attitudes on animals are inconsistent. Someone can be incredibly disturbed by the notion of eating their puppy, but happily consume bacon every other morning, and the cognitive dissonance between the two positions never seems to cause any bother. If we’re being serious, though, we know that many sows are smarter than chihuahuas, and that all of the traits that cause us to love our pets are just as present in the animals we regularly devour the murdered corpses of. (I am sorry, that was a somewhat extreme way of putting it.) This is a commonplace observation, but in a way that’s what makes it so strange: it’s obvious that we have no rational reason to think some animals are friends and others are food. The only differences are tradition and the strength of the relationships we happen to have developed with the friend-animals, but that’s no more a justification of the distinction than it would be to say “I only eat people who aren’t my friends.” Even though nobody can justify it, though, it continues. People solve the question “Why do you treat some animals as if they have personalities but other equally sophisticated animals as if they are inanimate lumps of flavor and calories?” by simply pretending the question hasn’t been asked, or by making some remark like “Well, if pigs would quit making themselves taste so good, I could quit eating them.”

The truth is disturbing, which is why it’s so easily ignored. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of all the remarkable facts about pigs. First, the stereotypes are false: they are clean animals and don’t sweat, and they don’t “pig out” but prefer to eat slowly and methodically. They are, as Glenn Greenwald puts it, “among the planet’s most intelligent, social, and emotionally complicated species, capable of great joy, play, love, connection, suffering and pain.” They can be housebroken, and can be trained to walk on a leash and do tricks. They dream, they play, they snuggle. They can roll out rugs, play videogames, and herd sheep. They love sunbathing and belly rubs. But don’t take my word for it—listen to the testimony of this man who accidentally adopted a 500-pound pig:

She’s unlike any animal I’ve met. Her intelligence is unbelievable. She’s house trained and even opens the back door with her snout to let herself out to pee. Her food is mainly kibble, plus fruit and vegetables. Her favourite treat is a cupcake. She’s bathed regularly and pigs don’t sweat, so she doesn’t smell. If you look a pig closely in the eyes, it’s startling; there’s something so inexplicably human. When you’re lying next to her and talking, you know she understands. It was emotional realising she was a commercial pig. The more we discovered about what her life could have been, it seemed crazy to us that we ate animals, so we stopped.

I want to note something that often passes by too quickly, which is that the sentience of animals like pigs and cows is almost impossible to deny. Animals can clearly feel “distress” and “pleasure,” and since they have nervous systems just like we do, these feelings are being felt by a “consciousness.” If a human eyeball captures light and creates images that are seen from within, so does a pig’s eyeball, because eyes are eyes. In other words, pigs have an internal life: there is something it is like to be a pig. We’ll almost certainly never know what that’s like, and it’s impossible to even speculate on, but if we believe that other humans are conscious, it is unclear why other animals wouldn’t be, albeit in a more rudimentary way. No, they don’t understand differential calculus or Althusser’s theory of interpellation. (Neither do I.) But they share with us the more morally crucial quality of being able to feel things. They can be happy and they can suffer.

Of course, critics suggest that this is just irrational anthropomorphism: the idea of animal emotions is false, because emotions are concepts we have developed to understand our own experiences as humans, and we have no idea what the parallel experiences in animals are like and whether they are properly comparable. The temptation to attribute human traits to animals is certainly difficult to resist; I can’t help but see sloths that look like they’re smiling as actually smiling, but these sloths almost certainly have no idea that they are smiling. Likewise, whenever I see a basset hound I feel compelled to try to cheer it up, even though I know that sad-eyed dogs aren’t really sad. Even if we do posit that animals feel emotions, nobody can know just how distant their consciousnesses are from our own. We have an intuitive sense that “being a bug” doesn’t feel like much, but how similar is being a water vole to being an antelope versus being a dragonfly? All of it is speculation. David Foster Wallace, in considering the Lobster Question (“Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”), noted that the issues of “whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult,” and many can’t actually be resolved satisfactorily. How do you know what agony means to a lobster? Still, he said, “standing at the stove, it is hard to deny in any meaningful way that this is a living creature experiencing pain and wishing to avoid/escape the painful experience… To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering.”

And lobsters are a trickier case than other more complex creatures, since they’re freaky and difficult to empathize with. As we speak of higher-order creatures who have anatomy and behavioral traits more closely paralleling our own, there is at least good evidence to suggest that various nonhuman animals can experience terrible pain. (Again, hardly anyone would deny this with dogs, and once we accept that we just need to be willing to carry our reasoning through.) Once we accept that these beings experience pain, it next becomes necessary to admit that humans inflict a lot of it on them. We massacre tens of billions of animals a year, and their brief lives are often filled with nothing but pain and fear. The “lucky” ones are those like the male chicks who are deemed “useless” and are “suffocated, gassed or minced alive at a day old.” At least they will be spared the life of torture that awaits most of the creatures raised in factory farms. I don’t know how many atrocity tales to tell here, because again, this is not something unknown, but something “known yet ignored.” I can tell you about animals living next to the rotting corpses of their offspring, animals beaten, shocked, sliced, living in their own blood and feces. I could show you horrible pictures, but I won’t. Here’s Greenwald describing a practice used in pig farms:

Pigs are placed in a crate made of iron bars that is the exact length and width of their bodies, so they can do nothing for their entire lives but stand on a concrete floor, never turn around, never see any outdoors, never even see their tails, never move more than an inch. They are put in so-called farrowing crates when they give birth, and their piglets run underneath them to suckle and are often trampled to death. The sows are bred repeatedly this way until their fertility declines, at which point they are slaughtered and turned into meat. The pigs are so desperate to get out of their crates that they often spend weeks trying to bite through the iron bars until their gums gush blood, bash their heads against the walls, and suffer a disease in which their organs end up mangled in the wrong places, from the sheer physical trauma of trying to escape from a tiny space or from acute anxiety.

Separate from the issue of “conditions” is the issue of killing itself. Obviously, it is better if an animal lives in relative comfort before it is slaughtered, and better if their deaths are imposed “humanely.” But personally, I find the idea of “humane slaughter” oxymoronic, because I’m disturbed by the taking of life as well as by suffering. This part is difficult to persuade people of, since it depends largely on a moral instinct about whether an animal’s life is “inherently” valuable, and whether they should have some kind of autonomy or dignity. Plenty of people who could agree that animal torture is wrong can still believe that eating animals is unobjectionable in and of itself. My disagreement with this comes from my deep gut feeling that opposing torture but endorsing killing is like saying “Of course, the people we eat shouldn’t be kept in tiny cages before we kill them, that’s abominable.” Once you grant that animals are conscious, and have “feelings” of one kind of another, and “wills” (i.e. that there are things they want and things they don’t want, and they don’t want to die), the whole process of mass killing seems irredeemably horrifying.

I want to come back to the h-word. I think about the Holocaust a lot, the capital-H one. I’d imagine I think about it more than most people I know. I’m almost the opposite of a Holocaust denier: I find it so real, and the implications of its reality so unsettling, that it is difficult for me to ever quite get it out of my head. I almost think that in order to get on with your life, you have to operate in some state of quasi-denial: affirming intellectually that the Holocaust happened, but avoiding feeling viscerally what that actually means. “Six million” remains an abstract, the victims are black and white photos rather than conscious beings with pulses and itches and toes like yourself. The idea of watching your children be dragged away from you and shuffled off toward a gas chamber, it’s just… it’s too much, and you almost have to deny it, or at least not think about it too much, because it’s just so unbelievably sad.

My morbid inability to let go of the Holocaust leaves me thinking a lot about those varying states of denial. Nearly everyone is in some degree of denial about how much pain there is in the world, because grasping its full dimensions is, first, impossible, and second, would be paralyzing and make life unbearable. But because we have to overlook enormous amounts of suffering if we’re going to live, have to stop thinking about the old people crying alone in their hospital beds, and the sick children whose every second of life has been spent dying, it is going to be very easy to miss an atrocity in our midst. It has never been a mystery to me how ordinary Germans could ignore what was going on around them. They did it the same way we ignore all of the pain that millions of strangers are going through at any given moment. As long as other people’s terror isn’t in the room with you, as long as it’s off behind barbed wire a few miles away, it’s not just easy to ignore but almost impossible to notice. Walk through any American city on a nice day and see how easy it is to forget that the country has two million people in its prisons. They’re off in rural counties, and as long as you don’t go looking for them—and as long as you’re not among the populations from whose numbers the incarcerated are mostly drawn—none of it will even exist for you. (For three years, I used to do the same ten minute walk from my apartment to school and back every day. It was only in the third year, after noticing it on a map, that I realized I had been walking directly past a jail with hundreds of inmates in it. People were locked in rooms, living lives, and I passed by unaware.)

Because people slip so naturally into oblivious complicity, it’s crucial to actively examine the world around you for evidence of things hidden. What am I missing? What have I accepted as ordinary that might in fact be atrocious? Am I in denial about something that will be clear in retrospect? Every time I apply this kind of thinking to meat-eating, I get chills. Here we have set up mass industrial slaughter, a world built on the suffering and death of billions of creatures. The scale of the carnage is unfathomable. (I know sharks aren’t particularly sympathetic, but I’m still shocked by the statistic that while sharks kill 8 people per year, humans kill 11,000 sharks per hour.) Yet we hide all of it away, we don’t talk about it. Laws are passed to prevent people from even taking photographs of it. That makes me feel the same way I do about the death penalty: if this weren’t atrocious, it wouldn’t need to be kept out of view. “Mass industrial slaughter.” There’s no denying that’s what it is. Yet that sounds like something a decent society shouldn’t have in it.

Illustration by Katherine Lam

I’ve tried my best to figure out a way to avoid my conclusion, because I know only a small fraction of other people share it. But it’s a simple and, to me, inescapable deduction: (1) nonhuman animals are conscious beings capable of suffering, (2) unnecessarily causing conscious beings to suffer and die is morally reprehensible, (3) humans cause billions of nonhuman animals to suffer and die every year, mostly for their own pleasure, (4) by killing and eating animals, humans are doing something deeply wrong. (Jeremy Bentham’s formulation is still powerful and hard to escape: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?“)

The difficulty of avoiding this conclusion is what disturbed David Foster Wallace during his time at the Maine Lobster Festival. He realized that it seemed preachy and extreme, but as a thoughtful and philosophically rigorous individual, he couldn’t escape the morally troubling implications of boiling lobsters alive. The lobsters just didn’t seem to want to be killed, and however normalized the practice may be, however easily we may take it for granted that these creatures are of little moral worth, once you begin to scrutinize these assumptions, to see that they’re built on very little, and that a creature does seem to be experiencing something resembling pain, it becomes tough to defend our actions.

I still know I’m taking a risk by using the word “holocaust.” The dictionary definition may be “any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life” (and the word even originally referred to the burning of sacrifices, i.e. animals), but there are plenty who are skeptical even of applying the term to other genocides. To speak of a “pig holocaust” can seem trivializing and insensitive. And yet: once again, ideas that seem true and reasonable by instinct become harder to defend once scrutinized. It’s true that how bad you believe the industrial slaughter of animals is, compared to the industrial slaughter of humans, depends on whether you believe suffering is suffering, and the degree to which its gravity depends on the intellectual sophistication of the sufferer. You might also think that certain atrocities perpetrated on 100 million pigs are not as bad as those same atrocities committed against five fully-functioning human beings. A lot depends on your subjective weighting of the value of very different lives, and none of that has any obvious “true” answer. Personally, though, I keep having that feeling of being unable to escape my discomfort: knowing what’s out there, knowing the cages, the blood, the billion squeals of pain, I hear over and over those same questions: “Why is this different? How can it be justified? What are you choosing not to realize?” And yet again that same terrible word: holocaust.

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