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Feb. 29, 2020!
My talk, “Comparing Atrocities: Pros, Cons and Paradoxes,” will argue that parallels can be drawn between incommensurable atrocities affecting both human and nonhuman animals, but that we need to be selective in our use of parallels. I further argue that while every experience is incommensurable, each unique experience paradoxically expresses the larger fabric of life to which no single individual or group can lay claim as the sole proprietor.
Can Oppression Be Unique and General?
By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns
If we cannot imagine how chickens must feel being grabbed in the middle
of the night by men who are cursing and yelling at them while pitching
them into the crates in which they will travel to the next wave of
human terror attacks at the slaughterhouse, then we should try to
imagine ourselves placed helplessly in the hands of an overpowering
extraterrestrial species, to whom our pleas for mercy sound like
nothing more than mere noise to the master race in whose
“superior” minds we are “only animals.”
– Karen Davis, The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale
“The garbage dump is crammed with our heads and entrails.”
– Rooster narrator of “Cockadoodledoo” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Some people will say that treating creatures badly in order to eat them is a far cry from treating creatures badly simply because you hate them, but Charles Patterson notes in his book, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, that the psychology of contempt for “inferior life” links the Nazi mentality to that which allows us to torture and kill billions of nonhuman animals and millions of human beings with no more concern for them and their suffering than Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb feel for their victims, apart from the pleasure they derive from the taste of their victims’ pain, in Thomas Harris’s book, The Silence of the Lambs. That book says that the plight of the lambs screaming in the slaughterhouses – the whole human enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and murder – “will not end, ever” (Harris, 366).
Eternal Treblinka reminds us of all those other slaughterhouses that were running alongside the human ones under the Nazis – “Around-the-clock killing and butchering” conducted at Treblinka, Auschwitz, in Dresden, and elsewhere (Patterson, 129). In their diaries and letters, Nazi officials note indifferently such things as “huge slaughter of chickens and pigs” (Patterson, 125), and they dote on their meals. One writes to his wife: “The sight of the dead – including women and children – is not very cheering. Once the cold weather sets in you’ll be getting a goose now and again. There are over 200 chattering around here, as well as cows, calves, pigs, hens and turkeys. We live like princes. Today, Sunday, we had roast goose (1/4 each). This evening we are having pigeon” (Patterson, 129).
In Eternal Treblinka, chickens and pigs shriek as they are being cursed and butchered. Nazis bear their souls in letters and diaries. We read the opposing testimony of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. A question raised over and over by those who became vegetarians rather than perpetuate the legacy of butchery in their own lives, is “How can ‘we’ do to ‘them’ what was done to ‘us’ and not even recognize it?” Because, says Albert Kaplan, “we have learned nothing from the Holocaust” (Patterson, 167). Kaplan tells of a visit he made in Israel to a kibbutz Holocaust museum near Haifa: “Around two hundred feet from the main entrance to the museum is an Auschwitz for animals from which emanates a horrible odor that envelops the museum. I mentioned it to the museum management. Their reaction was not surprising. ‘But they are only chickens’” (Patterson, 166).
Degradation of the Victim
Christa Blanke, a former Lutheran pastor in Germany and founder of the organization Animals’ Angels, cites a link between how we treat animals and Nazism. First we strip the animals of their dignity – “The degradation of the victim always precedes a murder” (Patterson, 228). But, we want to know, why do humans want to degrade and kill? Serial killer Ted Bundy said it wasn’t that he had no feelings of remorse for his victims, but that those feelings were weak and ephemeral compared to his rapacious emotions (Rule). Naturalist John Muir wrote that the people he knew enjoyed seeing the passenger pigeons fill the sky, but they liked shooting and eating them more – “Every shotgun was aimed at them” (Teale, 46).
Comfort with Cruelty
The Holocaust thus raises questions, and we long for answers. Why, asked Isaac Bashevis Singer, do we pretend animals don’t feel in order to justify our cruelty, but even more importantly, why do we want to be cruel to animals? Is comfort with cruelty, taking pleasure in cruelty, a trait we carry from our past in our genes? Why, when we have the technology to duplicate animal products, do people insist they have to have meat? Why do we praise technology for developing substitutes for cruder practices in other areas of life while balking at its use to end slaughterhouses, which technology can do?
The Holocaust epitomized an attitude, the manifestation of a base will. It is the attitude that we can do whatever we please, however vicious, if we can get away with it, because “we” are superior, and “they,” whoever they are, are, so to speak, “just chickens.” Paradoxically, therefore, it is possible, indeed requisite, to make relevant and enlightening comparisons between the Holocaust and our base treatment of nonhuman animals. We can make comparisons while agreeing with philosopher, Brian Luke: “My opposition to the institutionalized exploitation of animals is not based on a comparison between human and animal treatment, but on a consideration of the abuse of animals in and of itself” (Luke, 81).
Paradoxically, while the words “Nazi” and “Holocaust” represent unique historical phenomena, they can transcend these phenomena to function more broadly. And a broader approach to the Holocaust would appear to hold more promise for a more enlightened and compassionate future than attempting to privatize the event to the extent that its only permissible reference is self-reference. A broader approach provides a more just apprehension of past and present atrocities, while connecting the Nazis and the Holocaust to the larger ethical challenges confronting humanity.
Identity or Exclusivity?
In A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, Native American scholar Ward Churchill writes that the experience of the Jews under the Nazis is unique “only in the sense that all such phenomena exhibit unique characteristics. Genocide, as the Nazis practiced it, was never something suffered exclusively by the Jews, nor were the Nazis singularly guilty of its practice” (Churchill 1997, 35-36).
One of the many questions that emerge from the current debate about the use of the Holocaust to illuminate humankind’s relationship to billions of nonhuman animals is the extent to which the outrage of having one’s own suffering compared to that of others centers primarily on issues of identity and uniqueness or on issues of superiority and privilege. The ownership of superior and unique suffering has many claimants, but as Isaac Bashevis Singer observed speaking of chickens, there is no evidence that humans are more important than chickens (Shenker, 11).
The Fascist Within
There is no evidence, either, that human suffering, or Jewish suffering, is separate from all other suffering, or that it needs to be kept separate and superior in order to maintain its identity. But where, it may be asked, is the evidence that we humans have had enough of inflicting massive preventable suffering on one another and on the individuals of other species, given that we know suffering so well, and claim to abhor it? In Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, Charles Patterson concludes: “the sooner we put an end to our cruel and violent way of life, the better it will be for all of us – perpetrators, bystanders, and victims” (232). Who but the Nazi within us disagrees? If we are going to exterminate someone, let it be the fascist within.
Churchill, Ward. 1997. A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Davis, Karen, 2005. The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. New York: Lantern Books.
Harris, Thomas. 1988. The Silence of the Lambs. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Luke, Brian. 1996. “Justice, Caring, and Animal Liberation.” Beyond Animal Rights: A Feminist Caring Ethic for the Treatment of Animals. Ed.
Patterson, Charles. 2002. Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books.
Rule, Ann. 1989 (1980). The Stranger Beside Me. New York: Signet.
Shenker, Israel. 1991. “The Man Who Talked Back to God: Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1904-91.” The New York Times Book Review, August 11.
Teale, Edwin Way, ed. 1954. The Wilderness World of John Muir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. The 2009 Revised Edition of Karen’s landmark book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (first published in 1996) is described by the American Library Association's Choice magazine as "Riveting . . . brilliant . . . noteworthy for its breadth and depth." Karen’s latest book, published by Lantern Books in 2019, is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation – Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl. Amazon Reviews Praise For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation by Karen Davis, PhD.