Thursday, April 6, 2023

A girl, a goat, and the force of law: What a local story tells us about animal advocacy


Perhaps you have already heard the story, but a strange thing recently recently happened with a 9 year old girl and her goat, Cedar. As reported in the LA Times, a girl had spent nine months raising a goat through a 4-H program. When it came time to turn the goat over for slaughter, she didn't want to. The girl's mother removed the goat from the fair, and tried to settle this through civil means. The Shasta District Fair called the police, and the police got a no knock warrant, and then traveled more than five hundred miles to claim the goat. They then turned the goat over to the fair, who slaughtered him. The whole story is absurd, a kind of evil, horrific, reversal of a Disney story. 

Of course, why is this something more than just a local story of the Fair abusing it's power, and another story of police power run amok? Well, the incident raises several important questions. The first is simply, why were the cops ever involved? As many have pointed out, this is a civil matter over a contract dispute, not a criminal matter. So why did the local fair bring on the force of law? And second, why did the fair even care in the first place? The amount of money at stake is tiny, and the girl's mother had already promised to pay it anyway. Lastly, what do the answers to these questions have to do with the animal advocacy movement?


Both of these questions are addressed in part in a Vox article by Gabriel Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz. Rosenberg has written a whole book on 4-H, which I keep meaning to read, but haven't. Maybe now I will. But I have read several of his articles, and taught a couple of them ("No Scrubs" and "How Meat Changed Sex". If you haven't read them, you should, because he is just a first rate animal agricultural historian and theorist). As they explain in their Vox article, 4-H serves an ideological, affective role:

Sociologists Colter Ellis and Leslie Irvine have argued that 4-H’s livestock projects implicitly teach young people how to manage the emotional dissonance that can result from sending a beloved companion animal to a grisly fate. The program’s cognitive and emotional socialization is consistent with broader strategies deployed in animal agriculture to justify what many workers may experience as the disturbing and even traumatic labor of slaughter, Ellis contends. Livestock projects systematically undercut and confound the basic moral intuitions youthful participants like Long’s daughter start with, teaching them that it’s natural and right to lovingly care for an animal companion and then slaughter it and sell it as meat for a tidy profit.

The affective regulation of 4-H is meant to also displace emotional reactions we might have towards other animals, such as mercy:

Philosopher Cora Diamond [...] has noted that mercy is the quality of recognizing the suffering of one over whom we wield power and choosing to treat them with compassion. To make mercilessness into a virtue, as such programs inherently do, propels violence against the vulnerable, whether animal or human, but it also strips people of what Diamond sees as our human moral capacity. Mercy emerges not because we are bound by some abstract inhuman rule, but the opposite — because we are exposed to the particular suffering of a creature in our power and moved by our consciences to spare them, as Long’s daughter was. Perhaps the county’s brutal response to a single girl’s act of mercy came in part because she reminded the adults around her that they were not metaphysically bound to cruelty to animals; they could choose mercy, but chose not to.

Of course, one could feel mercy to anyone who is suffering. What is going on with this relationship is more. As the NY Times reported in 2022:
She fed him twice a day and walked him everywhere, often on a leash, like a puppy, Ms. Long said in an interview on Thursday. The goat was afraid at first, having been taken from his herd, but he warmed up to the girl and ran up to greet her, Ms. Long said. So as the June 25 auction approached, the idea that Cedar would be sold — not as a creature but as 82 pounds of meat — began to horrify the girl.

This is clearly a form of care. The girl cared for Cedar, or as he was nicknamed, "Cedes." And this is exactly why so many animal ethicists have worked within the tradition of feminist ethics of care. It is because, as Lori Gruen has so often reminded us, empathy can entangle us with the other. It is obvious that most of us would become close to creatures we cared for, that it bonds us, entangles us, calls out to us. Just the simply affective contagion of one being becoming attuned to another is one that calls for care, calls for mercy, calls for the recognition of one creature to another.  So programs like the one under discussion by 4-H serves an important affective regulation, that must shape the caretaker into the future slaughter, or at least servant of the slaughter. 

The NY Times ends with this heartbreaking question:
Ms. Long did not learn about Cedar’s slaughter until a week or so after the seizure, and she did not tell her daughter until several weeks after that, when she kept asking to see the goat. When Ms. Long told the girl, she ran down the hall, jumped in her bed, slipped under the covers and cried, Ms. Long said.
“She asked, ‘Why did they do that?’”
To that question, Rosenberg and Dutkiewicz  give us an answer in their Vox article, "If an exception is made to spare one animal’s life, the whole ideology is undermined." 
In the past, I have called the condition of animals in the factory farm as deading life. We can understand this as the inverse of the living dead--beings who should be dead, but are somehow still alive. Instead, in deading life, we have beings who should be alive, but are somehow already dead. This is an intensification of Cicero's claim that pigs were given life as a kind of salt, that is, as a was of preserving them until they can be eaten. Thus, the factory farm and industrial slaughter understands the animal as a corpse, backwards. This is why the Ag Daily's response to this incident is to stress, over and over again beginning with the title, "It’s important to understand that market livestock’s ‘end game’ is the dinner table." The idea that these animals are somehow already dead, and their life is but salt until the barbecue, is an essential part of this ideology. The being of animals is meat, not a fellow creature. Therefore, we are told by the Ag Daily editorial, "these animals had a clear purpose from the beginning, and it’s our job to understand that purpose, and to ensure that our kids do too." It is this challenge that causes the Fair to send cops to go kidnap a single goat. This is why large agriculture companies have pushed for prosecution of activists who rescued animals that were going to suffer to death and would not cost the company anything (see here, and here). The point is the not the economics or the law, but rather, the maintenance of the ideological apparatuses and affective institutions that prop up the ontology of deading life. 
About four years ago, Vasile Stănescu posted on this blog a long exploration about the so-called failures of traditional animal advocacy. You should read it all. His argument is that the failures are overstated, and there is good reason to believe that direct advocacy about animals is working. However, many leaders with the animal advocacy movement has become despondent about the success of these advocacies, so they have turned to promoting things like alternative proteans and in vitro meat. And while Vas and I have some nuanced disagreements about these things, I think his overarching point is correct: We are not going to be able to trick people into creating a vegan world. While having food that competes with animal corpses on taste and price might be a useful tool (and I probably think a more useful tool than Vas does), it's not going to be sufficient. If sending cops after a little girl's goat should teach us anything, it should teach us how entrenched this ideology is going to be, and it should teach us how hard people who believe in it are going to fight a vegan world. We will not get to that world through some sort of trickery of consumer products alone, but will require us to fight the ideological apparatuses and the affective institutions that keep us from feeling and staying in the entanglements with other animals. The project is one of building institutions (not just political, but aesthetic, ethical, cultural, and affective) to extend our sympathies. What are the institutions, practices, and artifices we can create to overcome these limitations? What are the affects and the abstractions, the precepts and the concepts, we can multiply and circulate? What are the communities we can build and nurture? How do we create a matrix that allows us to change and transform the vectors of desire? These are questions about what beings we are to become, what worlds we are to make.