The latest issue of the Humanist magazine (July-Aug '13) has a slightly modified version of my essay from last year.
Clearly, most people don’t even know about the horror and pain we inflict on billions of birds and mammals in our meat factories. But there’s no good excuse for this, is there? It’s more likely that we don’t want to know—can’t afford to know for our own sake—so we turn a blind eye and trust the artifice of bucolic imagery on meat packaging. Some see parallels here with the German people’s willful denial of the concentration camps that once operated around them, or call those who consume factory-farmed meat little Eichmanns. “For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer (who also used to say he turned vegetarian “for health reasons—the health of the chicken”).
Predictably enough, many others are offended by such comparisons. They say that comparing the industrialized abuse of animals with the industrialized abuse of humans trivializes the latter. There are indeed limits to such comparisons, though our current enterprise may be worse in at least one respect: it has no foreseeable end. We seem committed to raising billions of sentient beings year after year only to kill them after a short life of intense suffering. Furthermore, rather than take offense at polemical comparisons—as if others are obliged to be more judicious in their speech than we are in our silent deeds—why not reflect on our apathy instead? Criticizing vegetarians and vegans for being self-righteous—or being moral opportunists in having found a new way of affirming their decency to themselves—certainly doesn’t absolve us from the need to face up to our role in perpetuating this cycle of violence and degradation.