The ACCC recently took on Rosie’s Free Range Eggs for reportedly selling cage eggs and passing them off as free range. Free range remains an unprotected term and chickens face incredibly crowded conditions while we get sold a Waltons version of their lives down on the farm. What gets in the way of our compassion? Why do we fall so easily for the greenwash?
Circling the debate about egg production and animal cruelty is the cagey question of what allows us as humans to ignore the suffering inflicted in the practice of intense farming. As duck-hunting season begins and challenges to free range chicken legislation continue, what sense can we make of our continuing indifference to the plight of our feathered friends?
There is a solid research connection between human violence, particularly family violence and cruelty to animals. For over 30 years, psychological research has identified a link between the childhood witnessing of violence and animal cruelty. A significant proportion of children who witness family violence will act this violence out against their pets.
Similarly, the link between the perpetration of animal cruelty by children and interpersonal violence later in adulthood is also well established. Children who torture animals are more likely to hurt people when they grow up.
Finally, where there is violence between people in the home, pets are also very likely to be assaulted. In some US states, the link between family violence and animal cruelty is so well documented that animal welfare and family violence officers are required to share information to aid in the prevention and prosecution of violent crime.
Family violence is so all pervasive that most of us are touched by it in some way. Over 20 per cent of Australian women are still suffering violence from partners. So if we haven’t experienced violence in our own families, it’s likely to exist in our extended family, or among our friends or colleagues.
It’s not drawing such a long bow to speculate that it is this familiarity with violence that leads most of us to take part in the torture of animals either directly or by providing our tacit consent to cruelty.
So many of us have been victims and witnesses to violence that it’s a fair hypothesis that our continued abuse of animals stems from our own violent histories. Maybe our compassion buttons have been deactivated by our repeated exposure to people hurting each other.
I’m not talking here about killing. Killing animals is different to torture. Whether you’re a carnivore or not, there are times when being able to kill an animal is a blessing.
A long time ago we had a cat who was a true torturer. She could never manage to kill the introduced birds she caught and would leave them in various states of mortal distress on our back doorstep. My partner would go out and kill them as quickly as possible. Sometimes he would come in and have a cry afterwards. I couldn’t bear to and I know my squeamishness did them no favours.
This squeamishness can also be the legacy of a history of violence. A fear of facing the reality of the pain of a little helpless creature when we were once little helpless creatures ourselves. This squeamishness can lead us to close our eyes and it can leave us vulnerable to outrageous acts of cover up.
Watch the current debate over free range labeling, have a look at the whimsical drawings on your packets of free range eggs and witness the greenwash. The careful painting over of painful reality with the rhetoric of necessity, nostalgic marketing and obscuring language. This is not so different to what we find in the disavowal of a violent childhood history.
Like children in a family where there is violence, we’ve given up on the possibility of peace, safety and mercy. We’re not even sure it’s possible. So when we’re offered a greenwash we take it. It’s going to be all right, we say to ourselves, there are the chickens, pecking calmly in a wide paddock, being fed by hand by lovely young girls in check pinafores.
This is how we cope with the violence in our homes, we kind of go to sleep, hoping it will miraculously stop, or not even hoping, just going numb instead. To face the reality of the tortured lives of chickens is to face our own torture or that of our friends and family. If we could face this then we could change it. If we really wanted to change it we’d look beyond the picture on the box.
For us therapists the challenge is also to look beyond the label. We’ve been busy for so long labelling and categorising behaviour between humans that we have largely neglected the relationship between humans, other animals and the planet. The emerging fields of conservation and eco-psychology are beginning to teach us about our psychological interdependence. Our challenge now is to see a respectful relationship with animals not as a virtue or a desirable character trait, but as a prerequisite for wellness.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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