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April 08, 2013

The Politics of Sight


An unauthorized video got millions of views online and through traditional media platforms last week showing the Rutgers University men’s basketball head coach shoving, grabbing, and throwing basketballs at several of the squad’s players in practice and also directing homophobic slurs at them. That video stirred controversy about the conduct of this coach, and it’s led to his firing and to a public apology from him and the university.

Fortunately, we’ve heard no movement, on behalf of the NCAA or any athletic conference, to ban videotaping of basketball practice at the collegiate level.

Gestation crates - HSUS pig investigation
The HSUS

Yet that’s exactly what the agribusiness industry is telling us should happen with videos exposing abuse at their operations. In response to kickings, beatings, draggings, live-skinning, and other forms of shocking animal abuse captured by HSUS investigators and those from a handful of other animal-protection organizations, leading agriculture organizations are working with their legislative allies to introduce and promote whistleblower suppression bills (so-called “ag-gag” legislation) in nearly a dozen states to make it a crime to take unauthorized pictures on farms, or to apply for a job if their applicant is affiliated with an animal protection group. Yesterday, The New York Times reported on the issue, and dozens of major newspapers throughout the country—from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette to the Bakersfield Californian to the Indianapolis Star—have condemned this attempt to prevent the public from getting any view of what happens on factory farms and other animal-use operations. Last year, three states—Iowa, Missouri, and Utah—passed such bills, on top of bills enacted in Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota to accomplish the same goal.

As The Times reported, it was the HSUS videos of horse soring, the abuse of downer cows, the lifelong immobilization of breeding pigs, and other unsettling conduct that triggered that counter-maneuver by the industry. In so many of these cases, HSUS investigations have produced criminal convictions, the shutdown of slaughter plants, and even, in the case of our famous Hallmark undercover operation, massive meat recalls. But in other cases, the goal was not to produce a criminal complaint, but to expose routine, systemic abuses of animals that are legal. 

There is a complex “politics of visibility” at play in the struggle over these attempts to suppress investigations and whistleblower efforts at farms and slaughter plants. As the New School political scientist Timothy Pachirat explains in his striking recent work, “Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight,” the mass production and slaughter of animals for food in industrial society relies on a deliberate walling off of the entire process of raising and killing from the consumer. Highly industrialized production and slaughter now occurs on an increasingly small concentration of massive facilities in out-of-the way places. More specifically, the raising and killing occurs in highly compartmentalized, elaborately secured facilities, even designed to thwart or complicate mandated government inspections. The spate of ag-gag bills represents an extension of that mentality of maintaining the physical isolation of the facilities and keeping the images out of sight for the millions of people in whose name the work of producing and killing is being undertaken.

It is true that many people don’t want to see what goes on in the business of killing animals for food, or raising them by the millions in terrible conditions, since the images often cause revulsion and may prompt consumers to examine what happens in the supply chain. In many ways, the factory farming industry depends on the public disassociation of the production and marketing and consumption sides of the business. It is the job of The HSUS and other animal-welfare groups to promote an association of thought for consumers, since so many billions of animals are caught up in the food production system. Consumers should know what happens to the animals who become food. And it’s a moral duty for The HSUS, and indeed for all of society, to expose unlawful conduct as well as lawful conduct that is inconsistent with basic standards of humanity and decency. 

Mr. Pachirat himself concealed his identity as a researcher in applying for a job and then conducting his academic inquiry while working at an Omaha slaughtering plant for six months, where he started as a “liver hanger.” Perhaps he would have been arrested if the current ag-gag legislation introduced in Nebraska had been in place when he did his undercover work.

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