A Belgian association for animal rights recently revealed shocking footage of horrific animal cruelty in a slaughter house in Tielt, Belgium. In the footage, we see how pigs are frequently kicked and beaten and how they're dragged by their ears or using a chain around their feet if they are too crippled to walk. We see pigs being hoisted while conscious, having their throat cut while conscious, and we see how one pig drowns to death in a steaming hot bath, a bath originally designed to burn away the hairs of pig corpses. The footage caused enormous commotion, and led to the Flemish minister for animal welfare Ben Weyts to (temporarily) shut down the concerned slaughter accommodation. The aspect of this case I want to draw attention to is the problematic character of the non-transparency in the animal industry, illustrated yet again in this incident. The public upheaval this week proves once more that the public generally doesn't accept many practices that so often occur in the animal industry. Once these practices of animal cruelty have been revealed, democratic representatives immediately feel public pressure to end these cases of animal cruelty. Therefore, the chronic concealment of what happens in the animal industry does not only harm animals, but it also compromises the right of humans to make informed democratic and economic choices.
Correlation between visibility and protection
In her book Animals, Equality and Democracy, Siobhan O'Sullivan demonstrates that there is a correlation between the visibility of animals and their legal protection. Animals that are visible generally enjoy relatively good legal protection, whereas animals who are hidden away generally don't. Apparently, once we are confronted with animal abuse, we tend to prohibit it. Indeed, we see this process at work everywhere around the world: resistance to public forms of animal abuse such as bullfighting and fox hunting is growing. This growing public disapproval has also translated into an increasing introduction of legal bans on public animal abuse. But, as O'Sullivan illustrates in her book, visibility is an important, if not indispensable condition for this development. Out of sight is out of mind. A reverse use of this knowledge teaches us that non-transparency, therefore, is an important condition for the continuance of animal cruelty. The animal industry viciously turned this wisdom into economic strategy. In order to remain economically viable, animal companies are being compelled to keep the whole process of animal raising to slaughter under the radar. It is not accidental that slaughter houses are generally situated in rural areas, that the buildings have no windows, and that animal welfare inspectors are intimidated when they visit. In some areas, the agricultural lobby has even persuaded the (local) government to introduce so-called ag-gag laws: laws that criminalise whistleblowers who make or publicise footage from inside industrial farms. It is clear that the animal industry persists only by the grace of opacity.
Compromising the open society
This strategy of intentionally preventing information from reaching the public could be perceived as an undemocratic act. In an open democratic society, the public has a right to know what's going on in society, in order to enable it to shape society according to its own will. The principle of transparency, also argues O'Sullivan, is vital to democracy. If certain dubious actions are chronically tucked away and impenetrable without breaking the law, the public is seriously compromised in their democratic right to participate in policy making. How can we make sure that the right aspects of society are given priority in policy making if one dark aspect of our society is chronically underexposed and thereby almost immune to public scrutiny? How can we be sure that the level of animal welfare in the animal industry reflects the level desired by the public, if the public is unable to inform themselves about the actual situation in the animal industry? A certain level of transparency is vital in an open society, so that the public is able to employ their democratic arms should any injustice reveal itself. It is a well-known quote that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. Maybe it is time to rephrase the quote in a political context: If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would regain their full democratic rights.