Western Hypocrisy and Muslim Whataboutism, as Every Year


In May 2020, when people were panic-buying toilet paper and supply chains were crumbling due to COVID-19, Iowa’s largest pork producer found itself with thousands of pigs that no longer had commercial value. Led by the logic of profit maximization, Iowa Select Farms decided that keeping the pigs alive was not worth the cost. The pigs had to die, and their deaths had to be fast and cheap.

First, Iowa Select Farms shut off the ventilation fans and turned up the heat, hoping to kill the animals via heatstroke and suffocation. It didn’t work. Hours later, the animals were still alive. Using a more effective method called “ventilation shutdown plus,” they then pumped hot steam into the barn. On footage captured by animal rights activists, one can hear the heartbreaking cries of pigs as they are slowly cooked to death.

This is like leaving a dog in a car with the windows closed on a hot summer day, until he or she dies. In many places around the world, doing this, even if it’s mere neglect and you don’t intend the dog’s death, can result in a fine or jail time. In contrast, what Iowa Select Farms did to thousands of pigs – though gruesome and very much intentional – was legal. While pigs and dogs both are highly intelligent animals with complex emotional lives, pigs are “farm animals” and dogs are “pets,” and the US is notorious for ranking among the worst nations in the world in terms of the cruelty it inflicts on farm animals.

The temporal and spatial density of suffering and death makes the 2020 mass-killing of pigs in Iowa particularly shocking, but it is far from an isolated incident. Suffering and death are inherent to animal agriculture, especially the kind practiced on factory farms, where around 99% of US farm animals live.

Hens used in egg production are packed into battery cages so small that they can’t even spread their wings. Frustrated by the extreme confinement, they peck and injure each other, causing infections. To minimize this, young chicks have a portion of their sensitive beaks sliced off by “debeaking machines,” without anesthesia. Other farm animals too are routinely subjected to painful mutilations. Dairy cows have their horns removed (which unlike hair contain blood vessels and nerves), pigs have their tails cut off, cattle used in the beef industry are branded, and cows, goats, sheep, and pigs are castrated (unless used for breeding). In the vast majority of cases, no form of pain relief is provided for these painful procedures. During transportation, animals often experience overcrowding, rough handling, and extreme temperatures, resulting in fear, injury, and even death. In slaughterhouses, time pressure regularly results in ineffective stunning and unconscionable amounts of unnecessary suffering.

You don’t need to be an animal rights advocate to recognize that modern animal agriculture is a moral monstrosity. Even if you believe that the lives and welfare of humans are more important than the lives and welfare of other animals, with healthy, nutritious, and tasty plant-based food readily available, there is no moral justification for the unfathomable magnitude of horror we impose on sentient beings for little or no benefit.

In a few days, as every year, many of the same people who uncritically consume animals from factory farms, thereby perpetuating the horror, will flock to social media to express outrage over the sacrifice of animals on Eid al-Adha. The images of blood flowing in the streets and the terror in the eyes of camels, cows, and goats as they are being tied down and prepared for slaughter are visceral and understandably trigger strong reactions. To the animal, however, it makes little difference if their life finds a violent end out in the open in Dhaka or Peshawar, or behind the walls of a slaughterhouse in Iowa, deliberately hidden from the public.

Let’s call the outrage of Western meat eaters what it is: hypocrisy. If they really cared as much about animals as their outrage suggests, they wouldn’t be eating them. It’s important to recognize though that humans are complex beings and often struggle with their own choices. Many people may genuinely believe that one shouldn’t eat meat but find it difficult to consistently live up to that belief, due to factors such as weakness of will and social pressure. It’s much easier to criticize a “foreign” practice in which one is not personally invested. Undeniably, the unsavory Islamophobic trope of the barbaric Muslim also plays a significant role here. Hence, Muslims – again, understandably – usually don’t take Western criticism of animal sacrifice well: “What about the hamburger on your plate?”

Now here’s the thing about hypocrites: They are not always wrong. Hypocrisy alone doesn’t invalidate the idea being advocated. Dismissing an idea solely because it’s put forward by a hypocrite is intellectually lazy. Ask yourself, “If a thief says that stealing is wrong, does that make stealing right?” Generally, if people act hypocritically, the principles they promote may still be valid. An individual’s private religious beliefs regarding the “proper way” to celebrate Eid al-Adha, which many Muslims themselves argue are no longer appropriate to modern society, no more justify taking the lives of animals than people’s taste for hamburgers.

Instead of doing the same spiel as every year, can we refrain from viewing each other as “them” – be it “hypocritical Westerners” or “barbaric Muslims” – this year and instead each do some critical self-reflection and have an honest and sincere conversation about ideas? We may all end up with a more nuanced perspective on nonhuman animals.

Rainer Ebert holds a PhD in Philosophy from Rice University in Texas and is a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He can be reached at rainerebert.com, and you can find him on Twitter @rainer_ebert.

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