Michael Pollan, while celebrating the virtues of keeping backyard chickens, recently made a comment that chickens are “nasty and stupid” — and therefore, it sounds like, more deserving of being killed. Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, incisively responded, “Even if chickens manipulated for meat production were stupid, blaming them for their defenseless predicament is cruel.”
There is another important point to be made, though, and that is the effect of killing chickens on Michael Pollan himself.
Social psychologist Rachel MacNair has drawn attention to what she calls the PITS — Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress. We all know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which affects the victims of violence, but there is another side to this, the trauma inflicted on the perpetrator. People often do a double-take when they first hear about this; why should we worry about the perpetrators of violence? If they suffer any trauma, aren’t they just getting what they deserve?
In the first place, there is socially required violence, such as that of soldiers in the army; these people suffer trauma when they engage in violence, and this violence may be revisited on society when they return home from Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. But in the second place, there is socially sanctioned violence such as that of slaughterhouse workers or, perhaps, owners of backyard chickens.
It’s worth quoting Michael Pollan’s full statement here so that we can look at it and see what is going on.
I raised chickens, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to kill them, but by the time they were mature, I couldn’t wait to kill them. They were ruining my garden, abusing one another, making a tremendous mess. Meat birds are not like hens. Their brains have been bred right out of them, they’re really nasty and stupid. And every other critter for miles around was coming after them. I lost one to a raccoon, one to a fox, one to an owl—all in the course of a week. In the end I couldn’t wait to do the deed, because otherwise, somebody else was going to get the meat.
Michael Pollan, in the process of killing animals, has himself become more cruel. Much earlier, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan recounts a case in which he hunted and killed an animal, but found the process to be very disturbing. As he later saw a picture of himself posed in front of the bloody corpse of the pig that he had killed, he thought: “What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling?” (p. 360) Of course, eventually Pollan talks himself out of this (very natural) revulsion, but that Pollan had the honesty to admit his own ambivalence impressed me, even though obviously I didn’t agree with him on this point.
Well, in this latest interview, here you see Pollan’s progress: he’s gotten used to it. In fact, he has even internalized the cruelty, as a way to overcome the obvious trauma involved in having to kill a small helpless creature, by emphasizing all the chicken’s repulsive and aggressive features. Even more telling is another comment in the same interview about pigs:
I think now I could raise a pig and kill a pig for food. . . . Clearly a pig is a very intelligent animal, but I think I could probably do that.
So Pollan’s willingness to inflict cruelty is not restricted to “nasty and stupid” animals; it is here extended even to intelligent animals. It is useless, therefore, to retort to Pollan that “someone might think that you are nasty and stupid, Mr. Pollan,” or that “chickens are gentle, intelligent creatures, if you would just treat them with respect.” The problem is that Pollan has gone from being disturbed by the act of slaughter, to repress and internalize this violence, so that he is now insensitive to suffering, even his own.
A lot of people are saying, “why are you so upset by backyard chickens? Even if there is mistreatment, the chicken is usually better off than on a factory farm.” Well, this is my concern: by getting cruelty off the farm and into people’s backyards, we are normalizing cruelty, and teaching children and adults to be cruel. It used to be that factory farm footage would shock people. But as Pollan’s case shows, it is possible to get used to anything.
(My earlier post on “The Normalization of Cruelty” dealt with the proposed Denver ordinance on backyard livestock, which was passed into law about two years ago.)