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The Politics of Sight

Posted on Apr 26, 2012

By David Sirota

Would Americans eat less meat, and would animals be treated more humanely, if slaughterhouses were made with glass walls and we all could see the monstrous killing apparatus at work? This is the query at the heart of Timothy Pachirat’s new book “Every Twelve Seconds”—the title a reference to the typical slaughterhouse’s cattle-killing rate.

Before you think this is a column merely about food, recognize that Pachirat’s question isn’t (only) about the immorality of the cheeseburger you had for lunch. It’s about the larger phenomenon whereby modern society has reconstructed itself to hide so many horrific consequences from view.

Calling this the “politics of sight,” Pachirat’s blood-soaked experience inside a slaughterhouse spotlights only the most illustrative example of how we’ve divorced ourselves from the means of producing violence—and how, in doing so, we have made it psychologically easier to support such brutality. Sadly, billions of factory-farmed animals dying barbaric deaths are just one subset of casualties in that larger process.

Today, for example, free trade policies that promote offshoring allow Americans to enjoy consumer goods at ultra-low prices without having to see that those low prices represent companies taking advantage of the developing world’s poverty wages, environmental destruction and human rights abuses. A veritable slave may have assembled the iPad you are reading these words on, but thanks to the supply chain’s geography and Apple’s lack of transparency, you can easily avoid dealing with the ethical implications of that reality.

Another example: Many Americans drive gas-guzzling SUVs, proudly slapping patriotic declarations on their bumpers. This seems perfectly reasonable, but only because many either don’t live near polluted oil-drilling sites or don’t have to personally experience the ramifications of our petroleum-focused military policies. Ultimately, by separating the consequences of gas consumption from the driver, we’ve created the psychological conditions for fossil fuel consumption to seem like an honorable statement of strength rather than an endorsement of environmental degradation and war.


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Speaking of war, the politics of sight sculpt our martial policies. We ended conscription, separating most of our fellow citizens from the consequences of military action; we conduct combat via unmanned aerial vehicles that remove the pilot-shooters from the populations being bombed; and both the military establishment and the media themselves suppress photographs of coffins or battlefield viscera that might show us what war really looks like.

Some of this, of course, is an inadvertent byproduct of larger trends like globalization that stretch supply chains across the planet. Some of it comes from a culture narcissism that teaches us to consider only our immediate surroundings and nothing else. Much of it, though, is a deliberate effort to hide the truth. From the Pentagon’s photo policy to agribusiness now championing so-called “ag gag” laws to punish activists who expose factory farm atrocities, vested interests are exploiting the fact that “out of sight, out of mind” is a default setting in the human mind.

For his part, Pachirat ends his brave journey unconvinced that, unto itself, removing the veil will be enough to make us a more thoughtful—if not moral—society. He’s almost certainly correct. The atrocities that power modern life are now integral to what we define as the norm. And whether that norm is eating meat, driving massive cars or flippantly waging war, changing the status quo warrants more than just knowledge—it requires the will to change once knowledge is available.

Fortunately, history proves Americans can summon that will. However, without knowledge—without an end to the moment’s deceptive politics of sight—the most important changes can never happen.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now.” He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at


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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, April 30, 2012 at 12:11 am Link to this comment

Proper pig slaughter

If you can’t watch, please just listen. smile

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By Allan, April 28, 2012 at 8:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sirota’s column has made me rethink my ol’ carnivorous ways. Both my daughters are vegetarians and have told me that as a person of principle I should consider the option.  As someone who has long been actrive in both the peace movement and the pro-life movement, the invisibility argument makes a lot of sense to me.  People on the right don’t want to hear about the carnage we create with our drone missiles.  People on the left don’t want to hear about fetuses with heartbeats, brainwaves and a capacity for pain that are legally dismembered.  It’s all a bit too real to be discussed in polite company apparently.

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By MollyJ, April 28, 2012 at 5:25 am Link to this comment

My parents were both raised on farms.  As a child, I remembered going to my uncle’s farm and we would gather as an extended family and butcher a bunch of chickens and then take some home with us.  I am pretty sure money changed hands but not sure.  They created a mini-assembly line.  My mom’s job was scooping partially formed eggs out of the oviducts.  I remembers chickens getting their heads chopped off, the smell of burnt feathers (they singed off recalcitrant pin feathers) and interested but unwelcome cats.  (The work was done in the wash house.)

My mom and dad intimately knew what it took to raise chickens and beef and wheat.  They knew about sweating.  Getting up in freezing weather to feed livestock because they depended on you.  In a way not true for many of us, they understood the costs of having food to eat.  My mom named her calves and then mourned them when they “left”.

I buy free range chickens from a local producer.  People say all of the time, “How can you _afford_ that?”  Well, I actually have more trouble with the morality costs of those factory raised chickens.  Serendipitously, I’ve seen one of those, too.

My parents were one of those parents that said, “Finish your food.  There is starving children in…”  The humor of that never struck me until I heard the line recycled in comedy skits.  They were saluting the actual costs of raising food and the sacred sacrifice of the animal.  They were saying, “Honor this sacrifice.”  And my father had known hunger during the depression.

So it is incumbent on us to face and acknowledge the costs of our way of life.  Just like (as a former drug prevention educator) I’m aware of the limitations of scary videos about kids dying in alcohol related crashed, I think slaughter house videos will have limitations.  The gross out is not the point.

My DH is a fan of Joseph Campbell.  and he says that Campbell often said, “Life feeds on life.”  He said it as a fact, which it is. 

anything that can make us aware of our profound interdependence on each other needs to be engaged.

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By gerard, April 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment

My answer is 10 to 1, YES. Of course with the caveat that there was nothing else to eat but meat. Give every American a day’s work in that Fallujah hospital, and it would go a long way to selling peace. A week, and we might even get understanding in the bargain. Take away all bloody news reports and movies, all gross economic inequalities, all hate-preaching and fear-mongering—and we’d be on the road to a better world.
  Trouble is, the Big Guys aren’t up for it.  No money grabbing. No power grabbing. Only the sun on the water and the wind in the trees.  Only a child’s voice saying “Thank You” in 147 languages.

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By bpawk, April 27, 2012 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

What is needed is transparency at the government level - government sites (or maybe someone should start one up) should publish the salaries, perks and benefits (including ‘socialist’ healthcare the Senators and govt officials enjoy but not average Americans) of all Senators, Members, high govt officials.  Transparency gets things out into the open, where secrecy is not tolerated. An informed public makes for a better democracy.

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By heterochromatic, April 27, 2012 at 8:07 am Link to this comment

freeze—- first they come for the placenta…....

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By mrfreeze, April 27, 2012 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

heterochromatic -

“Sirota echoes an argument from the anti-abortion folks.”

Only if the mothers eat the fetuses.

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By balkas, April 27, 2012 at 7:24 am Link to this comment

true: out of sight, out of mind. and not just killing animals but also people at home and abroad.
DR lists some factors: such as globalization and narcissism for our [panhuman, really] willful or manufactured ignorance
of what goes on, but i suggest these two phenomena are mere effects of an underlying cause.
and narcissism or self-love, self-respect, if one wld thusly define that label, is actually a virtue.
in my experience, it is clear to me that if i or anyone else does not love-respect self, one cannot respect-love anyone else
nor any animal.
let me point out, please, that DS may be confusing supremacism [me-better-than-anyone-else] with selflove or
narcissism with.
and it is the supremacist ideology which causes globalization, pollution, death, expulsion of people from their habitat,
lust for power, uncaring, hatred, discrimination [and its twin duaghters: racism or racial divide and meritocracy],
bellicosity, never =ending thisrts fro more gadgets, machines, etc.
to recap:
1)SELFLOVE IS VERY DESIRABLE. and question arises, can today anyone have enough of it or like the one nature or god
intended for us?   
2)THE FIRST CAUSE is not our panhuman carelessness, ignorance, uncaring, lustfulness, division, rage, etc.—-
supremacism is.

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By Jeff N., April 27, 2012 at 6:55 am Link to this comment

haha very true hetero, although I will say that I have trouble ordering lobster because of the fact that they dunk those guys in boiling water, so there might be some value to the argument.  Like wtf, can’t you just stab it through the head and then dump it in boiling water?? Messed up man.

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By heterochromatic, April 27, 2012 at 6:27 am Link to this comment

Sirota echoes an argument from the anti-abortion folks.

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By kerryrose, April 27, 2012 at 2:31 am Link to this comment

Did you know that it is illegal to videotape inside a slaughterhouse?  New rules after PETA expose.  This question: Whether Americans would eat less meat if they were exposed to the cruelty of the system touches on a basic problem in American society.  Is it that we cannot deal with reality, or are we purposefully kept from confronting reality by political and corporate forces?

Case in point: Time magazine runs different covers of the magazine in different countries.  A few months ago, in Europe, they ran a cover depicting an Afghan mother cradling a dead and bloody child from a drone strike with mayhem in the background.  In the US, that same issue, had a little cartoon guy on the cover that was entwined with a string.  The headline was: “Is Stress Good For You?’

So, is it a willful ignorance on the part of Americans or something more sinister?

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