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Nov 3, 2006
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The World is but a Stage

Animals and Sociological Theory

http://www.arkangelweb.org/features/20060404frontstagebackstage.php

by proctalgia

Arkangel has previously highlighted the hypocrisy of a media that is selective in its condemnation of animal cruelty. So on one hand we have journalists who would, if pressed, no doubt talk of a (mythical) necessity to eat 'meat'. The same journalists will be as intolerant, in words and not action, as the average animal 'extremist' is toward, say, the seal 'hunt' [1]. Time and time again we are told of the 'barbaric', 'sadistic' acts that lone individuals - usually male youths - perpetrate against cats or dogs. It is right that these daily acts of hatred toward the animal nations are condemned. But the animal activist can't help but notice the double standards. It seems that some animals really are more equal than others: stand on a cat's tail and you're a sadist of the highest order. Spend your week killing ten thousand cows, chickens and other animals, and, well, it's just your job and anyone who even highlights the resulting bloodbath is a 'fanatic', is 'anthropomorphic', etc.          

I would like to examine, briefly, this and other related phenomena in the context of social theory. It seems to me that animal activists are often brought to book, on some disingenuous pretext or another, for being 'inconsistent' [2]. But as I will show, there is a structural inconsistency at the very heart of our society's treatment of animals and, in resisting this, animal activists are in fact apogees of consistency. It seems to me that good place to start is with the brilliant sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman, writing in the late fifties, sought to understand human interaction in the context of what he called 'dramaturgy'. Without wanting to enter into technical details only students of sociology will be concerned with, 'dramaturgy' is the theorising of human interaction, and of institutions, as though social life was a staged performance. "The entire world is a stage and we are all actors". Many concepts have been derived from this metaphor.

'Front' is a product of projection. Individuals and organisations work toward projecting an idealized front. Front exists in the frontstage region of human behaviour: it is, if you like, what we are allowed to 'see'. Front is a social performance. But this depends on a 'backstage' region, an 'area' of preparation, with people colluding, conspiring and knowingly contradicting 'front' [3]. This all sounds rather simple. It is and it isn't. The concept allows a gradation of complexity. At its most literal level we have the Grand National, or circuses, or whatever. In the frontstage region, an aesthetic show - the might of galloping horses, the apparent wonder of the tame lion, etc. But in the backstage region, so much occurs that contradicts these performances which is knowingly blocked from public view: the horses dying prematurely, or being indifferently discarded, the lion being beaten into submission. Needless to say, the inherent suffering that racehorses and circus animals endure is not part of the 'drama' that animal exploiters amuse the public with. Such suffering is, if we accept the language of dramaturgy, something animal activists must try to bring from out behind the curtains.

A more complex example would be the consumption of 'meat'. The 'front' of meat is what we see in our supermarket refrigerator: i.e. something that bears no resemblance to the animal that it once was. Cleansed of blood, shrink wrapped, decorated with herbs: how could this ever have been a screaming animal? The 'backstage reality' of a suffering animal being torn into its component parts - the whole bloody process - is something hidden from view. Our 'meat' based culture does not generally encourage us to think beyond the 'meat' we see in supermarkets (it is not coincidental that we often hear that children do not know where, say, 'ork' comes from: it is understandable that, living in a culture that sweeps such facts under the carpet, many children think as though 'meat' grows in supermarket refrigerators) [4]. When a concession is made and the origins of 'meat' are acknowledged we are not provided an insight into the real 'backstage' but into a sanitised, cartoon like version of it.

"Today it would arouse rather uneasy feeling in many people if they or others had to carve half a calf or pig at table or cut meat from a pheasant still adorned with its feathers... Carving was formerly a direct part of social life in the upper class. Then the spectacle was felt more and more to be distasteful. Carving itself did not disappear, since the animals must, of course, be cut when being eaten. But distastefulness was removed behind the scenes of social life" (Elias, The Civilising Process, vol 1) [5].

Norbert Elias's point here might, loosely, be understood as saying that we have adopted a blind spot toward our treatment of animals that is not ahistorical. We think ourselves civil, not because we have actually become 'civil', but because we have employed various techniques to distance ourselves from our brutality. Slaughterhouses do not have glass walls. Furthermore they are not located in public sight. They do not have windows. In this sense, they are geographically backstage. But the saying 'out of sight, out of mind' suggests a sociological truth. Slaughterhouses are geographically backstage but our treatment of animals is epistemically backstage also [6]. In other words, not only is our physical treatment of certain animals coerced "behind the scenes of social life" but understanding of our bloodstained relationship with animals is pushed outside of our consciousness. It is not just a case that we cannot see the blood and guts of animal suffering because it exists in isolated, rural parts, but also that we won't allow ourselves to even envisage, even contemplate, such suffering because of the defence mechanism that militant against it. 

How are animals excised from our minds, exiled to the backstage regions of our mind? There are many methods. One of the most interesting is touched upon by Berger and Luckmann in the volume, The Social Construction of Reality. In this volume three stages of 'legitimation' are discussed. Pre-theoretical legitimisation will concern us here. They write:

"Incipient legitimisation is present as soon as a system of linguistic objectification of human experience is transmitted... the fundamental legitimating 'explanations' are, so to speak, built into the very vocabulary".

Those who are not familiar with sociological parlance are right to ask: What does this mean? It means that the very words we use justify the 'way things are'. Berger and Luckmann have nothing to say about animals. An author who has analysed how we linguistically apprehend/understand animals is Carol Adams. If we want to know how it is that animals can be expelled to the backstage, and how a structural distinction between backstage and frontstage animals can be maintained, it is Carol Adams we should turn to [7]. Carol Adams looks at the way that the very word 'meat' hides the reality of our treatment of animals. It is an innocuous, neutralised word. The animal, its life and its death, is an 'absent referent'. Think about when somebody is eating 'meat' and the animal activist calls a spade a spade: "that's not a sirloin steak, that's part of a dead animal you're eating!" The animal activist will invariably be accused of being over-emotional (or whatever) - but he is only being so to the extent that he is penetrating through the 'front' of 'meat' and bringing attention to backstage reality. This may sound tenuous. But compare bringing the origins of 'meat' to the attention of a 'meat-eater' and bringing the origins of a carrot to the attention of a 'carrot-eater'. The former will provoke a defensive reaction and this defensive reaction, I suggest, is an effort to keep the backstage/frontstage divide in place[8].

This is why I claim that animal activists are simply being consistent. Our culture is more than capable of seeing cats and dogs strut their stuff on the frontstage of social life. Indeed, the fact that we appreciate the presence of a handful of animals - cats, dogs, parrots, - has been sufficient for Britain to claim the mantle of 'animal lovers'. But as for cows, chickens, pigs, and so on, these are coerced to backstage regions of social life: out of sight and out of mind. It is in this connection that we can claim the notion of 'humane treatment' for farm animals a thoroughly going nonsense. It is an attempt to project into backstage regions, frontstage norms. The language that originates in the frontstage region is simply not suitable to a backstage region where the business is killing and dismemberment. To talk about 'humane slaughter' is, at root, to distort backstage brutality through the 'frame' of cosy frontstage norms. The average meat-eating 'animal lover' is thoroughly inconsistent because they are epistemically [6] committed to a man made distinction between frontstage animals (cats) and backstage animals (cows) - a distinction that has no materialist justification. Out of this, of course, comes the widespread, often absurdist, sentimentalisation of frontstage animals - to the point of 'marrying' dogs and whatnot - and the blanket massification of backstage animals, with the lives and deaths of billions of animals being "just a number". Animal activists are being consistent because we refuse to treat life like a stage drama. We refuse to permit fundamental contradictions. We know all too well of the geographical divide, but we refuse to see an epistemological divide between cats and cows. Our culture wants it both ways: it wants to be a culture of 'animal lovers' and a culture of animal corpse-eaters. Whatever we do - whether it is a factory farm raid or simply eschewing meat - animal activists risk offending society. This might be because we are 'extremists', etc. But it might also be because ours is a society of hypocrites with a very, very precarious definition of reality.    

In sum, what is my argument? I have suggested that it is useful to think of our relationship with other than human animals with reference to the idea of a backstage/frontstage dichotomy. I have suggested that certain animals are coerced "behind the scenes of life" and that this is not so much a physical process, as it is a mental process. There are various methods - explicated most fully by Carol Adams, including ontologisation, reification, etc [8] - by which we develop blind spots toward certain animals. There is a saying in the animal rights community: She Was Born to Die. That is true. But we can go further: the pig was never allowed to be but 'ork', the rat was never allowed to be but a 'lab subject', etc. Animals come into the world and are immediately ensnared with human definitions - every cat to the left, all cows to the right [9]. And there is nothing natural in this. Our power, our true power, as animal rights activists is not to throw bricks (although there might be a place for that) but to, if you like, give semantic medicine to what Gary Francione calls the moral schizophrenics.

      


 

Endnotes

[1] As Captain Paul Watson has pointed out, it is a misnomer to describe what happens in Canada as a 'hunt'. For it to be a 'hunt', the victims would at least have the opportunity to flee before being clubbed to death. As Watson points out: it is a heartless massacre, pure and simple. back

[2] Such charges are mostly asinine. We've all heard them before: we're hypocrites because we claim to care for life but eat parsley, etc. back

[3] The example that Goffman uses is the restaurant. back

[4] Many animal activists have spoken of 'making a connection' between pets and meals. John Curtin for example, in a very touching tale, has spoken of the trauma he suffered when his dog died and his realisation that all animals suffer - including those he was eating at the time. This is a powerful example of the backstage/frontstage divide dissolving and, if you like, backstage animals being 'freed' from the mental abyss that John, as a child, was no doubt trained to expel them to. Berger and Luckmann might have something to say here: "It takes severe biographical shocks to disintegrate the massive reality internalised in early childhood..." (B/L The Social Construction of Reality, p162). back

[5] Norbert Elias, a wide-ranging social theorist, has no particular concern with animals. The subject of meat covers only 2 pages of his massive 'The Civilising Process'. back

[6] For those unsure of the word 'epistemology' and its variants: epistemology is the study of knowledge, of how we know what we know. To talk of the 'epistemically backstage' is not dissimilar than to speak of, say, a "mental blind spot". In philosophy, epistemology is concerned with the legitimacy of taken-for-granted knowledge: e.g. is the 'everyday' belief in free will misplaced? In sociology, epistemology is concerned with the social context of knowledge: e.g. what are the origins of "everybody knows that..." common thought? back

[7] In this writer's opinion, Carol Adams is one of the leading lights in our movement; a 'theorist' worthy of the name. I cannot do justice to her thought here. back

[8] Carol Adams has numerous other concepts worth coming to grips with. 'Ontologisation' is the projection of man-made meaning into animals. The pig is an example. It is often said, what use a pig if not pork? This is a refusal to see that the pig has an existence independent of the meaning that we enforce on 'it'. 'Laboratory animals', 'broiler chickens' and so on, all of these words show a reificationback of animals: in other words, the very essence of an animal is redefined along the lines of how humans wish to (mal)treat him or her. Carol Adams, provocatively, points out that just as, say, sexists blame their victims - e.g. the claim that a woman 'deserved' to be raped because of her choice of dress  - so does a speciesist culture blame its animal victims. After all, meat-eaters are often quite close to implying, if not saying so explicitly, that pigs 'deserve' to be eaten because, say, "their flesh tastes so nice".  

[9] Needless to say, the lunacy goes beyond cats and cows. Various cultures and religions obviously have favoured 'et animals' and favoured 'meals'. It is hard to take seriously the eater of cows who cries over the eating of, say, cats - or for that matter the admirer of the 'sacred cow' who eats pigs. Backstage/Frontstage regions are not, in that sense, universal. Hypocrisy manifests itself unique to any particular culture. Animal activists are the only individuals who have a genuine leg to stand on for criticizing the eating of cats and dogs. I am, of course, following Francione here and claiming that animal activism and veganism/vegetarianism must be coextensive.

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Posted: Nov 3, 2006 6:03am

 

 
 
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