The following article appeared in the book Circles of Compassion: Essays Connecting Issues of Justice, a collection edited by Will Tuttle.
Every year in New York City, thousands gather for a widely publicized event called “Meatopia,” which is described as “a Texas-sized two day weekend of meat, mirth, and the celebration of animals and the way great chefs prepare them.” Founded and hosted by TIME magazine food columnist Josh Ozersky, Meatopia has been called, “a meat-lover’s paradise” (New York Magazine), “spectacular” (Esquire), a “bacchanal of pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey and quail” (New York Times), and “a glorious city of meat” (Huffington Post).
Known as “the crown jewel” of this event, a butchery contest sponsored by Whole Foods draws an excited crowd, hollering and cheering as animal carcasses are slashed and sliced by Whole Foods workers competing for the Best Butcher Trophy. As described by Ozersky, “The crowd felt it, too. They moved right up to the tables, close enough to get hit by flying bits of fat and gristle. They didn’t care. And neither did I. I just wanted a part of that butchering magic.”
Two thousand years ago, the gladiator fights of ancient Rome were highly anticipated occasions that put the whole population of the city in a mood of celebration. During these events, men, women and children would gather by the thousands, cheering as enslaved individuals (many of them prisoners of war) were forced to fight to the death for the enjoyment of the crowd. Far from an underground activity carried out in secret by disreputable individuals, the gladiator fights were attended by everyone, from emperors and politicians to parents and their children. The Vestal Virgins, women dedicated to lives of religious service, were given preferential seats.
In Rome’s Vestal Virgins, Robin Lorsch Wildfang describes the following:
At the time, only Seneca protested the carnage of the arena; most other Roman authors were silent or approving. Gladiatorial games…continued, in one form or another, until AD 404, when Honorius finally abolished [them] altogether, prompted by the death of a monk who had entered the arena, endeavoring to stop the fight, and was stoned to death by the indignant crowd.
In the United States, between 1882 and 1930, almost 2,500 African Americans were documented as being killed by lynch mobs. According to these numbers, there was a person of color lynched every single week, for nearly 50 years. Lynchings often drew large crowds due to the fact that they were advertised in the local papers. Photos were taken of the victims, with white spectators posing alongside them, and these images were published in newspapers and used for postcards. Spectators took home body parts as memorabilia, including fingers, noses, ears and even genitalia, which were often laid out on display for onlookers. Many of those lynched had participated in minor crimes, such as petty theft, but most of them had done nothing more than simply associate with, or even look at, a white woman.
There are 150 documented cases where lynching victims were female. At least four were known to have been pregnant. In 1914, so the story goes, 17-year-old Marie Scott was sexually assaulted in her own home after two drunken white men broke in and found her getting dressed. Her brother heard her screaming, kicked down the door and killed one of her attackers. When he fled the scene, an angry mob took out their anger on Marie, and hanged her from a telephone pole.
It was 1971 in Australia when indigenous Australians were first included in the National Census. Prior to that, the legal status of these individuals was equivalent to that of “flora and fauna.” Since the British settlement in 1788, the Aboriginal people had been forced to abandon their traditional homes, had had their children stolen by the state, and were hunted like wild animals. According to a 1999 report,
The first white settlers came to Tasmania in 1803, and by 1806 the serious killing began. …They were systematically disposed of in ones, twos and threes, or in dozens, rather than in one massacre. …In 1824, settlers were authorised to shoot Aborigines. …Vigilante groups avenged Aboriginal retaliation by wholesale slaughter of men, women and children. …Considered “wild animals”, “vermin”, “scarcely human”, “hideous to humanity”, “loathsome” and a “nuisance”, they were fair game for white “sportsmen.”
In 1997, a government-appointed inquiry into this treatment of the Aboriginal people concluded that it was genocide. There are no official numbers available, but estimates put the Aboriginal population somewhere between 250,000 and 750,000 at the time of the European invasion in 1788. That number was down to 31,000 in 1911. So called “Nigger Hunts” continued well into the 1960s.
Animals are the targets of such hunts today. They are killed needlessly all around the world, for everything from food to clothing to cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and even so-called “sport”.
Like the crowd throwing stones at the monk stepping into the gladiators’ arena, the spectators salivating over “a duck stuffed inside a chicken stuffed inside a turkey” are as proud of and devoted to our 21st century wrongs as the citizens of ancient Rome were to theirs.
Civilization is not a state of rest. Our society’s values and ethics are an evolving phenomenon, and the refinement of our culture is an ongoing process of learning to discern right from wrong and justice from injustice.
We must be willing to examine the biases and bigotries of the present, and see them with the same critical eyes we use to view humanity’s heinous crimes of the past. Until we do, we will remain trapped by our ignorance and prejudice, locked, by our own hands, in an age that is much darker than the one we just may be on the brink of stepping into.
What will humanity be in another 150 years, or 50, or even 5 for that matter, when you consider how urgently we need to change? What will our values be that will help us look back at who we are now and shudder at the wrongs we used to condone? Legally sanctioned violence against the innocent… Living beings bought and sold like inanimate objects… The fundamental rights of some sacrificed for the gratification of others… Whoever the victims are, these actions remain the marks of a yet-to-be civilized society, and they taint ours today just as they did every era of the past.
Today, when we stop and give a thought to the men and women dragged to their deaths with the taunts of an angry mob ringing in their ears, we might wonder how our fellow humans, of any time and place, could possibly have enjoyed such a spectacle. If we allow this to move in on us, we might try to conceive of what it must have been like for someone whose path, for some reason, had led him or her to the end of the noose, rather than to being one of the faces in the crowd. We might try to imagine the anger pulsing in their veins, the fear showing in their faces, and the sorrow they must have felt knowing that they were completely defenseless against a heartless horde.
And if we really allow this to move in on us, we might even breathe a word of thanks to that mysterious power we call “goodness” that by some miracle we have been delivered from the way we were then, and more than anything, that the same power of goodness might yet be working still to deliver us from the way we are now.