The history of Thanksgiving has become a hotly contested topic. Many believe the heartwarming story of European settlers and natives celebrating their successful harvest, immortalized in American myths for generations, never happened. Some Native American tribes like the United American Indians of New England see Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for the genocide of natives.
Hundreds of years later, by continuing to celebrate Thanksgiving by slaughtering turkeys when we don’t even know for sure if those birds were on the menu in the first Thanksgiving dinner, we are perpetuating a culture of violence and validating the bloodshed that has marred the history of Native Americans.
Thanksgiving turkeys — the 46 million of them that aren’t lucky enough to be pardoned by the President– are forced to live in cramped cages that are too small to even flap their wings, their toes and beaks are cut off without painkillers, and they are killed in the most inhumane manner imaginable as a PETA investigation reveals. This is unfortunate, but not surprising because there are not even minimum federal standards governing how turkeys live or die, as turkeys are exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
While we turn a blind eye to the abuse of animals in slaughterhouses, as a society we have been very vocal in condemning those accused of animal abuse outside the slaughterhouse.
Football player Michael Vick continues to be hated to this day for engaging in illegal dog fighting.
The reaction to these animal abuses is understandable and laudable, but how are those of us who condoned the abuse of our Thanksgiving turkeys any different?
There is no morally coherent difference between the dog who was kicked and the chicken, pig, cow or turkey that most people will eat today. How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner?
Norm Phelps, in his book Changing the Game: Why The Battle For Animal Liberation Is So Hard And How It Can Be Won notes that our paradoxical values about killing animals for food can be explained through the principle of bounded ethicality.When a belief conflicts with a behavior that people are motivated to maintain due to self interest, cultural norms and so forth, most individuals will find a way to convince themselves that their ethical principles do not apply to their own behavior.
Perhaps this is why stories about dog meat market in China and slaughtering dolphins in Japan lead to overwhelming outrage in the social media, mostly in the form of comments calling “those people” barbaric by those who have don’t bat an eyelid towards the inhumane treatment of animals culturally deemed worthy of consumption.
It is time for us to examine our fundamental views about animal ethics, to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “are we really less barbaric than ‘those people’ who kill dolphins or eat dogs?”
Many omnivores vehemently defend their choice to eat meat by rhetorically asking why we should worry about animals when so many people are starving . Ironically, human starvation is just another reason to reconsider raising animals for food. Every year about 760 million tons of food is fed to farm animals. Of this enormous quantity, only a fraction of calories is consumed as meat, while about 40 million tons of food grains can end the most extreme cases of human starvation.
Vegetarianism is on the rise. A study profiled in a recent New York Times piece finds that 12% of Millennials have now embraced a vegetarian lifestyle, as compared to 4% Gen X’ers, and 1% of Baby Boomers.
We should embrace the anti-animal cruelty movement. Continuing to perpetuate the violence, abuse and bloodshed that marred our history 400 year ago seems unimaginative, medieval and frankly not in line with a progressive society we aspire to become. Let’s not force turkeys to live a short, cruel and thankless life and instead endeavor to create new traditions based on thoughtful reflection, reasoning and compassion.
Spending a minute to ask ourselves what the turkeys have to be thankful for on Thanksgiving is not too much to do for the sake of the bird you’ll be carving up for dinner.
Ashwin Murthy is a freelance writer and a Silicon Valley based software engineer.