For the World Vegetarian Day, held yesterday, and for the World Farm Animals Day, held today, we wish to discuss The Civilizing Process theory by the famous sociologist Norbert Elias – in which he estimated that one of the next phases in the civilizing process could be mass vegetarianism.
The reason we are addressing this prediction despite that it is relatively old, is that it relates to a current and very popular notion in the animal rights movement. Elias’s theory, indirectly (and obviously independently) “refers” to McCartney’s famous quote that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian”. Elias’s work suggests that since humans are a product of their cultural and social circumstances, if slaughterhouses have never had walls, nobody would ever be a vegetarian. A very frightening thought, which contradicts a belief too many activists hold about humans’ natural compassion abilities which are supposedly being canceled out by the animal exploitation industry manipulations.
To understand where this idea comes from, it is necessary to elaborate a little bit about Elias’s theory first.
But even before that, a quick word of clarification. Obviously the term Civilization is highly and rightfully controversial, and from several different aspects, including speciesist ones. We use this problematic term here only in the way Elias used it and only for the sake of the argument about vegetarianism. Specific and direct reference to Civilization can be found in some posts in the series about violence.
The Civilizing Process
Elias’s theory of the civilizing process is not at all about vegetarianism and not even about animals. In a way, it is exactly the opposite. It is an outline of humans’ gradual and consistent attempts to distance themselves further and further away from their own animality.
By studying and systematically comparing successive editions of a variety of etiquette books, published over a period of more than five centuries, Elias examined changes in a set of routine behaviors and norms of humans such as eating, sleeping, natural body functions (publicly spitting, nose blowing, gas passing, urinating and defecating), bathing, sex and aggressiveness.
What he found was that changes across generations, in the prohibitions and recommendations of public behavior, were gradually becoming, without any conscious coordination or control by certain individuals, more sophisticated, with an increasing threshold of shame, embarrassment and repugnance.
Elias argued that manners are highly significant in producing this process, since they require restraint and self-control over desires and urges – features which are at the center of the civilizing process.
One of key drivers of the process according to Elias was economic.
As the social life became more stratified, and this stratification was linked with the intensified fragmentation of labor, humans have become more depended on each other. The interactions between humans became more complex as humans with different professions and different classes must get along. The key for the success of this complex new social status is for people to be more predictable to each other.
With trade’s comeback in the late Middle Ages, there was another incentive for restrained and anticipated behavior. Stability and anticipation of other humans’ behavior encourage trade, while capriciousness and spontaneousness don’t. The economic competition brought the need for anticipation and reservedness. It required humans’ self-control, rationality, a go with the flow mode, and restrain of impulses and urges as much as possible.
The interdependency of humans has developed a higher sensitivity for changes in behaviors and for unexpected behaviors. When the pendency is high, anticipated and restrained behavior is crucial in order for large populations to live with each other. So actually it is mainly economic relations which passed to the social and cultural sphere.
Another key factor of the civilizing process is the consolidation of political authorities and the monopolization of physical power. The constant fights over small territories of barons and knights, and the external threat of being totally conquered, played a central incentive for the formation of central rule.
Following Max Webber, Elias argues that the state’s monopoly over the means of violence and the development of the monopoly over the means of taxation, forced ordinary citizens to solve their conflicts more peacefully. Upper class humans like knights and nobles, were expected to control their emotions and be rational and tactical. The middle class observed and tried to imitate the nobles’ evolving norms of behavior, and so the renovated standards became more and more common among all parts of society. The more the bourgeoisie resembles the aristocracy, the more the aristocracy has to refine its code of conduct in order to distinguish itself from them. This resulted in a growing sensitivity to nuances, which has led to an ever increasing refinement of human behavior.
Obviously we utterly disagree with the famous notion of state formation as a key factor in violence decrease. Elias tends to identify violence with the lack of control, however most of the violence is not a product of spontaneous outbursts by individuals, but planned and controlled violence by established institutions, including sovereign states, and of course factory farms, which are much more “civilized” than hunting and are much much more violent and oppressive.
We have broadly elaborated about this Hobbesian outlook in our review of Steven Pinkers’ theory of an historical decline of violence, so you’ll find there critical references about the role of the formation of states in regards to violence. We have also broadly referred to the implications of self-control and reason in terms of violence, in the fifth part of the critical review of Pinkers’ theory. Please read them if you are interested in these issues.
Here, we wish to focus on the implications of the social aspects of Elias’s civilizing process, obviously mainly on the way humans view other animals.
If Slaughterhouses Had Glass Walls, Nobody Would Have Been a Vegetarian
As mentioned in the beginning of the post, the civilizing process mainly includes a progression in personal shame and embarrassment regarding humans’ “animalistic” nature (changes in relation to nudity, waste elimination, aggression, manners, eating, and sexuality), and putting such “animalistic” activities ‘behind the scenes’ of social life (privacy in bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens).
One of the most “animalistic” activities is eating other animals, and so part of the civilizing process was a gradual change in the way humans eat meat. In Elias’s words:
“It remains to be shown how people, in the course of the civilizing process, have sought to suppress in themselves everything that they feel to be of an “animalistic character”. They have likewise suppressed such characteristics in their food.” (The Civilizing Process page 102)
“The increasingly strong tendency to remove the distasteful from the sight of society clearly applies, with few exceptions, to the carving of the whole animal.
This carving, as the examples show, 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 animal must, of course, be cut then being eaten. But the distasteful was removed behind the scenes of social life. Specialists take care of it in the shop or the kitchen. It will be seen again and again how characteristic of the whole process that we call civilization is this movement of segregation, this hiding “behind the scenes” of what has become distasteful. The curve running from the carving of a large part of the animal or even the whole animal at table, through the advance in the threshold of repugnance at the sight of dead animals, to the removal of carving to specialized enclaves behind the scenes is a typical civilization-curve.” (The Civilizing Process page 103)
“This direction is quite clear. From a standard of feeling by which the sight and carving of a dead animal on the table are actually experienced as pleasurable, or at least as not at all unpleasant, the development leads to another standard by which reminders that the meat dish has something to do with the killing of an animal are avoided to the utmost. In many of our meat dishes the animal form is so concealed and changed by the art of its preparation and carving that, while eating, one is scarcely reminded of its origin. ” (The Civilizing Process page 102)
The change in relation to meat is part of a general refinement of behavior and specifically around the table. It’s a result of an advance in the threshold of visual repugnance, not of a moral one. It is not a change in the relations of humans and other animals but between humans and other humans. Humans didn’t mind eating animals, they just didn’t want to look like ones while doing it. Serving a whole animal on the dinner table gradually became questionable, eating “refined” parts of corpses was desirable as it always was.
Basically agreeing that the social existence determines humans’ consciousness, Elias argues that the gradual concealment of specific body parts of animals in meat dishes, and the fact that animals grown and slaughtered for their meat were gradually transferred from humans’ backyards in the cities, to big farms outside the cities, have caused a gradual but steady increase in humans’ sensitivity to animals’ pain.
Only the exclusion of animals from human social lives could have served as grounds for a change in the way humans see animals, he argues, since as long as humans were emotionally involved in animal exploitation, they couldn’t observe the matter more objectively. Elias thinks that emotional detachment is required for a serious criticism and for a serious consciousness change.
The conventional assumption among many animal liberation activists is that the exclusion of animal exploitation from the public eye enabled the human society to intensify it. But it is the exact opposite. It is the distancing of violence from the eye of the public that created the initial scenery for even considering violence towards animals as violence. Before the removal of violence towards animals from humans’ sight, it wasn’t even considered as violence. It was just the way things are.
Only when masses of humans were brought up without seeing violence towards animals on a daily basis, without it being part of the “natural” order of things in the human social life, could they think it is wrong when they did suddenly encounter violence towards animals. As long as it was a routine to see animals being murdered in the streets of every city around the world, let alone the country side, there was no way that humans would rethink it.
In that sense, Elias doesn’t refute the famous McCartney quote that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian”, but he does suggest that if slaughterhouses have never had walls, nobody would ever be a vegetarian.
As dramatic as it may sound, this is not why we find Elias theory important. As gloomy as the thought – that ironically humans’ suppression of their own animality prepared the grounds for an alteration in the way they observe other animals (There are no rights in nature. For the idea of granting rights to animals to even be considered, humans had to “get out of nature” first, be safe from other animals, not need them for their own survival, not to be accustomed to violence directed at animals on a daily basis and in public, and only then the grounds for granting animals with rights is even theoretically possible) – sounds, it is not necessarily relevant today. And neither is the thought that if slaughterhouses walls had always had glass walls, nobody would be a vegetarian. What is relevant is his estimation that the further the civilizing process goes, the stronger humans’ sensitivity to violence is, including to animals.
Unfortunately, nowadays even though the walls of slaughterhouses are becoming transparent, by the thousands of exposures by thousands of activists, relatively few are becoming vegans as a consequence.
Glass Walls Make Bad Excuses
The human consciousness is a product of the combination of the materialistic conditions and the cultural repertoire of its time. Humans’ alleged refinement and sensitivity increase didn’t really reach the animal threshold. Maybe because to begin with the process was anti-animalistic, meaning humans were trying to suppress any animalistic characteristics in their social behavior, maybe because the removal of violence towards animals didn’t happen because some have become more sensitive to it, but merely for practical reasons that involve efficiency of the exploitation systems (the whole point is that the sensitivity increased after humans didn’t see violence towards animals in their daily lives so it can’t be that the violence was removed as a consequence of a sensitivity increase), but probably because it wasn’t really a process of an increase in sensitivity towards the existence of violence, but to the sight of it.
Most humans weren’t and still aren’t repelled by the thought of violence, but by the sight of violence. This is the shallowest change in conscience, it is not even I don’t want to know, it is only I don’t want to see. Humans know animals are murdered to produce meat for them, they just don’t want to personally watch the killing process.
Humans can think about violence in a very instrumental way, and so be tranquilized by framing the violence as one “with a purpose”, and thus even take an active part in it, and at the same time be deterred by violence they don’t understand or disagree with its justifications. This is how the situation – in which humans indifferently support factory farms, which are becoming more and more violent and oppressive, but watching one minute from factory farms, which they personally finance, and it’s their products they enjoy, repulses them – is possible. Humans are seemingly less violent but much more violence is being caused for them. In fact, humans are actively involved in much more violence than ever before in history.
It is probably true that most humans would find much of the violence in the world repugnant as opposed to most humans some hundreds of years ago. However, most of these humans don’t do anything practical and meaningful with their repugnancy. The repugnancy is only momentary and humans’ are masters of rationalization and justification. Humans can almost automatically overpower their slight cognitive dissonance by spitting the first excuse that comes to their mind and keep their pleasurable violent habits.
The fact that humans don’t need much to deal with their instantaneous repugnancy – usually easily justifying and permitting horrendous violence by calling something natural or that they have no other way to get the nutrients, or say that that’s what humans have done since ancient history or whatever crap they usually spit, means that humans are repelled enough to feel the need to come up with excuses, but apathetic enough for these excuses to be incredibly foolish and lacking any causal relation, logic or facts.
And most importantly humans are apathetic enough to continue participating in these horrors. They knowingly keep consuming products which are the result of the exact same violence they are allegedly repelled by. They are empathetic enough to say it is terrible when they see or hear about the violence involved in the making process of certain products, and apathetic enough to consume them anyway.
The removal of violence from most of humans’ sight didn’t really change their conscience but it did change the reality of animals’ lives. Factory farms are the most violent exploitation systems ever in history. And they are the product of some of the social changes which are considered to be civilized and to have reduced violence along history. These cruel systems of enormous scale, with no precedent or comparison, are the most outstanding representative of human culture. The ultimate embodiment of humans’ civilization, as we explain here.
The convenient arrangement that the distanced factory farms have created for humans is not planned or designed in order to protect them from the repugnant visions of animal slaughter. It was a technical, functional process aimed at making the exploitation process more “efficient”. It was on the production sphere, not the consumption sphere. Meat consumption is growing and growing not because of the removal of factory farms from the public eye, which enabled the consumers to be emotionally detached and so indifferently consume violence. It simply enabled prices reduction and made animal products more available.
Humans know meat is a corpse of an animal that was raised and killed for them. They see animals in all kinds of situations during their lives, in farms when driving outside the city, inside crowded trucks when driving on highways, dead but in a relatively whole and unprocessed state in markets, completely alive in the case of fish and crustaceans in markets and even restaurants, and of course in the last couple of decades in the movement’s publications, on TV, and online. People know what’s going on. They just don’t care enough to do something about it.
Unfortunately, it is not animals which are the important subjects, it’s humans. The historical reasons for changing the view on “the other”, were, are, and will always be human oriented. The view on animals is always a human view. Even the modern reasons for changing the view on the “other”, are also a product of processes which have nothing to do with the subject of the view, but with the viewers. Although it is the ‘viewed’ who are supposed to be important, it is the view that counts.
It is clear to us that it is unavoidable. The unit of investigation in ethics must be ‘suffering’, and so the focus must be on the sentient subject, and yet it is forever on the acting subject.
Not only that, but it is also forces which are not necessarily relevant ethically, that direct the view to all kinds of places. Social refinement that led to an advance in the threshold of repugnance, technological changes that led to the removal of farms from the centers of humans’ social lives and out of their sight accordingly, total domination and occupation of nature for thousands of years which led to an increase of its value due to its current rarity, economic forces which led to a more liberal reasoning which led many to observe the individual as the center of many ethical issues, which led to an expansion of the moral consideration, which only lately and only few, are willing to further expand to include other animals in it too. Very little of this simplistic scheme has something to do with animals. Most of the little progress concerning animals is byproducts of other changes.
There was a process of social refinement but it didn’t cause the farms’ exclusion out of humans’ sight. There was an exclusion of the farms but it wasn’t caused by an increase in public sensitivity. There was an increase in meat consumption and it is related to the exclusion, but not in a sense that the exclusion caused an information barrier that prevented the moral conflict that is supposed to be associated with the consumption of a violent product, but since it caused “products” abundance which caused availability and prices reduction. There was an increase in the sensitivity to violence but only for the visibility of it, not its existence, and certainly not the one inflicted upon animals.
Nowadays, more and more humans, in more and more places are exposed to more and more violence from factory farms by activists who face them with the truth. But the reaction of most is not a moral repugnance, but mainly avoidance from any ethical consideration. Most don’t want to watch violence towards animals, but to keep enjoying the “products” of it.
Whether for symbolical reasons, as meat is a symbol of nature domination (the issue of the next post of this serious), social circumstances such as conformity, or simply since they find meat tasty – the advance in the threshold of repugnance regarding violence inflicted on animals is mostly on the visual aspect.
If slaughterhouses had glass walls, almost everyone would look away – from the violent sight and unfortunately also from their personal responsibility.
It takes much more than making the walls of slaughterhouses transparent. It is true that many humans would find it hard to watch violence towards animals, but it is much harder for them to change their habits. The set of myths, norms, flavor, history, availability, convenience, the cultural symbolism that meat represents, are way stronger than the refinement humans have gone through. The refinement may be enough to cause a feeling of repugnance but not enough to cause a change.
Breaking the walls of slaughterhouses doesn’t work. We remember when we first started our activism many years ago we didn’t have much visual documentation and we always felt that if we only had some more of it, people would see for themselves what’s going on and they couldn’t deny the obvious. They won’t be able to bare the fact that this is what they are directly responsible for. So for a while we filmed factory farms and slaughterhouses and then came out to the streets with the footages. But we were wrong. Soon it was made clear that the stronger and more factually and visually based our arguments were, the stronger humans’ conviction in their excuses became. And it makes sense. Basically people don’t want to change their habits, let alone the ones they enjoy so much, so the stronger our moral attack towards them the stronger the defending mechanism got.
Despite that less and less humans are first hand involved in animal exploitation (meaning working in factory farms, or living in a family of farmers, or seeing violence inflicted on animals every day, or making their living off of animals’ exploitation), still only a tiny percentage of humans experience the anticipated and hoped repugnance when encountering violence towards animals, and as a result stop their direct participation in it.
So far the prediction is far from being fulfilled, and furthermore, factory farms keep getting bigger and bigger, more and more intensified, and more and more violence is being inflicted on more and more animals. Despite that according to the thesis – social, political and cultural changes should have indirectly brought positive changes, so far it has been the opposite.
The advance in the threshold of repugnance regarding violence is not strong enough to create a significant change and there are various evasive options to by-pass the issue. That is of course quite expected of humans, as they don’t want to seriously deal with the problem. Humans are first and foremost opportunists and as such they first look for ways to arrange the reality so they can keep doing what they want. In this case, first of all it’s blaming the murdering hands while ignoring who operates them by keep financing and enjoying the exact same things they blamed them for doing.
Another infamous option is to suggest advocating for better welfare legislation, but probably not doing anything about it themselves.
Consuming only organic flesh is becoming a popular evasive option, mainly for the ones who insist on not understanding that these farms focus on the health of the humans who eat the animals after they were murdered, not on the animals’ health while they were still alive.
Grass fed animals is much less popular than organic flesh, but it’s also on the rise. We broadly covered how horrible is one of the most prominent farms of this sort (Polyface), in our counter article to Michael Pollans’ The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
And of course veganism’s counter trend, the notorious Paleolithic diet, which many humans don’t really need to actually embrace but just to pull it out of their sleeve every time they need an excuse to torture animals.
All of these reactions to the advance of the threshold of visual repugnance are much more comfortable escape options for humans than veganism, despite that veganism is by no doubt the only serious and consistent reaction to it.
Some did and would go vegetarian, fewer did and would go vegan, but most didn’t and won’t.
Obviously there are more vegetarians than there were in the late 30’s when Elias wrote his thesis. And there are definitely more vegans than there were back then. The vegetarians and vegans numbers in absolute figures and as a percentage of the general population has risen and would probably keep rising in the following years. But we think it is safe to guess that Elias would have expected much more than 2% of the population 80 years later, especially when considering the extreme revolution in the information flow which accelerated the process of breaking the slaughterhouses walls. Only that it didn’t break the inner walls of humans – the mental walls which allow them to do whatever they want and never really change their behaviors.
The refinement process Elias describes, mostly refined humans’ excuses, not their actions.
The expectation is for a much more dramatic reaction than most humans’ current one. So far it fails to come and it is hardly activists’ fault – as in not breaking slaughterhouses’ walls fast enough or completely. Activists are doing their part, it’s the rest who fail in theirs.
The crucial thing to learn from Elias’s theory and all the more so from the exceptions derived from it, is that although most humans are repelled by violence towards animals, only a tiny fraction of them infer a personal responsibility reaction – to firstly stop taking an active part in it.
So making the walls of slaughterhouse clear, clearly doesn’t really work. As aforesaid, if slaughterhouses had never had walls nobody would have been a vegetarian, and breaking their walls now, is turning only a tiny fraction of humanity vegetarian.
Many Activists rather think that humans are blissfully ignorant since then they can hope to change their violent ways by informing them about animal exploitation. Of course humans don’t know exactly what’s going on in factory farms, but what they do know is more than enough to immediately stop directly participating in it. The problem is not that humans don’t know what’s going on, the problem is that they don’t care.
And an even bigger problem is that activists – the most caring people in the world – are wasting their precious time on informing the rest of humanity about the greatest exploitation system ever in history, hoping that some of them will be kind enough to stop some of it, instead of looking for ways to annihilate them all so none of it will ever exist.
It is extremely speciesist to suggest waiting for humans to change, as it implies that humans are worth all of animals’ suffering. More than 150 billions of sentient beings every single year mustn’t suffer from birth to death until less than 8 billion humans would finally understand.
Waiting for humans to change their violent ways, is violent towards animals, and it is also speciesist.
Looking for ways to end human tyranny, for good, and by all means necessary, before they would torture much more animals, is much less violent and not at all speciesist.
What will you choose?