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Verlyn Klinkenborg Virtually Romanticizes Pig Killing

Earlier this year, Verlyn Klinkenborg of The New York Times advocated spaying and neutering for all pets as a way to deal with the pet overpopulation crisis. He didn’t mention property status or intentional breeding, but at least he got in the fray. I’ve always been ambivalent about Klinkenborg. He’s got that yearning for the rural life of days past, when things weren’t led by efficiency standards and units processed or produced. But killing is killing. Killing without necessity, whether carried out by your local pig slaughterer or by a intensive factory farm, is still killing without necessity.

Klinkenborg seems to not understand that or be willing to deal with it. Let’s deconstruct Two Pigs.

  • He begins:

"Very soon, a farmer and his son will come to the farm to kill our two pigs. If that sentence bothers you, you should probably stop reading now — and you should probably also stop eating pork."

Yes, you should. And I’m not going to say he should stop eating pigs. But I will suggest he stop deluding himself that what he does is somehow morally different in the end than what any other meat-eater or animal killer does.

  • He continues:

"I truly love being with the pigs. And taming them means it will be that much easier for the farmer and his son to kill them swiftly, immediately. If I had no more foreknowledge of my death than these two pigs will have of theirs, I’d consider myself very lucky."

I have no idea how he manages that kind of mental acrobatics. And how does he know how much "foreknowledge" the pigs have of their death, I wonder?

  • And now, for the amazing:

"The questions people ask make it sound as though I should be morally outraged at myself, as if it’s impossible to scratch the pigs behind the ears and still intend to kill them. If I belonged to a more coherent, traditional rural community — one that comes together for pig-butchering in the fall — I would get to celebrate the ritual in it all, the sudden abundance a well-fed pig represents."

Celebrate the ritual of the killing? The abundance a well-fed pig represents? It’s 2007, and I find Klinkenborg’s romanticizing of killing and of a community killing together outrageous. Now that we know pigs are as sentient as dogs, why do we still kill them? Tradition? Because we did it yesterday?

  • He continues, as if what he just wrote wasn’t completely absurd. And we learn he finds the pig killing process and what it yields, somehow . . . beautiful.

"[Watching the killing] is how we come to understand what the meat itself means. And to me, the word ‘meat’ is at the root of the contradictory feelings the pig-killing raises. You can add all the extra value you want — raising heritage breed pigs on pasture with organic grain, all of which we do — and yet somehow the fact that we are doing this for meat, some of which we keep, most of which we trade or sell, makes the whole thing sound like a bad bargain. And yet compared with the bargain most Americans make when they buy pork in the supermarket, this is beauty itself."

It is a bad bargain, for both your karma and for the pig. And it is in no way beautiful. It is human behavior at its ugliest: the rationalizing of killing. And all for something as unnecessary as the taste of meat.

  • Finally, the assumption:

"Knowing that you’re doing something for the last time is a uniquely human fear. I thought that would be the hardest thing about having pigs. In fact, it’s not so hard, though it does remind me that humans have trouble thinking carefully about who knows what. One day soon I’ll step into the pen and give the pigs a thorough scratching, behind the ears, between the eyes, down the spine. Their tails will straighten with pleasure. It will be the last time. I will know it, and they simply won’t."

We like to think we have fears that are uniquely human, and maybe we do. It certainly makes killing easier on our conscience. But it doesn’t make the killing any more justifiable.

We don’t know what the pigs are thinking, but we do know that regardless of how Klinkenborg chooses to defend himself, he has committed the ultimate act of betrayal.

Write a letter to the editor and describe how it makes you feel to read Klinkenborg’s words.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. M #

    It is human behavior at its ugliest: the rationalizing of killing.

    Well, to be absolutely honest, you rationalize the killing of pigs to make insulin. Is it still "human behavior at its ugliest," or are rationalizations only ugly depending on which part of the dead pig one is using?

    As for the basic notion of whether killing is "justified" or not, like it or not, most other species are not a direct part of human community, so the notion of whether it is "right" or "wrong" to kill don't have the same application as if it were another human being. Human morality isn't transcendent, not passed down from gods. It's there so that communities can survive and function. Killing another person in one's village hurt the community. Committing adultery with someone else in one's village hurt the village. Killing another animal for food not only didn't hurt the village, it was one of the greatest and most treasured achievements of the village. So deep-wired into our brains we feel that it is good to kill certain animals for food, not wrong.

    Of course times are different, but the reason this mentality that you have never gets a foothold is not because people are lazy or evil, but because they are grounded in morality that isn't purely conceptual.

    October 25, 2007
  2. Jenny #

    Sounds like the ramblings of a socially sanctioned serial killer. Creepy, how he talks about the pleasure the pigs feel at being scratched, not knowing it will be their last time. Like the murderer getting a thrill at the absolute power he holds over another, so in control of his victim that, unbeknownst to them, he determines when and how they will die. All the while pretending he is their friend to gain their trust, so that they will submit more easily when he draws the knife. Very disturbing.

    October 25, 2007
  3. Ellie #

    Outside of abject survival, there's no reason why humans can't give equal moral consideration to other species– unless of course you're a speciesist, and have a double standard.

    True, human morality is not passed down from the gods, but cultural mores are a pretty good imitation. In the pomp and arrogance of ancient civilizations, ritual animal sacrifice often accompanied consumption, supposedly to appease the gods or gain god's favor, for everything from farming to fighting wars in which they gladly killed other humans. Apparently, they imagined their gods were as blood thirsty as they were.

    But there were others who lived with the earth, and whose culture was based on sharing. Though they depended on eating animals for their survival, they were decent enough to feel guilty about killing them. Their myths were an attempt to relieve this guilt.

    The former is the root of our current world, which has lost respect for both human and non-human beings. At most it is cultural, not moral. The latter, though still cultural, reflects empathy and respect for human and non-human life, which is the basis of morality.

    October 25, 2007
  4. Dan #

    Relevant to our moral progress and development, both past progress and future progress, are the following blog essays. Given the moral progress that we’ve seen in developed, widely-educated counties during the past 400 years, there’s no reason to think that animal rights cannot not be embraced in the coming decades as the moral circle continues to expand.

    On moral psychology and development (the last of 4 related essays):

    On some of the historical reasons why a “foothold” hasn’t yet occurred, but also why it should and might in the future:

    October 25, 2007
  5. Dan #

    Good deconstruction, Mary.

    The only difference between Verlyn Klinkenborg and a dangerous sociopath is that, fortunately, Klinkenborg cares what society thinks and gets his morality about humans straight from society, whereas the sociopath has Klinkenborg’s same chilling moral reasoning about humans, but does not care what society thinks about it.

    October 25, 2007
  6. Porphyry #

    M posted: "Of course times are different,"

    Good thoughts, but five words
    Refuted your position.
    New times sprout fresh ways.

    October 25, 2007
  7. I wrote an unusually brief letter:

    "I have an intellectual exercise for your readers. Let's substitute "dog" for "pig" in every sentence of Two Pigs (Opinion, Oct. 25, 2007) and see if people respond so romantically to Klinkenborg's ode to killing."

    October 25, 2007
  8. Awesome, Eric. They have GOT to publish that one . . .

    October 26, 2007
  9. Dan #

    Eric: that is an excellent letter. It takes up very little space and makes people think. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think nonhumans are on the NYT radar screen unless it’s about killing or eating them. I hope they prove me wrong.

    This morning (prior to reading Eric’s letter), I was thinking of re-writing the letter in a blog entry as a sociopath’s description of his adoption and killing of orphans (who wouldn’t have any idea they were going to be killed), just to see how it would feel; kinda like Jeffery Dahmer’s psychology. Of course, meat-eaters would see it as hyperbole, but the feeling of hyperbole is directly proportional to the cultural prejudice we hold against nonhumans: the “moral reasoning” is *precisely* the same. There are some other thoughts and explanation that I would include. I haven’t decided yet to write it. If I do, it will be posted Monday or Tuesday.

    October 26, 2007

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