By contributor Don LePan

Canadian Thanksgiving is over for another year; American Thanksgiving approaches. The piece below—more a short work of speculative fiction than an essay—is not specific to either one of these.

I know this will be an unpopular argument: I want to speak out against something we have come to accept as part of our community values, as part of our traditions of sharing.

Some may say the matter I bring before you is a trivial one—one that pales beside the great issues of our day. In the big picture, you may say, can it seriously be suggested that the condition of our livestock is an issue meriting our attention?

This is where I beg to differ. Rest assured, I am no extremist; I make no call for the food animals to be “freed” or for we gniebs to eat nothing but plants. Though I will in a moment be defending the “interests” of humans, I would not for a moment suggest they be accorded “rights.”

If there is one thing in this culture upon which all parties may be relied to agree with, it is the value of community and sharing—for neighbours to show respect and consideration for each other, to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to work together to keep neighbourhoods clean and safe for our children, to support local initiatives as much as national and international ones, to extend a welcome to families new to the neighbourhood. And, of course, for gniebs of all backgrounds to gather together and celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. That is for us a central ritual—a ritual that honours our shared history and all that we share in our national community, as well as the community that goes beyond national borders and the sanctity of life itself.

There are those who believe that the values of individual striving are more important than those of community, but no one is against community—no one is against sharing per se.

I declare myself here and now to be against one form of sharing. I am opposed to the very foundation on which our tradition of Thanksgiving dinner has come to rest. More specifically—and I do want to be specific—I am opposed to the cruelty that underlies our treatment of the humans, whose consumption has become such a central part of our ritual of sharing at Thanksgiving.

When we gniebs conquered this planet all those centuries ago—and in the process, it seems safe to say, saved the humans from extinction—we faced a set of very difficult questions. Perhaps the most difficult was how to deal with the humans, who had themselves been so dominant for so long. Should we simply consign them wholesale to oblivion, as they themselves, whether through negligence of through wilful slaughter, had often consigned their own inferiors—from Beothuk to Bo to Bororo, from auk to passenger pigeon to rhinoceros? Or should we make a place for them in what would now become a better world—a world of gnieban values, of gnieban striving, of gnieban sharing?

We chose the second, of course. Humans were not subjected to wholesale slaughter. They were raised to be productive throughout their useful lives; human life was put into the service of higher values.

But at what cost? Here it is essential to distinguish between the practices of our ancestors and those that have become prevalent in our own day. When gniebs first domesticated the humans we treated them well— virtually every authority is agreed on that point. Their lives might be taken and their blood spilled, but as a rule that occurred at the end of their productive lives and/or in harmony with the natural cycles of harvest and of thanksgiving. Throughout their productive lives they were treated with dignity, even with kindness, in some sense as fellow creatures. They tilled our soil, they tended our crops—and, at the end of their productive lives, their meat graced our tables, and we gave thanks together for the sacrifice of their lives.

Is there anything that can equal the sense of true sharing that comes at Thanksgiving time with family and friends gathered around the table to celebrate the season, and to give thanks for that sacrifice. I may even suggest that such traditions extend to the animals who share themselves with us. We cannot understand their gibberish, of course, but perhaps we may imagine their own gratitude, their own sense of sharing themselves, in gratitude for having been given fruitful lives without suffering. It is to honour that tradition, not to sully it that I ask you to remember how those humans in bygone days were treated throughout their productive lives—with dignity, even with kindness, as our fellow creatures.

And their milk? That is arguably a more complex question, but once the nutritionists weighed in and informed us of how healthful humans’ milk was compared to our own, we could hardly be blamed for arranging a system such as that which survives to the present day. (Humans themselves are known to have put into place a very similar system with a four-legged species that is believed to have become extinct not long before our arrival on the planet.) By removing the young from the mother, she may be induced to produce more milk, which the superior species may then consume. The young are the unfortunate victims of the process, but so long as their end is brought about quickly and without cruelty, there can be no ethical objection—any more than there can be any reasonable objection to ending any human life quickly and without cruelty.

The problem with all this is that we have not held to these values. Under the name of “tradition” we bring to the table humans that are nothing like the humans of old. I leave to one side the matter of taste—though I confess I can find nothing in the taste of today’s factory-farmed human to compare with the sweet and slightly gamy taste that I can still remember from when I was young. But it is not taste that should concern us—it is morality. The reader may not wish to know the truth, but know it they should. Today’s humans live lives that are hideous to contemplate. They are no longer seen in open fields—robotic devices now perform almost every task once assigned to humans. They live behind closed doors in vast sheds, cramped, confined, and generally in chains; it is only for their milk and flesh that we value them now. The udders of those bred for the dairy industry—their breasts, as once we called them—are painfully distended as a result of the way we have bred them, to produce more milk that can be sold at lower prices. So too the bellies of those bred to gain weight quickly and reach the table as soon as possible; the weight we have bred into them is intensely painful to carry.

Once we know that, it is surely unconscionable not to take some action. To be blunt, it is unconscionable to continue to eat these products of cruelty. If we are to continue, on this and on every Thanksgiving, to glorify the harvest and to accept with grace the humans sacrificed at this special time, we must honour the traditions some of us remember from the time when we were young, when meat and milk were not the products of cruelty, when the traditions of sharing and sacrifice did not entail needless suffering on the part of humans or of other animals, imposed through our own cruelty, throughout the full duration of their lives. We must return to the practices of the past—to a time when we could eat Thanksgiving dinner with a clear conscience, knowing we were consuming the products of kindness rather than of cruelty.

But let us recognize that eradicating cruelty to humans cannot be done for free; the meat and the dairy products will all have to carry higher prices—and that, unless we provide subsidies, the poor will indeed bear that burden disproportionately. That, then, is exactly what we should do—provide income assistance to those whom require it. Such subsidies will prevent the poor from slipping into worse poverty, while allowing the animals—the human animals—to live lives that are no longer filled with endless suffering.

So there it is—a modest proposal for our families, for our communities, and for our world to depart from today’s traditions of sharing and of thanksgiving by returning to an older set of traditions—one that does not rest, as ours does today, on an unacknowledged foundation of cruelty.

No, this is not so important an issue as that of how to avoid war, or how to save our environment from destruction. But if we are tojudge ourselves as superior to the other creatures—morally superior, not simply more intelligent—then we must listen to our better selves. We must refrain from unnecessary cruelty. We must reject the false tradition of sharing that is reliant on that cruelty. We must return to the great traditions of sharing and of sacrifice that were once the foundation of our society. We can—and we must— re-establish gnieban society on that great tradition of true sharing.

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