Traumatic Knowledge and Animal Exploitation: Part 1: What is it?

NOTE: I originally presented the ideas found here in 2003 at the National Animal Rights Conference. The issue of self-care in face of traumatic knowledge continues to be important, too, so I posting it at this time. 

Traumatic knowledge is the knowledge that a person has about the fate of the other animals. It is painful knowledge—knowledge about everyday practices and everyday sufferings. Traumatic knowledge makes us feel the suffering of animals acutely. It feels relentless. It does not provide relief but intensifies our emotional connections to animals.

Traumatic knowledge causes dissonance/disturbance/disjunction. It is a major challenge to any individual who experiences it and to any movement composed of individuals who bear its truths.  It affects us personally, interpersonally, and strategically.

I have been thinking about traumatic knowledge for a couple of years now, since I first encountered the term in Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History. Smith describes how amateur history (the history associated with women) consists of “the writing of multiple traumas”.  She identifies the traumas that women historians of the early nineteenth century would have experienced: They were aware that their rights were eroding in the midst of a time when universal rights were being (supposedly) championed. They or family members had survived revolutions and wars, and at a personal level, had experienced the threat or actuality of rape, poverty, violence, abuse. Smith explains, ”death, representing history’s immanence, was always on hand."

In my introduction to the new printing of Howard Williams’ magnificent nineteenth century historical survey of vegetarianism, The Ethics of Diet, I applied Bonnie Smith’s idea of traumatic knowledge to the vegetarians who appear in Williams’ volume.  I explained that “The death of nonhumans, representing a violation of the nonhuman and a violation of the humane desire for the good and the just, is always on hand for veg*ans.” I continued, “The knowledge that other animals are being butchered to feed humans, even though other foods are available that require no such Butchery, is also a form of traumatic knowledge.”

Sir Richard Phillips, an 18th century vegetarian, provided an example of someone who responded to traumatic knowledge. He traced his vegetarianism to his experience at twelve years of age, when he “was struck with such horror in accidentally seeing the barbarities of a London slaughter-house that since that hour he has never eaten anything but vegetables.”

For veg*ans, traumatic experiences are re-encountered regularly. This adds to the trauma.

John Oswald, another 18th century vegetarian, would take long detours to avoid passing slaughterhouses and butcher shops. Even if, like Oswald, you avoided passing the slaughterhouse, the existence of butchery is everywhere visible to the vegetarian, encountered at restaurants and over meals with flesh eaters.

Our culture protects consumers from the truth about the fate of animals in slaughtering. We do not regularly encounter the barbarities of the slaughterhouse in our daily lives. This is what I have termed the structure of the absent referent.

Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. This is the "absent referent." It is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our "meat" separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone. People are much happier eating something than someone. Once the existence of meat is disconnected from the existence of an animal who was killed to become that “meat,” meat becomes unanchored by its original referent (the animal), becoming instead a free-floating image.

The absent referent creates entitlement to benefit from the abuse of others without having knowledge about the abuse. Through the structure of the absent referent, the abuse disappears and the consumed object is experienced without a past, without a biography, without individuality, without a history.

When the movie Bambi came out, the Disney company was accused of being anti-hunting because so many children were upset by the scene in which a hunter kills Bambi’s mother. After the movie Babe appeared, many children and adolescents stopped eating animals. They were called “Babe vegetarians.” In each case, they were responding to traumatic knowledge. They recognized that traumatic knowledge requires action.

Traumatic knowledge can cause alienation from ourselves and others. We are horrified, as we learn about the treatment of animals—“I have been a part of that system!” We may feel revulsion at our own complicity. We have a need to forgive ourselves for our enmeshment within a system that daily destroys animals by the millions.

And then there is everyone else in our lives!

Henry Salt wrote at the turn into the twentieth century, with a great deal of sadness, that is almost muted into despair, “What appeal can be made to people whose first instinct, on seeing a beautiful animal, full of joyousness and vitality, is to hunt or eat it?” Salt remarks on how that makes him feel: “the consciousness of the discovery should at times bring with it a sense of unutterable loneliness and desolation—that we should feel cut off, as it were, by interminable leagues of misunderstanding from all human intercourse, and from all possibility of expressing ourselves?”

Salt captures not only his feelings, but many of the feelings evoked by traumatic knowledge: consciousness of the discovery  that brings with it a sense of unutterable loneliness and desolation, and that makes us feel cut off, as it were, by from all human intercourse and not only that and from all possibility of expressing ourselves?

One of the central aspects of responding to traumatic knowledge is to bring it forward, bring it outward, in a sense, to testify and to stop the trauma producing events.  Understand that because of traumatic knowledge, we are vulnerable to cruelties by those who believe in eating, experimenting upon, and displaying nonhumans. They can “egg” you on simply for their own entertainment.

One of the things people who aren’t veg*ans say is: “don’t tell me! I don’t want to know!” They are assuming that traumatic knowledge is too painful. They are really saying, in a sense, “can I survive knowing about what is happening to nonhuman animals?" They fear that the emotional impact of learning about what is really happening to the animals that they regularly eat is too overwhelming to handle. They are frightened by their potential emotional reaction.  They may not be asking us directly, “Can I handle upsetting information?” But they are watching us to learn the answer. They look to us, veg*ans and animal activists, knowing that we have already experienced this traumatic knowledge and they see us responding to it, trying to find ways to stop what is happening to nonhumans.

If they see that we are angry, combative, on the edge, demanding, insistent, or unhappy, they may think, “traumatic knowledge is too painful. If I bring this information within, I will suffer, I will feel uncontrollable emotions, I will be alienated from my friends and families. I can not endure traumatic knowledge.” Thus, they conclude, “I would rather not know any of this information than to be angry, combative, on the edge, demanding, insistent or unhappy.”

How does traumatic knowledge influence what is chosen as activism? How does traumatic knowledge create pressure on activists? These are important questions we should be addressing within the movement.