Karen Davis on Holocaust Comparisons

Karen Davis recently wrote a lengthy response to critics who complain about animal rights activists comparing the condition of animals slaughtered for food to the victims of the Holocaust. A Tale of Two Holocausts argues that, if anything, animals actually suffer more than human beings, and that the term “Holocaust” could be said to have been misappropriated by the animals’ oppressors.

Brian O’Connor has an interesting analysis of Davis’ work, of which the following prefatory remark is worth noting before looking at the particulars of Davis’ claims,

“A Tale of Two Holocausts” is tedious and pedantic, and weaves together cliched themes of Animal Rights moral equivalence with the fallacious logical operators of the sort “what if” “could well be” “some say” “can’t show otherwise” “‘can’ equals ‘should'” that wouldn’t pass muster in any peer reviewed journal other than a post-modern rag specializing in the ivory-tower equivalent of “alien abduction” conspiracy theories (“You weren’t there — I was abducted. Prove me wrong!”). “Two Holocausts” differs little from other such tracts either in its challenged logic or in pretentiousness, neither of which is an asset. But don’t take my word for it — plod through the entire thing yourself.

To put it a bit more bluntly, its a boring, rambling piece that, as O’Connor points out, relies on a lot of weasel words to doesn’t form any sort of coherent point. But there are some interesting things Davis has to say along the way.

The first thing that stands out is Davis’ assertion that not only is it appropriate to compare the condition of animals with the suffering that human beings suffered during the Holocaust or any number of other genocides, mass murders and ethnic cleansings, but animals may actually suffer more more than humans in such situations. That’s right, a herd of cattle destined for slaughter may suffer more than a family of Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Davis writes (emphasis added),

Notwithstanding, it is reasonable to assume that animals imprisoned within confinement systems suffer even more, in certain respects, than do humans who are similarly confined. This occurs in a similar way that a mentally impaired person might experience dimensions of suffering in being rough-handled, imprisoned, and shouted at that elude a person capable of conceptualizing the experience. Indeed, one who is capable of conceptualizing one’s own suffering may be unable to grasp what it feels like to suffer without being able to conceptualize it, of being in a condition that could add to, rather than reduce, the suffering. It is in this quite different sense from what is usually meant, when we are told that it is “meaningless” to compare the suffering of a chicken with that of a human being, that the claim resonates. The biologist, Marian Stamp Dawkins, says that other animal species “may suffer in states that no human has ever dreamed of or experienced” (Dawkins 1985, 29). Matthew Scully writes in Dominion of the pain and suffering of animals in human confinement systems:

For all we know, their pain may sometimes seem more immediate, blunt, arbitrary, and inescapable than ours. Walk through an animal shelter or slaughterhouse and you wonder if animal suffering might not at times be all the more terrifying and all-encompassing without benefit of the words and concepts that for us, after all, confer not only meaning but consolation. Whatever’s going on inside their heads, it doesn’t seem “mere” to them. (2002, 7)

. . .

[After the 9/11 attack] I compared all this to the relatively satisfying lives of the majority of human victims of 9/11 prior to the attack and added that we humans have a plethora of palliatives, ranging from proclaiming ourselves heroes and plotting revenge against our malefactors to the consolation of family and friends and the relief of painkilling drugs and alcoholic beverages. Moreover, whereas human animals have the ability to make some sort of sense of the tragedy, the chickens, in contrast, have no cognitive insulation, no compensation, presumably no comprehension of the causes of their suffering, and thus no psychological relief from their suffering. The fact that intensively raised chickens are forced to live in systems that reflect our dispositions, not theirs, and that these systems are inimical to their basic nature (as revealed by their behavior, physical breakdown, and other indicators), shows that they are suffering in ways that could equal and even exceed anything that we have known. Industry sources note, for example, that hens caged for egg production are so overwrought that they exhibit the “emotionality” of “hysteria,” and that something as simple as an electrical storm can produce “an outbreak of hysteria” in four-to-eight-week-old “broiler” chickens confined by the thousands in buildings (Bell and Weaver 2002, 89; Clark, et al. 2004, 2).

You will notice the abundance of qualifiers that O’Connor sites as rendering the essay all but pointless. Animals may, could, might, etc. Of course they also may not, could not or might not, so why bother with simple conjecture after conjecture?

Davis’ claim that an animals inability to conceptualize any pain it feels might make that pain worse is odd given that conceptualization of pain is generally viewed as increasing the severity of the pain, and genocide, mass murder and ordinary every day murder has frequently incorporated said conceptualization to increase the horror of murder. Consider, for example, the civilians kidnapped by terrorists in Iraq and publicly paraded on video before being beheaded. Along with the physical pain of such a gruesome murder, those poor souls have had to endure torture and the psychological pain of their own conceptualizations of what was likely to happen to them.

We see this in our culture when human beings talk of death that occurs almost instantaneously or when an individual is unconscious as being a more “peaceful” death than one that occurs with the full conscious awareness of the individual. This is certainly an odd idea if being able to consciously conceptualize pain and death minimizes the pain relative to not being able to conceptualized pain and death.

Davis also addressed the odd subject of “Who ‘Owns’ the Holocaust?” Here Davis suggests that the Jews — oppressors of animals, after all — may have improperly appropriated the term “Holocaust” for their own purposes.

Davis writes (emphasis added),

The word holocaust is not species-specific, and therefore Jews have no ownership rights over it. From whatever source the word “Holocaust,” as it is now employed, came from, Jews have taken it over from the Greek word, holokauston, which in ancient times denoted their own and others’ cultural practice of sacrificing animals, to designate the Nazi extermination of the European Jews.4 Conceivably, those animals could complain that their experience of being forcibly turned into burnt offerings (and to please or sate a god they would not necessarily have acknowledged as their god) has been unjustly appropriated by their victimizers, who are robbing them of their original experience of suffering. Through PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit, the animals reclaim their experience, past, present, and future. Taking the animals’ view it may be said of them, as Bruno Bettelheim said of the millions of Jews and others who were systematically slaughtered by the Nazis, that “while these millions were slaughtered for an idea, they did not die for one” (Bettelheim 1980, 93).

Ah yes, the Jews unfairly appropriated the word Holocaust from the animals, and are continuing to oppress the animals by thereby diminish the suffering they cause to animals. You just can’t make this stuff up.

There is one final thing of note in the essay. Davis feels the need to quote from left wing activist Ward Churchill who, according to Davis’ notes, wrote the forward to Steven Best and Anthony Nocella’s collection, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals. Here’s what Davis says of Churchill,

In A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, Native American scholar Ward Churchill writes that the experience of the Jews under the Nazis “is unique only in the sense that all such phenomena exhibit unique characteristics. Genocide, as the nazis practiced it, was never something suffered exclusively by the Jews, nor were the nazis singularly guilty of its practice” (Churchill, 1997, 35-36). Furthermore, Churchill argues in his Forward to Terrorists or Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals: “Given that the key to the ‘genocidal mentality’ resides, as virtually all commentators agree, in the perpetrators’ conscious ‘dehumanization of the Other’ they have set themselves to exterminating, it follows that removal of the self-assigned license enjoyed by humans to do as they will to/with nonhumans can only serve to better the lot of humans targeted for dehumanization/subjugation/eradication” (Churchill 2004, 2-3).

It is interesting that Davis would cite Churchill and that Best and Nocella would choose him to write the forward to their book. Churchill is infamous for, among a lot of other things, statements he made that were as outrageous as Davis’ about 9/11. In an essay entitled “Sometimes People Push Back,” Churchill compared the victims of the 9/11 attack to Nazis,

Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they [the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center] were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire – the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” – a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

Davis, Best, Churchill — what a lovely group of like-minded individuals.


A Tale of Two Holocausts. Karen Davis, Animal Liberation Philosophy and Policy Journal, Volume II, Issue 2.

“Some People Push Back” On the Justice of Roosting Chickens . Ward Churchill, 2001.

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