The Tragedy of Willful Ignorance

How does one feel outrage over the killing of dogs in Korea and China for food, the massacre of dolphins in Japan, the slaughter of elephants, lions, and rhinos in Africa, but accept the mistreatment and annual slaughter of billions of hogs, chickens, cows, sheep, and other animals in the United States? How does one look into the eyes of his dog, cat, or horse and sense a fierce, soulful connection but close his heart to non-human animals just as worthy? Only “willful ignorance” toward the treatment, intelligence, and suffering of these non-human animals, sometimes called livestock or trophies to more acutely lessen our connection to them, enables an otherwise humane individual to act in a complicit manner toward these horrors.

What is “willful ignorance?” It is the choice to deny and actively remain ignorant to what is right before us– what we see, know, or feel. It is to gainsay what we know is true. Willful ignorance also encompasses not pursuing a hunch, educated guess, or logical conclusion that will likely reveal something horrific, unethical, or amoral. When friends say they know an animal is killed for their meal, but they “choose to not think about it.” When a colleague says, “eating meat is how we were designed as humans,” and at the same time proclaims “I would never eat my dog or cat” – they choose to embrace ignorance and hypocrisy to avoid difficult and traumatic truths. Reality is inconvenient or too painful to accept, so they embrace a fantasy and falsehood and readily reject what is plain sight. As Paul Simon wrote, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

People willfully select ignorance – distancing themselves from the pain they are causing, directly or indirectly – whether it is a calf ripped away from its mother, a pig watching and squealing in fear as other pigs are slaughtered in front of her; or the soaring of horse for entertainment. These are clear forms of torture to sentient beings. Their pain is palpable. These non-human animals often know that they or their loved ones, their pack, their pod, their babies are suffering great harm. As sentient beings, people know this is true, but still most choose profit or pleasure over compassion. Their willful ignorance comes at a cost.

Willful ignorance transcends the treatment of non-human animals to the treatment of humans. It is what is permitted Germans and Poles to put aside the tragedies of the Holocaust that occurred in their backyards, genocide in Africa, inaction against widespread poverty and hunger and the impacts of climate change.   Willful ignorance enables policy makers, academics, and businessmen to (or not) propose and enact policies that they know harm (or enhance) the lives of humans and non-human animals. Why is this acceptable?

Ignorance is dangerous. Willful ignorance leads to tragedy and unnecessary and unjustified suffering. Only when one accepts the truth and actively strives to prevent human and non-human suffering, will one feel free and unburdened.

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