I heard my neighbors come home from work today just as I do many days around the 5:00pm hour. They often come out on to their back patio to prepare dinner and I heard father ask his two young girls, “What should we have for dinner tonight? Chicken?” Shortly after, my friend Karyn and her son pulled up in the driveway, and we sat down in the living room to talk. Just then a text came through to my phone from my neighbor, letting me know that a sparrow had gotten trapped in my chicken enclosure. We went outside to find the sparrow in distress, flying to and fro, looking for a way out of the hardware cloth-lined enclosure.
I opened the door to the enclosure and guided the sparrow toward it. It quickly found an exit. We all looked at each other and smiled. It was the kind of smile that acknowledged the doing of a good deed. I expected nothing less from my neighbor. He is, like most of us, a considerate person who witnessed an animal in distress and felt compelled to help her. But I could not help but also acknowledge the great disconnect between helping one trapped bird and yet at the same time eating another trapped bird—the chicken—that had lived its short life confined to a barren warehouse with thousands of others. This defenseless “meat” bird no doubt had a great deal more distress in its life than the sparrow, but the chicken’s life was “invisible” to us. So essentially it is not real in our minds.
The moral disconnect between the sparrow and the chicken is what Melanie Joy calls carnism, the invisible belief system that guides our food choices, conditioning us to numb ourselves to certain species of animals raised for food so that we can eat them without even thinking about it, while remaining empathic to other animals. And in Joy’s analysis, the critical bridge between apathy and empathy is what she calls witnessing. “When we bear witness to another (human or nonhuman), we see the world through his or her eyes; we empathize.” “Transforming carnism thus requires that we choose to bear witness to the reality of the system and its victims, and become active proponents of change,” writes Joy in her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.
My neighbor’s altruistic act to help the sparrow is a real life example of the power of witnessing in transforming us from a state of apathy to empathy. When we witness the conditions of animals raised for food, we empathize with them too, realizing that their life experiences are no less real than others. This is our opportunity to “close the gap in our consciousness,” as Joy puts it, and bring consistency to our concern for the welfare of all sentient beings.