in the Carnivalesque Tradition
by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
Human radical abuse of “food” animals cannot be explained by economic efficiency alone.
It is also an outgrowth of attitudes humans have had toward nonhuman animals through the ages, rooted in our resentment at being animals, which we project onto them.
In his book An Unnatural Order, Jim Mason calls this mentality “misothery,” a term in which he combines the Greek words for “hatred” or “contempt,” and “animal.”
“We are animals”
But while many people harbor cultural or personal misothery toward nonhuman animals and the “degrading” condition of animality, we are ambivalent about our own attitudes. We are animals, after all, whose knowledge of our animal kinship is encoded in our genes.
A basis for some hope, in this time of surpassing cruelty to billions of farmed animals and others on the planet, is the empathy many people feel toward animals. Empathy for animals might at last be gaining ground on the animus that has defiled so much of our relationship with other species and the natural world.
Human treatment of turkeys remains a flagrant example
But human treatment of turkeys remains a flagrant example of “misothery.”
Because of the turkey’s mythic role in American history, turkeys come loaded with all the ambiguity this role implies. Just as the wild bird and the domestic bird are joined ambiguously in the public image and the DNA of the “Thanksgiving Turkey,” so the turkey appears, if marginally thus far, in the role of an ambassador for a kinder, more generous experience of Thanksgiving.
By adopting turkeys and having them as guests at the Thanksgiving table, farmed animal sanctuaries show through a different set of symbols that there are other ways of saying thank you than by cynically thanking the turkey for “giving itself” to us.
The charm of a turkey
But this remains far from the mainstream perspective. The typical Thanksgiving celebrant considers the charm of a turkey to consist in “taste,” and in being large enough to allow everyone at a community gathering to share in eating the same thing, uttering the same shibboleths over the feast.
Conventionally, the turkey has been cast as a creature addicted to filth and infected with harmful bacteria. The turkey magically becomes clean only by being killed, soaked in slaughterhouse acid, cooked, and consumed.
The turkey, often characterized as “dirty” and “stupid,” though turkeys are neither, figures in seemingly incompatible roles.
On the one hand, the turkey is offered in sacrifice, implying purity.
Yet on the other hand, the turkey serves as a scapegoat, suffering for the human notion that heaping society’s impurities onto a symbolic creature and “banishing”or slaughtering that creature can somehow bring purification.
The “purification” ritual at Thanksgiving is equated with patriotism. At Christmas it may be equated with the religious virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
Scapegoats are not just victims; they are innocent victims who are blamed and punished for things they are not responsible for. In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement, as described in Leviticus 16, the scapegoat was chosen by lot, from among two goats, to be sent into the wilderness. The sins of the people were symbolically laid upon the scapegoat, while the other goat was chosen for sacrifice.
Scapegoating & bullying
In Christianity, Jesus is not only the shepherd; he is also the innocent lamb who bears away the sins of the world and sheds his blood for human salvation.
In ancient Greek religion, a pharmakos was the ritual sacrifice or exile of a human scapegoat or victim. A slave, a cripple or a criminal was chosen and ousted from the community in times of disaster such as famine, invasion or plague, in the belief that this action would restore purification to the people.
Scapegoats are not always seen as such by scapegoaters, because scapegoating is not about evidence but about transferring blame. People often do not fully recognize––or understand––what they are doing when they participate in scapegoating. As when groups bully a person who is different, however, the participants do share in a feeling that harassing, excluding, terrorizing and torturing the victim is reinforcing the bullies’ collective sense of security in collective identity.
The scorn heaped on the turkey at Thanksgiving suggests some awareness of participating in scapegoating on the part of those who practice it. But such awareness, if it exists, does not necessarily inspire caring or change. On the contrary, it may be self-reinforcing.
The idea of the Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating. Yet what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat.
Animals have been scapegoated in storytelling, myth, and history since time immemorial. In “Generative Scapegoating,” in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, French social scientist Rene Girard (1923-2015) explains how, throughout the world, “all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,” have been vilified.
Under European penal codes from the 12th to the middle of the 18th century, for instance, animals found “guilty” of various offenses, both actual (such as injuring or killing someone) and invented (such as allegedly insulting someone influential), were subjected to everything from being buried alive to being hanged, often after mangling and other tortures were inflicted.
Animals were put to the rack to extort confessions, and in classic scapegoat fashion, were violently banished from the place of their alleged crime.
“Buggery” – sexual intercourse – in which turkeys and other farmed animals were assaulted by men and boys in Pilgrim society – “was uniformly punished by putting to death both parties implicated, and usually by burning them alive,” writes E.P. Evans in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. Occasionally, he says, “an appeal led to the acquittal of the accused.”
Two cultures in conflict
Considering this history, it isn’t farfetched to see the annual White House turkey “pardoning” ceremony by the president of the United States on the eve of Thanksgiving as an inverted scapegoat ritual, a parody of a parody burlesquing “the acquittal of the accused.”
So how does the turkey fit the scapegoat pattern? Consider that not everyone is as happy at Thanksgiving or Christmas as we are supposed to be.
Two cultures conflict during the holidays: the official, “pious” culture epitomized by Plymouth Rock and the like, versus a miscellany of dissident, unhappy, irreverent, marginalized individuals and groups.
If a citizen wishes to express discontent with the holiday, “blaming” the turkey allows a certain amount of criticism and resentment to seep derisively into a celebration that taboos serious criticism or reflection.
The turkey thus functions as a bearer of impious sentiments deflected from their true causes, like the obligation to be thankful whether one is thankful or not.
But sorrow and injustice are not the fault of the bird whose fate, after all, is to be murdered for the meal, which makes many people deeply unhappy while ordinary citizens rejoice.
As a scapegoat bearing a burden of derision, the turkey is victimized in the carnivalesque tradition of taunting and torment, exemplified by the voodoo rites of Mardi Gras, if only faintly recognizable in the games and thrill rides that most Americans today associate with the word “carnival.”
The carnivalesque spirit
In the authentic carnivalesque tradition, “all that was terrifying becomes grotesque,” writes Mikhail Bakhtin in his classic study Rabelais and His World.
Opposite the sanctimony of pious occasions, the carnivalesque spirit emphasizes sarcasm, indecent abuse, the banquet ending a period of ritual abstinence such as Lent, and a comically repulsive concept of the body. The basic content of the carnivalesque spirit is “free play with the sacred” which seeks to defeat fear in a “droll and monstrous form.”
Bakhtin stresses that the carnivalesque spirit of mockery and abuse “is almost entirely bodily and grotesque.” Only the eyes, he says, “have no part in these comic images,” because eyes––disguised by masks and veils at Mardi Gras––“express an individual, so to speak.”
Nobody laughs at the eagle
Nobody laughs at the eagle. For impiety you have the turkey. The turkey functions as the butt of marketplace humor opposite the sanctimony of Thanksgiving. In media coverage, the turkey has been called a “humongous mutant” and many other derisive epithets designed to tickle people’s fancy and distance them morally from the bird.
The turkey, in carnivalesque fashion, is likened to bloated sex symbols and caricatured in cartoons of little boys crawling into the turkey’s vent at the Thanksgiving dinner table – “Send in small boy with a knife and instructions to find his way out again.”
Thus is revealed the prurient underside of Thanksgiving.
The modern “industrialized” turkey’s swollen body, distorted physical shape, and inability to mate naturally are the result of the farming industry’s violent genetic assault on the body of a bird who evolved in nature to be strong, fit, and vigorous. If we are aware of the difference between wild turkeys made by evolution and farmed turkeys manufactured by human intervention, this should remind us not only of the cruel arbitrariness of fate, but of the sinister power of humanity.
The carnivalization of the turkey functions as a magic formula for conquering the human fear of being a “turkey.” We poke so as not to be poked at. By devouring another, we master our fear of being devoured.
“The ‘profane’ animal becomes the sacred feast”
Fear of our own potential for gluttony, of being helplessly manipulated by the cosmic scheme, our fellow man, and our own folly, is transposed to the comic monster we are about to consume.
The bird, so conceived, becomes purified and redeemed only by being absorbed back into the bowels of Man. Theriomorphy, a term meaning a circumstance in which a human and a nonhuman animal come together in one body, takes place under these circumstances in a consummation in which an innocent creature otherwise maledicted as dirty and stupid undergoes transmutation. The “profane” animal becomes the sacred feast.
Such is the carnivalesque universe epitomized in Bakhtin’s summation of the psychology of this universe: “The victorious body receives the defeated world and is renewed by the very taste of the defeated world. Man triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself.”
“Donald Trump is not an anomaly”
The Thanksgiving turkey ritual has all the trappings, including the “happy ending,” of the traditional scapegoat ritual, in which a “culprit” is transformed into a “benefit” to society.
The psychology of the carnivalesque enterprise is currently on display at the U.S. presidential level, where the “pious solemnity” of the presidency has been invaded and upended by the carnivalesque impudence of Donald Trump, whose favorite “food,” one might say, is “the taste of the defeated world.”
Tragically for the earth and its creatures, Donald Trump is not an anomaly, and the ritual of traditional Thanksgiving is in essence a daily exercise in need of radical transformation.
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Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1967. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Davis, Karen. 2001. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. New York: Lantern Books.
Evans, E.P. 1998. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. First published 1906.
Girard, Rene. 1987. “Generative Scapegoating.” In Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and CulturalFormation, ed. Robert G. Hammerton-Kelly, 73-145. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Mason, Jim. 1993. An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other. New York: Simon & Schuster. Now available from Lantern Books.
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Her books include PrisonedChickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality; and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.