The most common defense of Thug Kitchen that I’ve seen on social media, in keeping with their own self-satisfied response to the burst of controversy that attended their book publication, is that they did not intend to perpetuate racist stereotypes and thus could not possibly have done so. This is often expressed with an air of grievance, as if those complaining about the offense ought to be ashamed for “attacking” someone so self-evidently innocent.
I’m mostly interested, today, in the odd maneuver by which intentions (or lack thereof) are believed to magically absolve people from responsibility for the repercussions of their behavior. But first, a few words about innocence.
As I wrote in The Oxen at the Intersection*, “in my experience, white preoccupation with personal innocence is one of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing otherwise progressive people from perceiving their own participation in the persistence of racism.” Presumptions of innocence figure centrally in the idea of “Americanism”:
Along with illusions of exceptionalism and delusions of independence, presumptions of purity are central to the mythic “American” identity. Puritan immigrants to what would become the United states were, according to this mythos, innocent victims of religious persecution and therefore surely not the perpetrators of such persecution. The United states military liberates concentration camps and topples dictators and therefore certainly does not perpetrate genocide or violate human rights. This kind of either/or thinking, in which goodness is thought to be an attribute of people rather than of acts, and innocence is considered to be synonymous with victimhood, often makes it difficult for people in the United states to discuss complex current events constructively, much less grapple with the living legacies of genocide and slavery here at home.
Innocence is particularly essential to the construction of whiteness:
In brief, innocence is goodness and goodness confers privileges, but in order to maintain the sense of entitlement to those privileges one must keep oneself innocent of the harms upon which they depend.
The conflation of innocence with victimhood, as if they were stable rather than situational attributes that always go together, inhibits real-world problem-solving:
In this way of thinking, people are either good or bad. Good people don’t do bad things. Victims are always innocent. Innocent people do not victimize others. This way of thinking makes it difficult to talk about, or even perceive, the real world in which people are perfectly capable of doing both good and bad things (and usually manage to do both by noon each day).
And so, the perpetrators and enablers of Thug Kitchen may well be thinking something like this: “Racism is bad. I’m not bad. Therefore, what I like to do (or read) cannot possibly reflect or contribute to racism. That makes me a victim of unjust accusations. And [to complete the circle] since I’m a victim, I must be innocent.”
Such thoughts may or may not be conscious. But, certainly, I have heard and seen defenses that go like this: “They didn’t mean to perpetuate stereotypes. Therefore, they did not perpetuate stereotypes.” First, do people really believe that the only dangerous stereotypes are those that people hold consciously and pass on deliberately? Next, I notice that this can be reduced to a more obviously nonsensical assertion: “They didn’t mean any harm. Therefore, there wasn’t any harm.” This is often followed by a coda along the lines of “How dare you accuse them of doing any harm?” (Again with the innocent victims.)
Elsewhere in life, when the subject isn’t racism or other kinds of bias, people seem to have no trouble realizing that one can cause injury without having intended to do so and that the lack of malicious intent does not erase the injury. When we step on someone’s foot accidentally, we say sorry, understanding that their toes hurt the same whether or not we meant to smash them. We also take care not to make the same mistake again. We don’t clog dance heedlessly up and down a crowded aisle, snarling to anyone who dares to complain, “What’s your problem?! Can’t you see that I didn’t mean to hurt anybody?! Why aren’t you wearing steel-toed boots, anyway? Probably doesn’t hurt that much. Don’t be such a whiner! Oh, it’s especially hurtful because you’ve already got a fractured foot from being stepped on yesterday? How is that MY problem?? Don’t be such a spoil-sport—I’m just having fun here!”
Which brings us to backyard chickens.
Some people who keep hens for eggs do so for the fun of feeling like a farmer, for the sensory pleasure of eggs considered to be especially tasty, or out of a (mistaken) belief that such eggs are particularly healthy food. Other hen-keepers, including many vegetarians, exploit hens in this way because they are opposed to factory farming or even because they have affection for chickens. Whatever their various motives, participants in the backyard hen-keeping craze (which has lately spread to college campuses) are unified in asserting that their actions do not hurt, and might even help, chickens.
Certainly, those who keep hens due to opposition to factory farming or affection for chickens truly believe themselves to be acting harmlessly. Perhaps because they believe this so strongly, they often seem unable to see the many injuries** suffered by birds due to their unchecked appetite for eggs. They are like the “locavores” who are just so secure in their own pure intentions that they refuse to believe that their “happy meat” is, in fact, an unsustainable product of suffering.
Whatever their attitude toward the birds in their care, most backyard hen-keepers don’t think at all about the one male chick killed for every female chick they buy from a hatchery. Since their own intention is to secure “sustainable” or even “humane” eggs, they simply do not see the wreckage they have wreaked along the way. They cannot not see those male chicks… in the same way that the Kitchen “Thugs,” so wrapped up in their intention to promote healthy eating, cannot see the people who are made more vulnerable by their perpetuation of the “thug” stereotype.
Another aspect of the backyard hen-keeping craze is that unwanted roosters now flood sanctuaries and shelters wherever urban hen-keeping is allowed. Like all farmed animal sanctuaries, we are persistently full when it comes to roosters, despite having expanded several times in an effort to welcome as many as possible. Oftentimes, backyard hen-keepers will call or write us, asking if we can take in a rooster. They almost always portray themselves in a sentimental way, stressing their good intentions in keeping hens. But when we remark on the crisis we and other sanctuaries are facing due to the collective irresponsibility of the faddists, they never ever express regret or take responsibility for being part of the problem. Their attitude seems to be, “what’s that got to do with me?”
The perpetrators of Thug Kitchen seem to have the same attitude: What’s that got to do with me? Yes, people of color perceived as “thugs” are frequently murdered by police. But we’re just playing around here, having fun while promoting healthy eating.
One last thought, about an antidote to preoccupation with one’s own intentions and presumed innocence: empathy. Both Thug Kitchen and backyard hen-keeping represent profound failures of empathy. Hen-keepers claim to love the birds in their care, but seem unable to actually see them as who they are: Traumatized orphans who never knew their mothers and have never lived in a natural (mixed sex and multigenerational) flock, who endured terror and distress during sorting and shipping, and who now are entirely under the control of mammals who might or might not care for them adequately. Similarly, neither the people behind Thug Kitchen nor their many fans seem capable of even hearing, much less honoring, what so many people of color have told them about the hurtful impact of their actions.
This may be, simply, a function of being so preoccupied with one’s self — my own innocence, my own intentions — that there is no attention left for others. I mention this because Lori Gruen’s forthcoming book, Entangled Empathy (to which I contributed an afterword) is now available for pre-order. Activists of all stripes will want to read that book. I suspect that, in order to solve problems like Thug Kitchen and backyard hen-keeping, we will need to not only develop our own empathic capacities but also help others to tap into theirs.
* Yeah, I know that’s the second time I’ve mentioned the Oxen book in a week. I’m not profiteering! All of my royalties for the book, which people I respect have said is worth reading, go to the sanctuary.
** At hatcheries, eggs are incubated by machines rather than mothers. Newly hatched chicks, searching frantically for mothers who will never appear, are sorted on assembly lines: females into boxes for shipment by mail; economically worthless males into trash bags (slow suffocation) or wood chippers (terrifying and painful death). So… every young chick who will grow up to be an egg-laying hen has already been traumatized before arriving at the private home or college campus at which she might or might not receive adequate care. And, for every hen, there’s one dead rooster. That’s just the start of the many problems with this inhumane fad.