We like to think we are incapable of cruelty to animals. We would never dream of harming a dog or cat. The only time many of us could imagine ever realistically having the need to kill an animal ourselves is if we happened to be camping and were about to be eaten by a bear or mountain lion and were forced to defend ourselves. Other than that, we’re big time animal lovers. We go to the park and remark about how cute the squirrels are digging at the base of trees and how pretty the birds sound as they chirp and preen their colorful feathers. We donate to groups like the World Wildlife Fund and love our pets like family. We are big-time nature lovers and we are big-time animal lovers.
Or so we say.
But there is a big difference between saying something and doing something. You see, your mind has the incredible power turn reality into fantasy, because inside your mind is a marvel of the human psyche called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization can be beneficial but it can also be detrimental to ourselves and others. It can be a brilliant psychological defense mechanism created by our brains so we might avoid something called cognitive dissonance, defined as “the discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs etc. within themselves”.
When we compartmentalize conflicting beliefs, our brains are attempting to construct a rational framework under which our irrational and incongruent beliefs can exist harmoniously.
Humans have a deep desire to believe the best about themselves. We like to think of ourselves as good, smart, kind people. We like to be right. However, whether we are actually right is inconsequential, because believing we are right is more important to us than actually being right.
This is true even of people history remembers as bigots, tyrants, and murderers. Though it’s undeniable that horrible atrocities have occurred thoughout history, in the minds of the people executing these horrible deeds, their actions were just, good, and right. For example, white racists in the southern states of the U.S. in the 1950’s didn’t believe their treatment of non-whites was morally reprehensible. They rationalized their illogical and flawed beliefs by citing all kinds of irrational “reasons” to justify their racism from intelligence to attractiveness to the law of nature to the law of god and anything in between.
When racists are confronted with the reality that there is no reason their race is better than any other race and that treating members of other races differently is unjust, their twisted minds rationalize their immoral and negative beliefs in a way that makes them appear moral and positive so they can still feel that their problematic beliefs and actions are good and right. Can you think of any other historical oppressions and the rationalizations used by those in power? Okay, what does any of this have to do with animals? To illustrate how this relates to animal rights we have to acknowledge how we compartmentalize groups of animals. There are the animals we love (pets), the animals we admire and seek to preserve (wildlife), and the animals we choose to ignore (food/fashion/etc.). Melanie Joy talks about this in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. We separate animals into these groups to avoid having to recognize that our actions and professed beliefs of kindness and compassion are out of sync with one another.
Humans actively search for ways to explain the absurdities of life because we can’t bear the thought of living in a world devoid of purpose. If the world has no purpose, maybe we don’t have a purpose either. That’s a pretty scary thought for most people. So we give purposes to various things in our lives from the people we know (friends, family, enemies), to the activities we do (work, fun), to the animals who share this planet with us (friend, food). But because we are the ones giving purposes to everything and everyone around us, the purpose is almost always one that relates to how it affects us and neglects to acknowledge everyone else’s right to define their own purpose.
Just as a racist would rationalize that the “purpose” of non-whites is their utility to whites, or a misogynist would rationalize that the “purpose” of women is their utility to men, speciesists rationalize that the “purpose” of non-human species is their utility to the human species. Speciesism is just as real as any of a wide variety of oppressive beliefs including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. It’s a very ego-centric way of viewing the world and if we were to eliminate it, we would see many of the world’s most pervasive problems disappear completely.
Just as racism is the belief that your race is superior to all other races because you are a member of that race, speciesism is the belief that your species is superior to all other species because you are a member of that species.
Treating someone cruelly who has done nothing to deserve such treatment other than being born of a different species (or race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or class, etc.) is absurd to say the very least, so we rationalize these attitudes in a way that preserves our self image as a good and logical person. We tell ourselves that if using animals for human purposes was wrong, there would be laws against it or massive public outcry.
But we forget that it was only within the last hundred or so years that groups of people who have been systematically oppressed for millennia are finally starting to receive the respect they deserve, and we still have a long way to go until things are equal. Laws can be changed and improved-upon; they are not written in stone.
Furthermore, we forget that for most of history, challenging things like racism, sexism, and heterosexism was seen as extreme and irrational behavior, much like how challenging speciesism is seen today. We know that harming others is wrong because we empathize and recognize that we would not want to be harmed in such a way ourselves. This is the essence of the Ethic of Reciprocity, a.k.a. The Golden Rule: “Treat others how you would like others to treat you.” Almost every religion has some variation of it, yet how can we explain all the wars and crimes committed in the name of religion?
Furthermore, almost every religion has laws regarding whether harming animals is permitted at all, and if so, the manner in which it must be done to be considered “humane” and “ethical”. This is because it is a generally subconsciously recognized, though seldom acknowledged fact that harming a living, feeling creature, especially when it is absolutely unnecessary, is unethical. Keeping this in mind, there are two important things to note:
- Though speciesism continues to be a permeating and normalized force in modern society, consider that many religious texts were written in a time when racism, sexism, and heterosexism were not viewed in the same way they are today. In fact, there are many verses of texts from various religions detailing how to discipline human slaves, how to beat your wives, how to sell your daughters, and how to kill non-believers, just to name a few.
- The religious laws that explain how to “ethically” and “humanely” slaughter animals are all operating under the incorrect assumption that the consumption of animal products is necessary for survival (and though one can make the argument that the Inuits of the Arctic or the Zulu of the African bush rely on meat for survival, for the vast majority of people reading this post from a computer screen, this argument simply doesn’t apply). Furthermore, this flawed logic reasons that ethics are contingent on convenience or cultural traditions.
One quick note on unethical cultural practices: I feel it’s prudent to note that while it’s important to respect and preserve the wide variety of cultures that exist around the world, any aspect of a culture that is harmful to anyone who can feel pain should not be tolerated, human or non-human. I see very few people jumping to defend female genital mutilation, child marriages, or child prostitution. Some of these cultural traditions have existed for thousands of years, but because we recognize they are undoubtedly harmful and unethical, we speak out against them. We don’t make excuses for them or try to reason that condemning one harmful aspect of a culture is the same as condemning the culture as a whole.
It is also worth noting that it is much easier to condemn an aspect of a culture we are not a member of than it is to condemn an aspect that is found in our own culture, such as the exploitation and consumption of animals. This is something worth thinking over if you happen to be someone who is against the genital mutilation of human females (for example), but then doesn’t give a second thought to the genital mutilation of male pigs who are castrated without anesthetic as part of the hog industry’s standard animal husbandry practices.
How many of you support cruelty to animals?
If you were to address a group of people with the question “How many of you support cruelty to animals?”, what results would you find? Almost certainly you would not see a single hand go up and would instead receive looks of confusion and disgust while people murmur to each other “What kind of question is that? Only a horrible person would wantonly be cruel to animals!”. Even if by chance there happened to be someone there who acknowledged that they harm animals on a daily basis (such as a person who gets “free to a good home” animals off craigslist.com and then tortures and murders them — yes, this actually happens), they would be very unlikely to raise their hand because most of us recognize that harming others is not something people typically brag about in society.
What these people would invest no thought in is their role in the deaths of billions of animals around the world every year for food, fashion, experimentation and entertainment. Their perceived involvement in the deaths of the billions of animals executed each year is severely diminished by:
- The staggering number of animals who are harmed by these industries
- The staggering number of people responsible for this harm by funding these industries
We convince ourselves that our vote for our favorite (or least hated) political figure counts for something, but refuse to believe that we are directly causing environmental devastation with every bottle of water we purchase and subsequently send to somewhere like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a floating mass the size of a continent in the Pacific Ocean literally made of non-biodegradable microscopic plastic garbage). We prefer to think our chances of winning the lottery are much greater than our chances of being diagnosed with cancer, though real-world statistics prove otherwise. Even though we are aware of our own mortality, it’s looming inevitability rarely enters our thoughts.
We have to do this because if we don’t we would be so consumed with worry and anxiety we wouldn’t even be able to attend to our basic needs for survival. Why worry about things we have no control over? This forces us to focus on things we can change rather than things we cannot, which keeps us productive and better able to use our limited energy efficiently and effectively. We have evolved this way and for the most part, it has served us well.
The problem is, our brains aren’t evolving nearly as quickly as our society. Though many are the same, the problems facing society today are exponentially larger and more complex than the problems faced by society even a few thousand years ago. A thousand years may be a long time, but it’s a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of evolutionary history.
Furthermore, in the span of a few thousand years the human population on this planet has skyrocketed from a few hundred million to several billion. So when you learn that almost seven billion people around the world (including you, your friends, and your family) are responsible for the deaths of over fifty billion animals every single year, we shut down. How are we supposed to wrap our minds around numbers that large? — We can’t.
“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” ~ Joseph Stalin
You can try your hardest to convince yourself you’re just an innocent bystander by claiming “I just don’t want to get involved”, but the truth is whether you like it or not, you already are involved. By simply living in society you are involved. And you are responsible. If you’ve ever been confronted with evidence that you are not the same person in reality as the person you envision yourself to be — when a deep-seated belief that you view as being integral to your character as a person (such as “I am a good person” or “I am compassionate toward others”) is challenged — what was your first reaction?
More than likely, your first instinct was to jump to denial, rather than self-reflection. We know these things about ourselves; they are subconscious mantras we replay in our minds each day. How dare anyone presume to know us better than we know ourselves! They clearly have no idea what they’re talking about. So what do we do when confronted with the truth that we are in fact playing a crucial role in the perpetuation of suffering on a mass scale?
- “I’m an animal lover. I would never hurt an animal. Just because I eat meat and other animal products doesn’t mean I’m hurting animals.” (The murdered pig in your ham sandwich begs to differ.)
- “Animals can’t really feel pain.” / “Animals can’t understand what’s happening to them anyway.” (Actually, they can. Still not convinced? Watch this.)
- “Conditions for animals are not as bad as people claim. Those undercover investigations are just isolated incidents that are manufactured by crazy animal rights extremists.” (How many “isolated incidents” does it take for us to recognize that a problem is actually widespread? Furthermore, why do you suppose states like Iowa and Utah have enacted controversial Ag-Gag laws to make it illegal to film in places that exploit animals? If they have nothing to hide, why are they so afraid of people filming their supposed humane treatment of animals?)
- “I hardly ever eat any animal products — I’m practically vegan anyway!” (It’s hard to know exactly how many animal products you consume until you make a conscious effort to eliminate them from your diet. There are hidden animal products in things you consume on a daily basis that you have no idea are actually animal products. It’s amazing how many people don’t know that whey and casein come from milk, or that gelatin is the rendered bones, hooves, and ligaments of slaughtered animals. These are things most people don’t know about because they have no reason to know — it’s just not on their radar. Furthermore, this goes beyond food. What about leather, fur, silk, wool, down, pearls, etc.? What about cosmetics and household cleaners that are tested on animals? What about rodeos, horse races, dog races, cockfighting, dog fighting, the circus, and aquatic parks like Sea World? Animals are exploited and oppressed for more than just food.)
Shifting the blame/focus:
- “I’m not physically killing animals myself. I just buy it from the store. They do it.” (The person wielding the knife is paid on your dollar. That’s like hiring a hit-man and saying the murder was his idea.)
- “You kill plants so who are you to lecture me on ethics?” (Read this.)
- “Maybe I’ll care more about animals once we fix all the problems affecting humans first.” (You mean to say you believe humans are the most cognitively advanced species on Earth, yet we still haven’t figured out how to do more than one thing at a time?)
- “I’m only one person out of millions. Changing my lifestyle won’t change a damned thing anyway so why even bother?” (So by that logic, if fewer people decided to drive while drunk the number of hit-and-run fatalities wouldn’t drop even slightly? At the very least, this is a matter of personal integrity. You should want to do the right thing because you would not want to personally be involved with something you claim to be against.)
- “I did the vegan thing for X years/months/weeks/days and I felt really lethargic/sick/hungry/unhealthy so it doesn’t work for everyone.” (Read this.)
Romanticizing problematic choices:
- “I get enjoyment from eating animal products. It makes me feel good.” (First, using the argument of “violence is morally acceptable for the sake of my own pleasure” echoes the same logic used by bullies as benign as internet trolls to bullies as vicious as rapists and murderers. Second, there are many vegan foods that are very enjoyable. Many things you already eat are vegan or could easily be made vegan with simple substitutions: chips with salsa and guacamole, cereal with non-dairy milk, various pasta dishes, fruits, veggies, etc.)
Just a few examples of delicious VEGAN food I’ve eaten:
What we need to do, if we are truly the intelligent species we so fervently claim to be, is to look ourselves in the mirror and really see the person who stares back at us. Have we been wearing a mask so long that even we have started believing it’s our own face? Beliefs, morals and ideals should be more than just conversation topics or fluff to make us feel and appear as though we’re doing good in the world.
And the moment you convince yourself you’re doing enough is the moment you allow that mask back onto your face to hide the arrogant complacency beneath.
Instead of reacting to our realization of conflicting beliefs with denial and rationalization, shouldn’t we be taking responsibility for our actions and changing our actions accordingly? Talking about how good a person you are doesn’t change anything. You have to live it. You have to be it. You have to constantly improve upon it. Because when that mask starts slipping and you begin to see the person you really are under there — the person whose actions are in direct opposition of their words — how are you going to react?