Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort that arises from holding two conflicting beliefs.

As described in one of my earlier posts, I had always considered myself an animal lover, and thought I was largely kind to animals, yet I continued to eat them when I had no need to. This conflicting worldview manifested itself in bizarre behaviours such as moving snails from the path so they wouldn’t be trodden on en route to KFC, or throwing distasteful looks at people wearing fur whilst wearing a leather jacket.

Finally, I became a vegan, and abstained from eating, using or wearing animal products as much as one can when their presence has become so ubiquitous.

When speaking to non-vegans about why we shouldn’t eat animals, I often face quite a hostile reaction. Some people are clearly very offended, and I can understand why; no one wants to be told they are doing something cruel. I could just keep my views on it to myself, but as with any injustice, it is not enough to simply stop indulging in it yourself, though it’s a great start. I feel morally obliged to get other people to stop treating animals as though they are objects.

So this leaves me in a position where I am deeply offending and ostensibly attacking people I know and love for their actions. It can be a lonely place.

As part of my strategy to convince others that eating animals is wrong, I invoke the cognitive dissonance argument. I point out that if you believe that we shouldn’t cause harm to animals for fun, then the logical conclusion is that we shouldn’t eat meat.

Most of us would condemn those who take pleasure in watching a dog-fight, but why are we horrified by those who enjoy the sight of animals being harmed, but not horrified by those who enjoy the taste? Of course the usual arguments about our evolutionary legacy, nutritional needs and natural tendencies are rolled out, but it is a fact that you could stop eating animals today, right now, with no negative consequences. Other than you might miss the taste. And any reasonable person knows that liking the taste of their bodies is not a good enough argument for killing animals.

I am talking about kind, rational, liberal people who care about justice, who have compassion for the vulnerable. My friends. Yet they want to keep animals captive, kill them, and eat their corpses or, perhaps worse, pay someone else to do it for them. Because they like the taste. How can they reconcile this behaviour with their otherwise exemplary moral standpoints?

They can’t, just as I couldn’t, and this is why I am familiar with the arguments they use to defend it. We all KNOW that causing harm to animals for trivial reasons is wrong. We know it. So we come at it from another angle, we say that we aren’t harming animals, or that the reasons are not trivial.

But the reasons are trivial; you will not starve, or become ill if you don’t eat meat. It is not more expensive. It may have been part of our diet in the past, but you can stop today. We eat meat because we like the taste. We don’t eat it with a heavy heart, lamenting and saying ‘if only we didn’t have to eat these poor creatures, but we have no other choice’. We love it. We savour the the smell, the texture, the taste of their burnt and mutilated corpses. I am not using this language to be deliberately inflammatory, I am being honest about what it is we are doing when we eat meat. We eat their dead bodies and to say we are eating them for any other reason than we love it is disingenuous.

We tell ourselves they are not harmed. But we slaughter them. Again this jars the already fragile sense of equilibrium we had reached in order to reconcile our desire not to harm animals with our desire for flesh. We line animals up and systematically kill them. I am not going to describe the horrible reality of the slaughterhouse here, because it leaves room for apologists to imply that there is a kinder, more ‘humane’ way to kill them. If you want to believe they all die dignified, peaceful deaths, and that abattoirs are run by Dignitas, that’s fine. It is still systematic slaughter. We are still breeding, holding captive, and killing sentient animals, who are no different than our beloved dogs and cats, and really no different to us in any way that matters morally.

Many of us grew up with animals, they were part of the family. We worry about them when they get sick, pay vet bills to make them feel better. Because we understand that they have feelings, that they are individuals with different personalities. To paraphrase Tom Regan: what happens to them matters to them. We know what they enjoy about life, and what frightens them. We would rightly be upset and angry if someone tried to kill them for pleasure. Yet we do this to other animals every day, and wrongly become upset and angry when someone points out this contradiction.

I think we become so defensive and upset with evangelical vegans because we know that what we do to animals is wrong. Science has shown us that the non-human animals we eat are closely related to us, and have almost indistinguishable nervous systems. They have emotions, and they are aware of themselves and of the world. We consider ourselves kind to animals, but we kill them and eat their bodies. And so does everyone else around us. And we conform, and tell ourselves it’s normal and natural. We tell ourselves that the way we keep and slaughter them is kind. That they have a good life. A quick clean, death.

Even if this was true, which I am sure it isn’t, but even if it was, just try to take a step back from what everyone says is normal, and take an objective look at the facts. We take a living, breathing, sentient creature with emotions and a distinct personality, who hasn’t consented to the process, and we kill her, cut her into pieces, burn her, and devour her body parts with glee. Please try to forget that it’s what we’ve done our whole lives, what we’ve done for millennia, that it’s what our mothers did for us growing up. It’s hard, it was hard for me, but try not to be offended by what I am suggesting. Take a critical look at your behaviour, from an objective standpoint. You are understandably trying to cope with the cognitive dissonance. You are thinking, ‘I am not cruel to animals, I am a good person, what I am doing is normal’. I did the same, and once I stopped consuming animal products, the inner conflict melted away and I felt much better about my relationship with non-human animals.

Try to remove all emotion and bias from your arguments. Look at the facts. We are killing and eating others because they are different, and they are unable to stop us. We know killing animals for fun is unkind. We know and love animals that we grew up with. We know we are animals. We know that we are no longer slaves to our evolutionary imperatives. We know we can stop, right now. We know we are good, considerate people. We know that taking pleasure in the suffering and death of animals is wrong. We all know it.

So we can continue pretending that systematically executing animals doesn’t cause them any harm, or that we really need to eat them. We can feed the cognitive dissonance that makes us feel so uneasy when we talk to vegans, or eat animals in front of them. We can pretend it is the vegan who is offensive, and not the slaughterhouse.

Or we can change.

It is obvious once you remove the normative effect of society’s attitude to animals, and reject the apologetics and euphemisms of the meat industry, that eating animals is unkind.

Ultimately we have to put our morality where our mouth is; if you want to be kind to animals, you must not eat them.

Please, go vegan.

Why vegetarianism isn’t enough

Growing up I was always taught by my mum to be kind to animals. We never had less than 5 rescue animals in our home. My mum would put food out for hedgehogs, and tend to them when they were hit by cars. My dad even lassoed a starving german shepherd from the back of a moped. True story. I was told bullfighting and dog fighting was abhorrent, that vivisection was deplorable and that fox hunters were the scum of the Earth. My mother wouldn’t talk to our Australian cousin that shot kangaroos for sport.

But I never questioned why we sat down and ate animals for dinner every night.

As an adult I would move earthworms and snails from the path, lest they were trodden on, on my way to KFC. I never could stomach spare ribs or chicken on the bone because it reminded me that my food was once an animal; everything had to be reshaped and covered in euphemistic breadcrumbs. How could I exhibit such conflicting behaviour for so long?

It wasn’t until I was about 24 that I decided I couldn’t eat animals any more. So I became a vegetarian. But I still wore and even bought new leather, and cooked meat for others. It was half-arsed.

It wasn’t until I was 28 and I began to read more about animal rights that I started to consider veganism.

What did happen to all the boy chicks that are useless in egg production, and all the baby boy cows that don’t produce milk? What happens when the adults’ milk and egg production rates dropped off and they were no longer profitable? Do they live out their natural lives in retirement homes, a golden handshake for their years of sacrifice and hard work? No, they had the same fate as the animals that ended up in breadcrumbs.

I learned that animal products are morally indistinguishable from meat.

Millions of cows and chickens die every year as a result of the egg and dairy industry.

Baby boy chicks are gassed, or ground up and fed back to their parents. The female chickens have been bred to lay egg after egg, whether they’re free range or battery. No wild bird would use up precious energy on this travesty of a menstrual cycle.

Dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated from the moment they are fertile, their young ripped away from them so they don’t drink the milk meant to nourish them, often sent for veal production or simply bolt-gunned on the day they are born. Meanwhile their mothers mourn, locked in a cage for 16 hours with pumps attached to their nipples, machines sucking their grotesquely swollen, optimally bred udders until they bleed. And when they’ve been through this 3 or 4 times, they are strung up and slaughtered along with their meat-producing brethren. Many are pregnant when this happens, and the soft, velvety skin of their foetuses is used to make expensive leather gloves and bags. Dairy is the ultimate appropriation and commodification of motherhood.

Sure, you could argue that you could keep a cow on some land and milk her guilt-free, but as any mammal would, she would stop producing milk once her baby was weaned. We can’t allow that, we want her milk. And sure her pendulous udder is prone to infection and cancer because we’ve slowly deformed her through selective breeding, generation after generation to produce pints of the white stuff. But who wants black tea?

Maybe we could keep some chickens and take their eggs, they don’t need them? But if we stopped breeding for superfluous egg production the birds would start to choose their own mates and return to their earlier phenotype, and stop laying so many eggs. They don’t owe us anything.

The egg and dairy business is particularly brutal in the context of capitalism, where we exterminate the slackers and dispose of the males. But as adult humans, should we really be drinking milk from somebody else’s breast, someone who isn’t even the same species as us? Do we really need chicken ovulations on toast every morning? Especially when it comes at such a price.

We are keeping them captive and treating them as objects because we like their secretions, and it results in a life of suffering and a premature death. It doesn’t matter if the sticker says organic and free range; these labels are there to make people who don’t want to harm animals feel ok about harming animals.

Veganism is a commitment to refusing to treat animals as property, and it was very hard to accept as an animal lover and a vegetarian, that i was doing just that.

If you don’t want animals to die for your dinner, then you have to give up eggs and dairy.

I may not like the taste of vegan cheese, but the taste left in my mouth from my research into the dairy industry was far harder to wash away.

I implore you, do the research yourself, and if you care about what happens to animals, go vegan.

Ad Hominem

I am frequently on the receiving end of ad hominem arguments and attacks.

When I talk about trying decrease the harm I cause through veganism, people immediately become defensive. I understand why people are uncomfortable with the corollary of my argument, that they are causing harm by not being a vegan.

The most banal response is “what are your shoes made of?”. Since becoming a vegan, never have I had so many people express an interest in my footwear.

I wear shoes that do not contain animal products, but even if they were made of baby seals, this would not make my argument any less valid, it would only make me more hypocritical.

Sometimes people like to point out all the other ways I am causing harm in my life; that I work in a shop that sells Nike products, or that I eat soya, which is bad for the environment. I admit that I am uncomfortable with selling sports wear made in sweatshops, it is not consistent with how I would like to live my life, and I am leaving that job as a result. But this doesn’t make my points about veganism untrue. Soya may be bad for the environment, but as between 80% and 98% of it is fed to livestock, I won’t lose sleep over that one. The crux of the argument seems to be that I am not causing zero harm, so therefore I may as well torture and kill animals.

A recent ill-researched, inflammatory article about quinoa production blamed vegans for the plight of poor farmers in Bolivia. Even if the article were accurate, it is not only vegans who eat quinoa; we make up 0.3% of the UK population, I don’t think we are responsible for any food crises.

Yes there are issues with how crops are grown, but we should deal with those issues by improving standards of crop production, not defaulting to eating animals. The scientific consensus is that you can feed more people on less land using fewer resources on a vegan diet.

On other occasions I am told that by buying vegan produce from shops that also sell animal products, I am supporting the business and therefore responsible for animal suffering. It’s true, Waitrose doesn’t compartmentalise the profits it makes, and when I buy peppers, the money could go towards cheese production, but don’t blame me for companies supplying products that you demand. Of course I would like to buy all my produce from vegan businesses and stock-free farms, but there are not enough vegans for such businesses to be commonplace. You can remedy that.

My sincerity is questioned at every turn, and when there is the slightest suggestion that I am inadvertently causing more harm than I thought, the gloaters point their fingers and cackle, “look at her, she tried to be kind and she failed”. But at least I tried, and I’ll continue to try. I will try to be exemplary.

A vegan friend once told me she was tired of the ad hominem attacks on her that omnivores used as an excuse not to give up animal products. She said “what are they going to do, follow me around until I do something wrong and say, you messed up, I can eat this burger now?”

Perhaps my failures salve their consciences.

I try to be kind and compassionate, and sometimes I fail. I just wish that people would exhibit as much moral sensitivity with respect to their own behaviour as they do to mine.

What’s the difference?

Last night, I became a little it distressed about dead animals.

I had been watching District 9, and this had confirmed my belief that how we treat others should not be based on what species they are, but on their qualia.

I often ask omnivores what the differences are between human and non-human animals, and why this means it’s ok to eat non-human animals. I am generally given a list of meaningless differences, such as their intelligence levels (humans have differing intelligence levels, some lower than many animals), or superficial traits, like the number of legs or amount of fur they have. This has no more bearing on how we treat individuals than skin colour. Sometimes I am told it’s ok to eat them because animals are not compassionate; lions eat zebras, or hamsters eat their babies or something similar. This logic would mean we can eat humans who don’t care about others, whether that’s because they suffer severe disability or are just plain mean. I am not concerned with how they treat others, but with how I treat them.

Sooner or later ┬áthe arbitrary speciesist argument of “because they’re not human” pops up. So where does this leave us with regard to a hypothetical alien race, similar enough to us for it to be immoral for us to treat them as second class citizens, or even as property? Now we must start afresh with why it is wrong to treat the Prawns of District 9 the way they are treated in the film. They are not human, they are not even Earthlings. Why can’t we just kill them for fun?

It’s wrong because, although there are many differences, there are more similarities, and all the attributes they have which make it immoral to harm them, are shared by most of the animals we eat. Maybe farm animals are not quite as smart as the Prawns, but again, some humans aren’t as smart as cows.

Someone once told me one can ONLY enslave humans, not non-humans. I believe you can enslave animals, I believe we do, for the same reasons I believe it is possible to enslave the Prawns of District 9.

We can go through the same thought experiment with a being which is half human, half chimp, born in a lab. Can we enslave that animal? Is it human? Can we eat it? What if it’s 90% human, or what if it’s only 10%? The ratios become meaningless, what is important is that we look at how the individual experiences the world, and what its interests are.

My aim is to show that it is prejudice against other species, not an objective scientific appraisal of their ability to experience the world, that dictates how we currently treat them.

Being Kind

My only real goal in life is to be kind.

This doesn’t come very naturally to me. I’m not sure it does to anyone.

I suppose it’s difficult to define what being kind is, but I think we have to take it to be axiomatic that causing suffering for trivial reasons is unkind. But then we have to define what causing suffering is, and what is trivial.

Is it unkind to cause distress to right-wing christians by making them tolerate same-sex relationships in their town? I think we need to ascertain what freedoms they have to forego in order that others are not limited. In this instance, their own relationship choices are not being limited. They do seem to be genuinely distressed by the relationship choices of others, but I don’t think anyone has a right not to be offended. I am offended by almost everything, but I abhor censorship. At what point does it become unreasonable to express one’s views?

I think it is perfectly reasonable to limit people’s choices when those choices are causing harm to others. My choice to run over someone because it amuses me is a freedom that should be curtailed. When the harm caused is more subtle and insidious, then it becomes difficult to say what behaviours should be curtailed. Ideally, I would like to say all speech should be free speech, and that people should not be stopped from airing their views, no matter how offensive they are.

I realise this becomes difficult in practice. If someone is allowed to put up posters saying “All Women are Whores” or “I Hate Foreigners”, ideally this free speech should be allowed, but it makes for a hostile environment for the targets of these campaigns, and history has shown all too often how this sort of speech, when put forward convincingly and charismatically enough, can lead to very real threats and actions. It might be tolerable when it is the raving of one bigot, but what about when it becomes mainstream opinion, and manifests itself in public policy and law.

I don’t consider myself a utilitarian, firstly because I think this could allow 49% of the population to suffer so that 51% may be content, and secondly, because I’m shit at philosophy and I don’t really understand the terminology or underlying ideas.

I’m basically trying to pick through my behaviour, and hone my sense of what is moral. The best way I can do this, is to try to weigh up what I am getting out of exhibiting certain behaviours, and what that costs others. I am trying to think critically about how my choices affect people; I know that I often make others uncomfortable or even distressed when I point out that I believe they are causing harm. Is this unkind, and is it worth it for the greater good? I think the equation becomes more complex when we factor in the strengths of those who stand to gain or lose from having their choices limited. I tend to come down on the side of the underdog, and I believe that the more vulnerable the individual concerned, the more strongly their interests should be represented, as they are at a disadvantage.

The hegemon is better equipped to make sacrifices, and if we have to be unkind to someone who has everything in their favour to afford compassion to those most vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation, then that is probably the kindest thing to do.

The lucky and the powerful will have to come down a few rungs to meet the rest of us half way.