I’m glad to announce that I had the opportunity to make a guest blog post at veganblogger.com, please make sure to have a look at my post. It deals with the ideas proposed by David Pearce: Removing suffering in the wild by human intervention. It’s called: Eliminating all suffering?
Everybody who has some vegetarian and vegan friends on facebook probably knows the situation I found myself in this morning: I’m tired, scroll through facebook and one of the first things I see is a horrifying picture of a dead animal, posted by some animal activist. This made me reflect on the use of such pictures in animal activism and in which situations it might be appropriate.
Personally, I would never post such pictures on facebook and would encourage fellow vegans to refrain from doing so too, but let me explain why I think so. First of all, people posting such content are likely to have several vegetarian and vegan friends who already decided not to support this treatment of animals and might not want to be reminded of this violence over and over again. They don’t eat animals, what is the point in showing them this? Opinion might obviously differ on this point, but as far as my view goes, I don’t need and I don’t this kind of pictures on my facebook feed.
Then there is the group of friends that does not have a vegan or vegetarian diet for whatever reason. This group is usually in the majority even among people who add many vegans to their friendlist. The vast majority of this group can also get quite annoyed with regular involuntary exposure to such content. They might block the content of the person who posted it from their feed or they might just scroll over it and not think about it much. Therefore, posting these pictures too frequently is analogous to the inappropriate behavior by some overly motivated vegans lined out in “Fellow vegans, don’t shout at meat-eating strangers in public”
Does this mean that visual exposure to the conditions under which animals have to live for the mass-production of meat can’t convince people to reconsider their diet? I don’t think it does. Actually, many vegans probably watched videos or saw pictures showing these conditions before turning vegan. This imagery can have an emotional impact on people and therefore influence their attitude towards these issues.
But these vegans often had the motivation to learn more about meat-production or were possibly asked by a friend to have a look and decided to do so. In any case, this exposure to the imagery is a voluntary one which is the major difference to the violent content posted on facebook. If the exposure to such content is an involuntary, it is more likely that people turn away from it, maybe as a self-defense mechanism and don’t reflect upon it.
To sum up, I don’t think that posting such pictures on social media will have the positive effect some people might think it has. Furthermore it can have a negative effect on both people who do not have to be reminded of the ways animals are treated and on people who might not want to.
What was your experience with the usage of violent imagery in animal activism? Did seeing it influence you in your diet choices? Do you get annoyed if people post such content on a regular basis?
As a follow-up on “Why we don’t eat certain animals” where I lined out some reasons for an unjustified asymmetry in our treatment of animals, I decided to make a post on two publications showing psychological effects potentially involved in meat consumption such as denial of mental capacities of edible animals among meat-eaters.
Dr Steve Loughnan from the University of Melbourne and colleagues conducted a study  investigating the hypothesis that eating meat but at the same regarding animals as deserving ethical treatment results in cognitive dissonance. Their experiment tested and confirmed that people who recently ate meat are less likely to attribute a high moral status to animals.
The experiment included two groups of participants: One group ate beef and the other group ate nuts. Afterwards all participants were asked to complete a questionnaire on the moral treatment of animals and specifically cows. Their results demonstrated that people who were in the ‘meat-condition’ chose significantly fewer animals as deserving moral concern and also rated cows as deserving significantly less moral concern. While the ‘meat-condition’ did not make participants attribute fewer sensations to cows, it was observed that attributing a reduced moral status to cows correlated with attributing fewer sensations to them. They argue that this “dementalization” justifies the reduced moral status on a psychological level.
In follow-up studies , Loughnan and colleagues showed that animals which are generally considered appropriate to eat are rated as having “less mind” than those who are not. Furthermore, they found that meat-eaters attributed less mental capacity to animals upon being reminded that these animals suffer for meat production as compared to not being reminded of that fact. Finally, they confirmed the dissonance hypothesis previously mentioned by finding out that people who were told to think about meat-production tended to deny mind to edible animals: This was only the case for the group of participants previously told that they would eat meat afterwards – the control group ate an apple afterwards and no significant link was observed. This denial of mind could according to the authors be a psychological mechanism to deal with the dissonance caused by knowing about the conditions in meat-production but eating meat soon nevertheless.
 Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Bastian, B. (2010). The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite, 55, 156-159
 Don’t Mind Meat? The Denial of Mind to Animals Used for Human Consumption Brock Bastian, Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam and Helena R. M. Radke Pers Soc Psychol Bull published online 6 October 2011
There is an asymmetry in our behavior towards animals that deserves being reflected upon more often: We have our own pets at home, we care about them and we love them. Plus, we are incredibly sad if something ever happens to them. At the same time, many of us do not seem to care much about the animals that suffer and die for meat production. How can we explain this asymmetry?
In fact, it can tell us a lot about the way in which our mind works. There are various reasons why certain animals are considered food while eating others would result in a public outrage.
First of all, it is clear that we do not eat our pets because we have a strong emotional bond with them. It seems completely nonsensical to us to even consider it. The same idea applies for pets from strangers, but it does not quite end here. Even if we knew that a certain dog or cat does not have an owner, we would still not eat them, so there is something more that makes these animals different.
One major factor is that our culture simply does not eat them. For some reason, most western cultures do not eat dogs and cats, so we intuitively feel that it is wrong, just because it is highly unusual. We could not justify this rationally since there is no coherent way to argue that eating cows and pigs is better in an ethical sense than eating dogs.
The last way in which certain animals such as dogs and cats differ from the animals in meat production is that we are exposed more directly to pets. We have them in our houses; we see them in the park and so on. As far as cows and pigs go, a large portion of our population scarcely sees them – especially not in the conditions they frequently have to live under in order to make the mass-production of meat possible. Due to this very limited exposure, we are less likely to care about them. We do not have immediate contact with the cow suffering for our meal; we just buy the end-product in the grocery store. This demonstrates a completely natural – although irrational – way in which the human mind works: We care much more about beings that we are immediately surrounded with.
Let us make a little thought experiment: You are on the street and see a deer that was hit by a car and lies on the side of the street. The poor animal is clearly suffering and you have to wait by its side until someone comes to kill it. Later that day you hear on the radio that several animals died in a remote city when a farm burned down. Which situation has a higher emotional impact on you? Probably the first one has; which is completely natural, but does not imply that the second one is in any way less important. This brings us back to our original topic: The mere fact that cows and pigs suffer far away from us does in no way justify on ethical grounds that their suffering is to be favored compared to the suffering of animals which happen to be immediately around us.
This two-class view upon animals has to be reflected upon more often. I personally feel that it is a huge inconsistency in the worldviews of some people that is scarcely noticed. While starting to eat pets does not strike me as a particularly good solution to this problem, re-considering ones diet might be, but of course everybody has to decide this for himself.
What do you think about these issues? Do you think it’s justifiable that some animals are treated very badly while others are not?
Recently, I have found myself thinking about the coexistence of vegetarians and omnivores in our society and how problems can arise from this in individual cases. Let me begin with the reaction vegetarians and vegans get from their friends upon telling them that they don’t eat meat. Some people respond that it’s quite healthy and maybe that they have thought about going vegetarian too. Others might look up to you for obviously caring about animals, but declare that they could not do the same. While the latter reaction may very well challenge one vegan or another to start a more or less furious debate about how they very well could do that, it’s still one of the better reactions.
But then, there are these slightly more annoying reactions when people start almost stereotypical conversations on vegetarianism, frequently including the famous thought experiment of you suddenly being alone on some island where killing animals is the only survival option. It’s often accompanied with unprompted self-defense along the lines of ‘but it tastes so good’ and ‘how could you give that up’ or even worse an unqualified ‘that can’t be healthy!’
After one presentation I gave about veganism at school, presenting ethical, environmental and health reasons to consider a vegetarian/vegan diet, an audience member even told me that he feels like I was declaring omnivores bad people. But I did no such thing. I simply talked about the reasons why I think eating meat is not a good choice which caused him to express self-defensive behavior. While this may be understandable from a psychological perspective, I think such reactions should be reduced. We’re tired of the stranded-on-an-island scenario and we might not want to hear that you find meat absolutely tasty and impossible to give up over and over again.
Now let’s change perspective. It is note rare that vegetarians and vegans mumble something about animal corpses when there’s someone sitting at the same table eating a huge steak. This might be annoying on a long-term basis, but as long as it’s more of a joke and if no lecture on the ethical reasons to seriously consider a vegetarian diet follows – all while the other person keeps eating the steak – no harm is done.
I understand that some vegetarians tend to have the wish to talk to omnivores about eating meat and why they think it’s bad. After all it’s an important part of their lives and they have spent quite some time looking into reasons not to eat animals. But these conversations should only happen if the hopefully-soon-to-be-a-vegan in front of you agrees to have this conversation. Furthermore it should not be repeated over and over again without making any progress. I suggest that the more extreme vegetarians/vegans become aware of the fact that we will always – at least in the foreseeable future – live together with omnivores and interact with them all the time. It is therefore not a good idea to vigorously shout at strangers who dare to eat meat in public transport.
To sum up, we can identify negative, unhealthy reactions coming from both sides. Talking about stranded islands and entering a state of self-defense is about as bad as unaskedly lecturing people on veganism when everybody just tries to enjoy their lunch. If we try to reduce these, coexistence becomes a lot easier and is much more fun for both sides. After all, we are not isolated groups of people but human beings interacting with each other all the time. So why not make these interactions better for everybody?
What do you think? Did you ever experience extreme reactions upon telling people that you are a vegetarian or did you ever see a vegan giving people an overly-enthusiastic and annoying lecture during lunch time?