Musings, philosophy, arguments on vegetarian living, from the heart of Europe (Belgium, that is).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making compassion easier

October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury - mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries - while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.

Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.

You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.

We are empathic beings - at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch - perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability - and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and - for many of us - probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one's meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.

What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.

Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.

More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: al these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.

After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A license to kill?

Articles or pictures about meat eating often stimulate big discussions with a lot of responses on the web. Tomasso Ausili is an Italian photographer who won a World Press Photo of the Year Award in 2009, for these pictures (only click if you can stomach it). In the long discussions under the pictures I read in Italian: "we are omnivores and I don't see any reason why we should feel guilty."
Being an omnivore, this argument goes, gives us a license to kill. I think it would, really, if being an omnivore meant that we wouldn't be able to survive without meat. But as it is, being an omnivore just means that in the course of x years of history, we have tended to eat anything, both vegetable and animal products. That's all that it means. Not that we need meat, just that we are used to having it.
But how can being used to have something in itself justify the fact that we continue doing it, when (or if) we feel it's a wrong thing to do?

So often I hear people, also vegetarians, say that we are allowed to kill animals for food, but we should make sure that they get a good life. First of all, hardly any omnivore who thinks like this, acts on it (acting on it would mean eating only meat from not just merely organic but specialised small scale "personal" farming, where the animal is treated better still than in "conventional organic" farming. Secondly, where did we ever get this idea that there's nothing wrong with killing? I have never read a good explanation of why it would be wrong to kill a human, but ok to kill an animal. It's hard to construct an argument for this that makes sense (saying that humans are humans and animals are animals is not an argument, or at least not a morally relevant one). If you want to see what's wrong with killing in just one image, this photo from the previously mentioned photographer says it all, in my view (and I just read in Every Twelve Seconds that the guy doing this job - he's called the "knocker" - needs to visit a psychiatrist every three months. It's in his job description.)

Killing is finishing a life. A life that wants to live. We don't need to eat meat. There is no license to kill.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Don't tell me what to eat!

People in general don't like to be told what to do. Also concerning the food that's on our plate, we'll decide about that ourselves. We need no government regulations or animal rights or vegetarian groups preaching to us about what to eat, and what not, how much of it, how we should prepare it. We'll make up our own minds about all that, thank you very much.

This free choice, however, is an illusion, and probably nowhere more so than in the domain of food "choices". What most people eat is very heavily determined by agriculture and economy, culture and tradition, what our parents ate, and by what commercial interests want us to eat.

As an illustration of this, check out the graphic from the counting animals website. The chart represents the US advertising budgets of different food cooperations, compared to those of animal interest groups. It would be interesting to compare this also with government budgets for healthy eating.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dear omnivore

Vegetarians are people too, and people like to understand and want to be understood. Here’s a few lines about how some vegetarians think and feel. (Veg*ns who like the text can feel free to send it their omnivore friends and family with their name under it)

Dear omnivore,

We vegetarians (I should actually just speak for myself) undoubtedly get on your nerves at times. We bother you with our preaching, we are not always willing to eat the things that you serve us, we are quite difficult when visiting restaurants together, we slow down everything when we want to read labels, we may react socially inappropriate at times, and occasionally we even might make you feel guilty. Please know, dear omnivore, that being a vegetarian in a carnivorous world is not always easy, and allow me to give you a small glimpse inside the mind of at least one vegetarian.

When I say a vegetarian life is not always simple, I'm not talking about the thousands of times we have to answer the same questions (what do you actually eat? Where do you get your protein?). Nor am I talking about having to read labels, or about restaurants that do not know what we eat or not eat. No, these kind of things I consider to be the pleasures of being a vegetarian, so to speak.

I am talking about something completely different. It’s something I cannot easily express. It’s about a combination of helplessness and incomprehension. Helplessness in the face of so much animal suffering, and incomprehension and astonishment at the fact that it is not getting addressed and eradicated, or even perceived as such. These feelings, you may say, are not the privilege of vegetarians, and you may be right. But still, it is different in this area than others. For the problem of the endless suffering of animals in the world, there is a solution which is actually quite feasible: it would just mean that all of us start eating only delicious vegetarian food instead of dead animals. When you consider this on a global scale, at the level of all humanity, this solution seems to be (at least in short term) not quite realistic. But at individual level, it surely is possible, in theory, for everyone to join.

And then you, the vegetarian, starts thinking and chewing his thoughts, over and over again. You realize that even if the solution is simple, ultimately it is not happening, and people do not participate, they continue to eat meat. And you wonder why. You wonder if you may be seeing things that are not there. You ask yourself if you are hyper-sensitive or overly sentimental. You consider that you are maybe an alien, or just downright crazy. You tell yourself that it cannot be as bad as it looks, that there must be some justice behind it all. Karma perhaps. But that doesn’t convince you. And again you try to find out what it actually is that you hate so much and whether it is actually so awful as you think. And you keep on coming back to the same conclusion: yes, what happens *is* horrible. Sixty billion animals every year that need to lead a miserably short life, because we humans find their meat tasty. That’s actually all that is going on.

And you wonder why it does not stop and since it is not stopping you ask what you can or should do to make it stop. You try some things here and there, but it is never enough and you can see change but it is very slow. And above all: there seems to be no way to explain the people who don’t see it. You can not even show them any pictures or videos because they do not want to watch them. They tell you all the things you tell them are just exceptions and that in the end it is not all bad. And you’re considered to be adhering to a new religion, or you have simply made another choice than them. And you try to explain that it is *not* just a matter of taste or preference. That eating meat or not eating meat is not a matter of painting the living room in yellow or in green. Because by now you are convinced that not eating animals is not only a compassionate but also a very rational thing to do. How can it be so difficult, you think, to see that we should avoid inflicting pain and suffering and killing where we can easily avoid it? But they don’t understand, and so you try every possible way to explain. You appeal to moral philosophy, to arguments about the environment and health, you cook, you let people taste, and you hope that you have some effect, drop by drop.

And you can see that in almost everyone’s case, all that is needed to understand and feel, is already there. You can see that most people love their cat or their dog, you see that they really can not cope with animal cruelty. Similarly they are not convinced anymore that eating animals is required to be healthy. And yet all the time they tell you that what you are saying is not exactly right, or it is inconsistent, or not feasible, or naive, or not important compared to all the human suffering in the world.

And through all this thinking and talking and discussing, you constantly need to be careful not to seem arrogant. The deadly sin here is to appear as one who thinks he is better than the rest, a moralist who tells other people what to do. You must pay attention that you do not condemn others for what they eat - something which is very difficult because the other very often already feels condemned by your mere presence as a vegetarian. And you must be careful that you do not look like someone who hates because actually you do not hate (although at times you may become a bit more aggressive, intolerant or judgemental, like every human being). You just can not understand, even tough you try so hard.
And of course you must look healthy all the time and can never be sick, because that would be the fault of your diet.

Fortunately, dear omnivore, it is not all doom and gloom in our heads, and there are a few things that make it a little easier. Unlike what you may think, we do enjoy life and the food we eat - many of us discovered the joys of cooking and eating only after having said goodbye to meat and fish. And we definitely can see changes around us, faster and faster. And in our neighborhood and all over the world there are people who feel the same and fight the same fight. If we are crazy, surely we are not alone. We strive together for Something Completely Different.

Personally, what helps me the most is the realization, over and over again, that I myself was eating animals for a long time past the point that I realized I shouldn’t do it. In a way, I am grateful for that. And I am grateful for the fact that I can feel, no matter how inconvenient that may be at times, and that I am vulnerable.

This, dear omnivore, is - very simplified - what is happening daily in my mind. Perhaps in being clear to each other about our feelings, we can find things that unite us and stop talking in terms of me versus you, and may learn to understand each other better.

And to understand is to love, hey tsay.

Thank you for reading


PS: not all vegetarians are vegetarian because of animal suffering/animal rights reasons.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism

I just finished reading What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism. Its authors, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, want to demonstrate that the concept of a sustainable world is antithetical to the logic of capitalism, with its unlimited growth imperative. I liked the book, but as the animal issue was entirely absent, I felt like dropping the authors a few lines.

Dear Mr Magdoff, Dear Mr Foster,

Thank you for writing What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism. I have just finished it and it stimulated my thinking. I do believe you are right and that our present system is part and parcel of the problem, and that we need to rethink it, into a totally different system. I will look, in my own work and life, how I can take your message to heart.

But please allow me to make an attempt at stimulating your thinking. I do not want to take any moral high ground. It’s just that we all have our pet social issues that lie closest to our hearts, and I found that you treat mine with a bit less creativity than I would have hoped for. That seemed to me to be in contrast to the emphasis you put on “new conceptions”, on out of the box thinking, on overhauling systems and practices instead of polishing them up or painting them green.

A couple of times in your book you briefly talk about our food system. In passing, you mention animal agriculture, and state that this system needs to change too. You talk e.g. about raising animals on the same farms that produce their feed. But why be so conservative? My concept of a fair and just world is one that is fair not only for humans, but for all sentient beings. Why prolong the system of our exploitation of other species? Just as you believe the greening of our economy is not a sufficient solution to achieve fairness for all, I believe that making animal agriculture more humane or sustainable is insufficient to achieve fairness. On the very last page of your book you quote Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s refrain “what – about – the people?” You write: if there is to be any hope of significantly improving the conditions of the vast number of the world’s inhabitants – many of whom are living hopelessly under the most severe conditions – while also preserving the earth as a livable planet, we need a system that constantly asks “what about the people (..) instead of how much money can I make?” What if we read the word “inhabitants” with non-human animals in mind? What if we would add the need for the question “’and what about other living beings’ instead of ‘how can I make sure I can keep satisfying my taste buds with dead animals’”?

In my opinion, if we want to be and act *really* fair, we might want to question whether we can still justify the killing and eating of animals while (at least in the west) there are enough cruelty-free, environmentally friendlier and healthier options available. It is a tough question and not one that I expect everyone to ask at this point, but it is one that, in all humility, I hope to be allowed to expect from idealist out of the box thinkers like yourselves.

Perhaps, like many other people, at some point you may ask yourselves this question too. Even if you don’t, thank you anyway for writing your wonderful book. And thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The taboo of killing

I recently was part of a discussion panel where one of the other panelists represented the farmer's union, traditionally the "opposition" to the vegetarian organisation I work for. The woman in question was not happy with the way figures and statistics about farming, the environment and animal welfare were being used and abused. She suggested that the consumer should see an objective movie about the food industry, preferably without words or voiceover, and should decide for himself what to make of all the practises. I agreed and told her that we might even work together on this, but that we should show *everything*: the entire lifecycle of the animals we eat, including the act of slaughter.
She seemed to hesitate a little bit and then gave me a line I have heard numerous times before: people are alienated of the act of slaughter. They are horrified by it because they aren't used to it anymore.

I was thinking: should we get used to slaughter? Is there anything beautiful in killing animals? Aren't there things that we should try to make sure never to get used to?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Raising children vegetarian: brainwashing?

It's not every day that a picture book for children causes controversy. With a title like "Vegan is Love", however, criticism can be expected. Author Ruby Roth is being accused of bringing images and content to children which are not suitable for them. She's talking about where our meat comes from.
I agree with the idea that a message should always take its public into account, and that one has to be extra cautious in the case of children. Not everything is suitable for young readers or watchers. Roth's work may be a bit dark, but I don't for a second believe that she crosses a line, and I suspect there's other things that are making adult critics itchy. It's probably not so much about *how* the message of eating animals is being sold to children, but *that* it is being sold at all. The way animals are raised intensively and afterwards are killed for food, can undoubtedly be brought in a correct, not overly graphic way to children of a certain age. Roth herself puts it very nicely: if it's too cruel to talk about, it's certainly to cruel to eat.
In the context of this book, but also any time when the conversation is about parents raising their children vegetarian, the term "brainwashing" often comes up. Vegetarian parents are thought to impose their own ideology and preferences on their children, who have not made that choice themselves, simply because they are not old enough to make conscious decisions on this (or any more complicated) topic. I have some serious reservations about this argument.
As a parent you cannot help but make certain choices for your children. Also if you bring them up with meat, you make a choice. To many people this may not actually seem a choice because meat eating is the norm today. There are no reasons however, including in the domain of health, why it should be like that. People of all age groups, including babies and young children, can thrive on a balanced vegetarian or even vegan diet. Conversely, roughly 1 in 3 children in Europe (and more in the US) are now overweight. That's a direct result of this "normal diet" with which we raise them. It would therefore be difficult to argue that bringing up children with meat is in any way more valid, correct or justified than raising children without meat, and hence we should have no real need for additional arguments in support of the vegetarian option. Neither are there reasons to support the statement that children should be vegetarians only when they themselves have made a conscious decision to be vegetarians. Parents can make that decision for them.
Incidentally, my experience with vegetarian parents (I myself have no children) is that they are not overly fanatical in the vegetarian upbringing of their children. The children will of course get information on why the parents do not eat meat, they won't be served any meat at home and there won't be meat on their sandwiches to take to school. But they will hear from their parents about what meat is, that other people eat it, and often that if they want to taste it out of the house, they are free to do so. Unfortunately vegetarian parents must constantly defend and justify their perfectly justifiable choice to their family, friends, teachers, doctors, etc.
Eating meat is not a neutral idea or custom. The American psychologist Melanie Joy finds it problematic that a term such as vegetarianism exists, while there is no term for the norm (eating meat). Vegetarianism needs to be explained, but the norm doesn't. She points out that behind our habit of the daily and careless consumption of meat, there is also an ideology, which she calls carnism.
When we choose how to raise our children, the choice is not between the "normal option" (meat) and the ideological option, but between vegetarianism and carnism. Whoever tries to objectively analyse the pros and cons of both systems, may very well find that it makes more sense to raise a child vegetarian, to give it the necessary information when it reaches the right age, and then let it decide whether it wants to eat animals or not. Can this be told in a neutral and objective way, without influencing the child? That's probably rather difficult. But on the other hand: consider what parents tell their children when they spontaneously start to question meat (as many do, at a very young age). The parents will say that those animals didn't suffer, that they were bred for this purpose, or that this is just the way the world is and that we have to eat meat. Is *that* objective information?