Thursday, July 08, 2010

Carnism and Lacto-Ovism Part I

What follows here is an exchange between Sherry Colb and Melanie Joy, inspired by Professor Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:  An Introduction to Carnism.

The first two exchanges will appear today.  The second two will appear on Monday.

PART I:

From SC to MJ:

In Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:  An Introduction to Carnism, I think you have very insightfully and accessibly elaborated a phenomenon at work in people who consume animal products.  They distance themselves from the creation of those products in just the ways that you describe, and they rest on a societal institutional framework erected to cope with any errant anxiety (both moral and health-related) very much as you suggest.  So here's the question:  Do you think that lacto-ovo vegetarianism functions with respect to eggs and dairy products much in the way that carnism functions with respect to flesh? 

Like vegetarianism in an "omni" world, veganism is the minority within the vegetarian world, and some of the same defense mechanisms you identify appear to be at work in lacto-ovo consumers' behavior.  Many omnivores defend themselves by noting that they buy "free range" chicken or "grass-fed" beef or other similarly and deceptively labeled products, when available, just as many lacto-ovo vegetarians say that although they eat eggs and milk, they try to buy "organic," "cage free", or "humanely raised" or they have their own backyard chicken coop (supplied, of course, from the same hatcheries that grind up all of the males at one day old, as you explain in the book).  There is also an interesting disgust dichotemization that happens for these other animal products.  An example that occurs to me is that people think of "edible animals" as providing delicious milk -- cow's milk, goat's milk, etc., while they think of inedible animals as providing disgusting milk, e.g., people find the notion of human breast milk cheese repulsive – see this amusing story -- and most people would not want to drink dog or rat milk.

You debunk some of the fictions surrounding dairy and egg production in the book and show how much horrible suffering and death produce these seemingly innocuous products.  But since most of your focus is on flesh (including that of fish, an often-neglected group of sentient beings), I'm curious about whether you'd apply the carnism label to the ideology of lacto-ovo vegetarianism as well?

I look forward to your response, and I want to thank you again for engaging in this exchange.  I think it will be very useful for my students (and I'm trying, to some extent, to channel some of what their inquiries might have been in person).

Sherry


From MJ to SC:

Do you think that lacto-ovo vegetarianism functions with respect to eggs and dairy products much in the way that carnism functions with respect to flesh?  veganism is the minority within the vegetarian world, and some of the same defense mechanisms you identify appear to be at work in lacto-ovo consumers' behavior.  many lacto-ovo vegetarians say that although they eat eggs and milk, they try to buy "organic," "cage free", or "humanely raised" or they have their own backyard chicken coop (supplied, of course, from the same hatcheries that grind up all of the males at one day old, as you explain in the book). 

Yes, I think that lacto-ovo vegetarians use the same defense mechanisms, but (in terms of these products from "edible" animals) it's a matter of degree. And I believe they use these defense mechanisms only if they actually know that the products were procured with the use of cruelty, making the product morally offensive. Because it's possible to procure eggs and dairy without causing harm to the animal, they're inherently less offensive than flesh. For example, for many years after becoming vegetarian, I continued to consume dairy products. Why? Initially, because I didn't know the process by which dairy was produced. Once I found out, and continued eating cheese (I quit milk right away), I'd push the awareness of animal suffering out of my mind. This went on until I felt too guilty to continue eating dairy, until my awareness (mental and emotional) outweighed my "addiction" to, or desire to consume, cheese products. One issue that suggests carnistic numbing is a matter of degree here is that even for vegans, ovo-lacto products are often, though not always, less disgusting than flesh. Many vegans will, for instance, pick off pieces of cheese or egg from a salad and still eat the salad, while they wouldn't be able to do the same with flesh products.


Another way we can understand carnistic defenses when it comes to ovo-lacto vegetarians is that, just as carnists maintain their carnism in part because it's threatening to stop eating animals, and requires an identity shift, some vegetarians maintain their vegetarianism for the same reasons. Being vegan has a very different connotation than being vegetarian; veganism is seen as inherently political and radical. It's also much more of a challenge for many people on a practical level.

You make an excellent, brilliant point about how "There is also an interesting disgust dichotemization that happens for these other animal products.  An example that occurs to me is that people think of "edible animals" as providing delicious milk -- cow's milk, goat's milk, etc., while they think of inedible animals as providing disgusting milk, e.g., people find the notion of human breast milk cheese repulsive." This certainly suggests that, yes, some of the same carnistic defenses are very likely at work.

As to whether I'd apply the carnism label to the ideology of lacto-ovo vegetarianism as well...."carn" means flesh or body. I've used this term to refer to those who eat flesh, so-called meat eaters. However, one could argue that it could apply to anyone who eats products "of the body." I choose not to use it to refer to the latter, though, because I believe that vegetarians often have a very different psychological relationship with animals and the food they eat than do carnists. I think extending the term could be counterproductive and not fully accurate. I prefer to see vegansim and carnism on a continuum, with most of us falling somewhere in between those two poles. Furthermore, we all experience cognitive moral dissonance in our lives, and the issue is not whether we have this dissonance, but how we relate to it: do we authentically reflect on our choices? Are we committed to our own integrity? I think many vegetarians have taken this step (as have some carnists, to be fair), which is why they relate to food in a fundamentally different way than do those who have not.

Take care, Melanie

From SC to MJ:

Hi Melanie.  Thank you so much for taking the time to think about and answer my question about lacto-ovo vegetarianism.  Thanks also for your kind words about my observations on animal milk and disgust.  I find your thoughts about the issue insightful and helpful, and I hope we can continue the dialogue.

I want to acknowledge some of the important points you make.  First, you are right to observe that vegans generally find the prospect of eating flesh more disgusting than the prospect of eating dairy and egg products, though this reaction does vary from person to person.  Second, lacto-ovo vegetarians do, as a general matter, seem to have a heightened consciousness about their relationship to animals, as you suggest.  And third, many people (including some lacto-ovo vegetarians) are unaware of the suffering and death that goes into the production of dairy and egg products.

I want to propose, though, that the moral implications of these three good observations do not necessarily support your conclusion that there is an appropriate moral continuum between carnism and veganism and that most people fall between the two poles of that continuum.

On the question of disgust, I want to share my own experience with you.  I was raised as an Orthodox Jew (although I am now mostly secular), so my sense of a connection between morality and the consumption of animal products began very young.  I learned, growing up, that it was wrong for Jewish people to eat the flesh of mammals who do not chew their cud and have split hooves (so pigs, horses, camels, and donkeys are not Kosher), and that it was also wrong to eat some birds (e.g. vultures, eagles) and some fishes (those without fins and scales).  It was also wrong, as I learned it, to consume dairy products in close proximity to mammal or bird flesh products (e.g. together or, if the flesh was eaten first, within 6 hours of each other).  As a result, I found (and continue to find) the following flesh “foods” some of the most revolting to contemplate:  pig flesh of any kind, horse flesh, cheeseburgers, lobsters, and shrimp).

Though I have this disgust reaction, I do not believe – just as you do not believe – that there is anything inherently worse, as a moral matter, in killing and consuming a pig or a vulture than there is in killing and consuming a cow or a chicken.  Our morally driven disgust reactions can be trained, as you explain quite well in elaborating the difference between eating cows and eating dogs, and that training may induce the perception of a moral continuum that has little to do with the suffering and death that makes the consumption of animal products a moral question that should concern us all, regardless of religious orientation.

One of the things I like so much about your book is that you very bluntly explain to American readers that our own moral continuum – by which we consider the consumption of a dog horrible and the consumption of a cow perfectly acceptable – is arbitrary, rather than rational, and forms part of a system by which we comfort ourselves even as we violate our own moral intuitions about refraining from inflicting suffering and death on sentient creatures.  In other words, you urge us to examine our moral disgust reactions critically and to realize that these reactions should lead us to reject much more than we presently do.  You encourage us not to accept our own developed continuum as sensible but instead to evaluate it and realize its arbitrariness.

My question about lacto-ovo vegetarianism is meant to do the same.  The fact that many vegans find flesh more disgusting than dairy and eggs probably reflects a similar phenomenon to my own finding pig flesh more disgusting than cow flesh (though I would not willingly eat any of the above).  Most vegans were first lacto-ovo vegetarians, just as I was first an observant Jew, and as a result, our “disgust” reactions are more developed with respect to the products we have believed wrong for the longest time.  I suspect, for the same reason, that most vegans would find the physical prospect of consuming dog flesh more nauseating than the physical prospect of consuming cow or pig flesh, despite the fact that as you suggest, there really is not any well-grounded moral reason to distinguish between them.

If we consider the consumption of cows’ (and other animals’) breast milk, cheese, and butter and the eggs that chickens and other birds produce, the same can be said.  The reality (not just in concentrated animal feeding operations but in all farming, large and small) is that dairy and eggs are produced through the infliction of terrible suffering and death.  Once we realize this (a fact that many people do not realize), the decision to continue consuming these products becomes quite similar to the ordinary omnivore’s decision to continue consuming what he does. 

Everyone balks at the idea of eating some animal products, as you demonstrate – most Americans, for example, would be horrified and disgusted to learn that they had eaten a dog – but that horror does not thereby place the different animal products in different moral places along a continuum; it simply means that our “carnist” or “lacto-ovist” ideology has distorted reality for us, as you so ably explain with respect to flesh.  The distinction between dairy and egg versus flesh consumption therefore seems, from a moral point of view, to have as little to recommend it as the distinction between dogs and cows, disgust reactions notwithstanding.

You say that dairy and eggs are not inherently cruel, but I want to challenge that suggestion, because I think it is not accurate or, at least, that it is no more accurate than the suggestion that flesh is not inherently cruel.

As you propose, the consumption of flesh generally requires death.  In theory, however, one could wait until a live animal died and then consume that animal’s flesh.  I understand that the flesh might not be healthy or tasty, but this is – in theory, at least – an option.  Similarly, it is in theory conceivable to have a chicken who lays eggs and lives a happy life until her natural death, while the eggs are collected and eaten by the humans who care for her, without harming her.  And there could be a cow who becomes pregnant naturally (rather than on the “rape rack” that is used to inseminate cows repeatedly), and the humans caring for the cow could allow her to nurture and nurse her babies and simply release the extra milk for their own consumption.

None of the above, however, has ever been the model for animal farming, though today’s farms (including “organic” and “free range”) are even further from that model than what existed prior to the second World War.  Animals are slaughtered to make flesh products; they are not eaten by humans after dying a natural death.  There is not sufficient demand for “natural death” flesh to make such an operation viable.  Dairy cows, similarly, have (and have always had) their male babies (and a good number of their female babies) sold away for eventual slaughter, because no farmer could afford to take care of baby and adolescent animals who do not economically justify their presence on the farm. 

And finally, the chickens who exist today on farms are genetically programmed to produce a quantity of eggs (and the calcium that the shells extract) that will, as one former rancher described it, result – by the time they reach the age of 2 – in bones the texture of potato chips.  This is why animal sanctuaries feed the eggs, including the shells, back to their hens.  Hens desperately need their eggs if they are to avoid the excruciating suffering entailed in extreme osteoporosis.  And the male chickens (roosters) who are not used to supply sperm for inseminating hens (and their numbers are – by virtue of simple reproductive statistics – far greater than their reproductive utility to farmers) will also be slaughtered, because they do not, while alive, contribute to the economic life of the farm.

So inherent suffering does not distinguish flesh from dairy and eggs, because one can imagine both flesh products and dairy and egg products that come to be human food without entailing suffering.  But such imaginings have nothing to do with any of the farming for profit that occurs in the real world.  Such imaginings, in other words, are carnist/lacto-ovist fantasies.

On the political question, the notion that most people fall in between carnism and veganism is actually not quite accurate.  A minority of the human population is a vegetarian of any stripe, so most people fall into the “carnist” category that you articulate, while four smaller numbers fall into the minority categories of “lacto-ovo vegetarians,” “lacto vegetarians,” “ovo vegetarians,” and vegans.  It is true that there is a large lacto-ovo vegetarian community that views itself as animal-compassionate, but it is equally true that there are many of what you describe as “carnists” who identify as animal lovers and fight against the fur industry or the slaughter of horses. 

If the goal of consciousness-raising is to point out distinctions without a difference, so people can move toward a truly compassionate diet and life, I am not sure we do the public a service by suggesting that the hierarchy of flesh/dairy and eggs has much to offer, anymore than we do the public a service by telling it that eating cows is as different from eating dogs as the public currently believes it to be.

On one other point, I would agree with your response to my question.  People who are currently lacto-ovo vegetarian have likely developed a heightened sense of concern for the suffering of nonhuman animals relative to the “carnist” population.  From my perspective, though, that presents a wonderful opportunity for education.  Just as a carnist who said to you, “I have no problem with eating any nonhuman animal, whether dog, whale, or chimpanzee” would be a more difficult target for your intervention than a carnist who was horrified by the prospect of eating a dog, so then an omnivore might represent a more challenging target for vegan intervention than a lacto-ovo vegetarian would. 

This just means, however, that some people will be more receptive to the vegan message than others; it does not mean that it is counterproductive to explain to people why the egg&dairy/flesh distinction is no more tenable than the dog flesh/pig flesh distinction.  I have actually found in my own experience that many people who eat all manner of animal products, once they learn about animal agriculture, are likely to see the flesh/egg and dairy distinction as unpersuasive.  As a political matter, moreover, so many people who become lacto-ovo vegetarians simply increase their consumption of dairy and eggs (as I, for example did when I became one) that the net suffering that results from the switch may actually represent an increase.

In short, there is not really a foundation for considering lacto-ovo vegetarianism morally superior to omnivorism.  It would be more accurate to say that eating fewer animal products (of any sort) is morally superior to eating more animal products.  But I think being a vegan is easiest of all, once a person actually does it (rather than simply contemplates it and imagines an inaccurate state of deprivation). 

Being a vegan is not impractical or difficult.  It is a healthier, more varied, and more satisfying way to eat, and it does not represent a sacrifice.  I found, as many of my vegan friends have, that the “lacto-ovo vegetarian” phase of our journey felt like a sacrifice while being a vegan has not, perhaps because cow and chicken animal proteins tend to inspire cravings for more cow and chicken animal proteins, whether they take the form of dairy, eggs, or flesh or maybe because lacto-ovo vegetarianism never felt morally coherent, once we knew the realities of eggs and dairy. 

Perhaps paradoxically, I find it much easier to be a vegan than I ever did to be a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and I suspect that many people who make the transition without the “vegetarian” stage at all would feel this way too (as one of my friends who read The China Study did).  I would encourage everyone to set his or her sights higher.  People are ready to hear an accurate story about animal agriculture, and there is no reason to limit that story to one about flesh.


From MJ to SC:

Hi Sherry,

I'm rushing off to class and just now got your email. THanks for all your thoughts! I will respond more fully when I have time, but before your class today I did want to mention a couple of quick things:

I do see veganism and carnism on a continuum; when we consider that the labels are subjective I think this becomes more clear. For instance there are vegans who don't eat soy cheese if it contains caesin, or wear cosmetics that have been tested on animals, etc. But because animal products are so ubiquitous it's essentially impossible to be a true or pure vegan, so most of us fall somewhere on that continuum, even those of us who aren't carnist or ovo-lacto vegetarians. Consider so-called pescetarians, or flexetarians. These are much different than, say, someone who eats all kinds of animal products, every day, multiple times a day. I think it's a degree of numbing we're referring to, and that the issue is less black-and-white than carnist/vegan....

I agree that dairy and eggs cause tremendous suffering. But it is, in fact, possible to -- for instance -- harvest eggs without causing overt suffering. And this is why I believe that it's much easier for ovo-lacto vegetarians to cling to, as you put it, the fantasy of the happy-to-be-eaten animal product.

Okay, gotta run. More later. Best, Melanie