Monday, July 12, 2010

Carnism and Lacto-Ovism Part II

What follows is Part II of exchanges 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.  (For Part I, click here.)

From SC to MJ:

Hi Melanie.  I look forward to the longer version, but I wanted to offer a brief response to your email.  I agree that even vegans cannot be “pure” in their veganism if they are to participate as a member of a society in which almost everything includes some incidental animal products or results from animal testing or both.  That just means, though, that even vegans are not perfect (which will not be news to anyone who either is or knows a vegan!).  If one is a vegan, however, one attempts to the best degree possible, to eliminate these products from one’s life and diet.  If one is instead lacto-ovo vegetarian, then one is probably not eliminating these products at all but merely substituting some for others.  For that reason, I see a difference between a person who is transitioning to veganism (whether through vegetarianism with reduced eggs and dairy or whether through omnivorous consumption with vegan days each week or meals each day) and a person who has stopped and decided either that (a) dairy and eggs are okay, while flesh is not (b) “food” animals (like pigs) are okay, while friendship animals (like dogs) are not, or (c) all nonhuman animals are okay.  

With the dramatically increased modern consumption of animal products, I think many people find it difficult even to imagine a meal without animal products, but we know that cookbooks and web sites offer an amazing abundance of possibilities, for simple cook and creative chef alike.  At times, I wonder whether you underestimate people’s capacities for change and growth.  Though change can be scary, it is also exciting and invigorating, and there is so much to learn and discover, whether one most enjoys processed foods or whether one is interested in moving toward a more whole-foods oriented diet of the sort that T. Colin Campbell has urged.

Best,

Sherry  

From MJ to SC:

Hi Sherry,
I’ve had some time to mull over your points, and to sit down to write back. I want to say that yes, as a vegan myself, I completely agree with you about the cruelty and horror of the egg and dairy industries and that yes, of course, the vast majority of these products come from such conditions. (When I said they’re not inherently cruel, I meant they can be procured without cruelty; and yes, so can flesh, but many animals, as far as I am aware, have a natural aversion – disgust, perhaps – to the flesh of an already dead animal, as this flesh is dangerous to consume.) And I concur that we need to raise consciousness and promote veganism, among vegetarians as well as carnists. I also agree that carnistic conditioning is the reason people can, for instance, drink cow’s milk but not rat’s milk or eat hens’ eggs but not pigeons’ eggs and that carnistic numbing plays a role in many vegetarians' ability to consume animal products.

However, I do believe that there is a continuum between carnism and veganism, and among carnists and vegans. I am not referring to a moral continuum, because I find the concept of moral superiority/inferiority impossible to qualify or quantify, to be socially constructed, and ultimately counterproductive. The continuum I’m talking about is one of behavior and mentality. For example, there are carnists who consume the flesh and secretions from a variety of animal species, multiple times a day, without any reflection on their consumption patterns whatsoever. The carnistic mentality is rigid, with a high degree of numbing. Then there are carnists who have, for instance, cut out certain types of flesh products from their diet, as they have become sensitized to consuming the flesh of these animal species. And there are carnists who rarely eat any animal products at all but haven't actually become vegetarian. Then we have so-called pescetarians, who may be sensitized to consuming all animal flesh except that of fish and other sea life, then vegetarians, who may consume varying degrees of dairy and/or eggs. There are flexitarians, freegans, and vegans who will, for example, eat soy cheese that has casein or wear used leather or buy sunscreen that contains animal products. Yes, as you point out, vegans are making “attempts to the extent possible” to eliminate animal products from their lives, but the same could be said for vegetarians and other types of consumers. How do we determine what is the extent possible for another? It is possible, for instance, to avoid wearing non-leather shoes from Payless whose heels are affixed with animal-based glue. It’s possible to turn down the “vegan” cookies your mother-in-law made especially for you, because she used honey without realizing honey isn’t vegan. But we need to live in a way that is sustainable for ourselves, psychologically as well as practically, and so we will each draw our carnist, or vegetarian, or vegan line in different places.

I think it’s important that we, as vegans, hold a spaciousness that avoids the black-and-white thinking that we so often find in the movement. I think we need to avoid labeling in a way that ends up being counterproductive. (I’ve heard vegans say to other vegans, for example, “You’re not vegan if you eat soy cheese with casein!” The typical result from comments like this is that people throw up their hands and feel like it’s impossible to be truly vegan, so why try at all.) I think we need to be very careful to avoid creating a moral hierarchy, which inevitably labels those who aren’t ready to become vegan as morally inferior and which strengthens their carnistic defenses.
I also believe that we need to be careful not to project our own experience of veganism onto others. I became vegan fairly quickly; I gave up all flesh and eggs overnight, and then later dairy. Most people, however, do not transition this way. At least that’s what the small amount of research I’ve seen suggests, and what the large amount of anecdotal evidence I’ve accrued over the past two decades supports. Transitioning to veganism is a social, psychological, and behavioral process. Asking someone to become vegan is asking for them to take on an added dimension of a political identity; vegetarianism is often more of a social identity. People need to feel psychologically safe enough to shift their consciousness and identity from carnism to vegetarianism or from vegetarianism to veganism.

And for many people, it’s not easier, on a practical level, to be vegan than it is to be vegetarian. Given the carnistic world we live in, your options decrease dramatically when you eliminate all animal products from your life. Winters in Boston are awful for me. I won’t wear down or wool, nor will I wear silk (the only long underwear that’s thin and affordable enough for me). I can’t afford expensive thinsuate winter clothing or and the affordable vegan boots I wear never really hold up. And when I'm traveling, or eating out with others, it's far more of a challenge to eat as a vegan than it was as a vegetarian. So while I’m not saying it’s not rewarding to be vegan, or that veganism isn’t the ideal lifestyle, or that we shouldn't aspire to veganism,I do believe we need to be careful not to misrepresent the realty of the change to others, lest they become disillusioned and or feel pressured to live a lifestyle with demands they're not prepared to meet.

So, to wrap up, what I’m saying is that I think people are complex, change is a process, and I believe it’s more strategic as well as more accurate to advocate to others with an appreciation of these principles. People aren’t either compassionate or not; they’re compassionate in certain ways yet less so in others, more or less compassionate on certain days and in certain contexts . Vegans aren’t morally superior to vegetarians; we’ve simply taken another step that we’d like to encourage vegetarians to consider. And, I believe, we’re a lot more likely to get people considering these issues if we approach them with a spaciousness that gives room for people to make choices that are in alignment with their current level of awareness and ability.  I’m not in any way saying we shouldn’t advocate for, or raise awareness of, the abolition of all animal products; I just think we need to advocate based on the orientation and capacity of our audience. I advocate veganism to vegetarians when appropriate, and veganism or vegetarianism to carnists, when appropriate.

I hope I've addressed all your questions. Thanks for all your insights, for challenging me to think more deeply, and for a very stimulating dialogue! Best wishes, Melanie

From SC to MJ:

Hi Melanie.
Sorry it has taken me so long to write back.  I think we agree on so much that it’s worth emphasizing our points of agreement, just as you propose more generally for people within the animal-concerned community.  We both understand that there is terrible cruelty involved in the flesh, dairy, and egg industries (as well as in the industries that produce clothing by exploiting and slaughtering animals, including wool, leather, etc.).  That is why we both found our way to becoming vegans and withdrawing our support from these industries. 
I also could not agree with you more that personal purity is not possible in today’s world, in which even roads and car tires are made with animal ingredients.  In that sense, there is a continuum, even among vegans.  Though it is a cliché, I find it worthwhile to remember not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, in terms of either my own practices or my advocacy.
From a psychological point of view, I also agree with your observation that there is a continuum among approaches to animals.  Some people have no consciousness at all about animals and are willing to eat, wear, or use any of them without a second thought.  You’re right, I think, that such individuals have engaged in a high degree of numbing (comparable, for an emotional point of reference, to people who can kill other human beings without feeling any remorse).  With emotional awareness of other animals comes sensitivity, and that sensitivity can express itself in a variety of ways, including decisions to refrain from consuming particular animals or categories of animals or animal products. 

It may sometimes be easier to raise consciousness among people who have already taken steps in their lives to align their behavior with their values regarding animals, than it is to do so among people who seem to act as though animals exist entirely to serve as resources for humans.  At the same time, though, I don’t find this to be invariably true.  Some people have not questioned their consumption habits because they have simply never thought about the connection between the non-violence to which they are committed and food and clothing choices.  They have learned throughout their lives that one ought to be kind to animals, but they have also learned that part of life is eating animals and their products.  They perhaps find it almost unimaginable to live a happy, pleasurable life in the absence of animal consumption.

For such individuals, simply pointing out what happens to animals who are used to create flesh, dairy, and egg products (even on supposedly “humane” farms) can be enough to begin their journey to a more compassionate way of living.  By contrast, people who are firmly committed to being ethical vegetarians and not vegans may be more resistant than many omnivores to the arbitrariness of carefully avoiding flesh while consuming large quantities of dairy cheese and yogurt every day.  Such individuals will make comments like “I don’t know how people can eat things that come from slaughter and killing” while they regularly fry scrambled eggs in butter for breakfast.  Part of what makes their line-drawing symptomatic of irrationality is that it is the same animals – cows and chickens, for example – whose slaughter is involved in creating the products that they eschew and the products that they embrace with abandon. 

Once this fact is brought to their attention, their insistence that there is a rational distinction between dairy and flesh seems to require a great deal of numbing.  In this sense, they are very much like the so-called “conscientious omnivores” who eat products marked “humanely raised.”  They are both knowing and not knowing about the suffering in which they participate at the same time, even as they feel some empathy for animals.

There are, of course, a range of behaviors in which distinctions are drawn between different animals (e.g., dog versus cow), between different categories of animals (e.g., mammal versus bird versus fish), between different sorts of animal products (e.g., foie gras, veal, and fur versus chicken, dairy, and leather).  In the case of each distinction, pointing out its weakness can serve to sensitize people.  You do this very effectively in your book, by pointing out that dogs, cows, and pigs are not meaningfully different from one another and that, accordingly, one who finds the eating of dogs repellent should reconsider her willingness to eat cows and pigs as well. 

My sense is that that such sensitization (or re-sensitization) is just as necessary for people who draw the other irrational distinctions that enable them to engage in behavior that would otherwise elicit guilt and dissonance.  The fact that they do refrain from some kinds of animal cruelty serves as a useful building block for erecting a more coherent, vegan structure that no longer says “dog flesh wrong/cow flesh right or cow flesh wrong/cow milk right.”

I do agree with you that it is counterproductive to speak as though vegans are morally superior to vegetarians or omnivores.  We are all flawed beings, and we hopefully evolve into better people over time and never stop growing more conscious and sensitive.  It is useful, though, to think in moral terms about our relationships with animals and to view veganism and abolition of animal suffering as better than vegetarianism, even though the people are not better or worse than one another.

Psychologically, for example, there is a huge difference between the man in the United States who tortures his pet cat or dog in his basement and the man who enters a restaurant in a foreign country and orders a plate of “cat” or “dog” (or the U.S. scientist who performs vivisection on a cat or dog to test the toxicity of some household product).  The first person is likely suffering from some form of anti-social personality disorder, while the second is probably “normal” relative to the rest of the population.  Yet, as you illustrate in your book, the distinction between the two people – from the perspective of the victimized animal, the harm inflicted, and the degree to which such harm is deeply at odds with a vision of kindness and compassion to animals – is one without a difference.

To give you a different sort of example, much more numbing is required for a person to walk around a city and shoot at people one by one than would be required to enable a person to drop a bomb from an airplane onto a city.  Even greater numbing would be required for the same person to walk into the same city with a knife and personally kill each of the people by stabbing him directly.  This is doubtless true of many people who eat animal flesh and dairy and egg products but who would balk at having to do to animals what is required to bring their flesh and secretions to market.  The closer the violence is, the more readily we empathize and the more potentially pathological our inability or unwillingness to empathize. 

Yet I read your book not simply as a descriptive account of people who consume meat but also as a normative plea for greater sensitization.  This is not to say that we, the morally superior, can lecture from on high to the immoral masses.  It is, instead, to say that once we discover an injustice, we try to bring the injustice to light and call people’s attention to it, unvarnished by self-soothing (and socially popular) but unhelpful distinctions.

I say this as someone who did give up using different animals, a few at a time.  When I learned about the warmth and playfulness of pigs, I began purchasing cow ears instead of pig ears for my dogs.  My mom – quite reasonably – asked me at that time, “but what about Elsie the Cow?”  I had no answer.  Though I was, in my own way, expressing concern for animals by switching from pig ears to cow ears, in other words, I was actually engaged in an irrational substitution that did nothing to reduce the amount of animal suffering and injustice in the world. 

I think it is useful to acknowledge when people take steps to express their concern for animals, but it is at least as important to explain why we view some of those steps as leaving the suffering and killing where it was before.  Your project in the book does that, I think, by acknowledging the love we have for dogs and the horror we would feel upon learning that we were eating a dog, but then by also going on to tell us the truth – that what we do to cows and pigs and chickens is not different from or better than what we refrain from doing to dogs.

I agree with you that it is important to recognize that different people react differently to the practical challenges of abolishing animal use, and I think we need to be compassionate and supportive to people as they attempt to move their behavior to match up better with their values.  At the same time, though, if the world is to change in a positive way, more people need to say – whether at a restaurant or at work or elsewhere – “replacing steak with dairy quiche or dairy cheese pizza does not help cows.”

Despite what I say here, I know that when I talk to people about abolition of animal use and veganism, those who are moved by what I say sometimes react with one of the positions you identify (vegetarianism, pescatarianism, or whatever).  My hope is that they will eventually become vegan, so I try to be friendly and supportive but simultaneously to make clear that eating scrambled eggs is not different from eating chicken mcnuggets.  It just “feels” different to people, because our culture has classified things that way, much as it has classified eating dogs as different from eating pigs.

I hope this email finds you well, and I want to thank you for exploring these important issues with me.  I too have found our dialogue to be a very stimulating and thought-provoking one that has forced me to think more carefully and thoroughly about my own views.
 Sherry

From MJ to SC:

I agree with you on pretty much everything. I see from the statement below that you have a different experience than I do with some vegetarians toward veganism:

By contrast, people who are firmly committed to being ethical vegetarians and not vegans may be more resistant than many omnivores to the arbitrariness of carefully avoiding flesh while consuming large quantities of dairy cheese and yogurt at every meal.  Such individuals will make comments like “I don’t know how people can eat things that come from slaughter and killing” while they regularly fry scrambled eggs in butter for breakfast.  Part of what makes their line-drawing symptomatic of irrationality is that it is the same animals – cows and chickens, for example – whose slaughter is involved in creating the products that they eschew and the products that they embrace with abandon. 
Once this fact is brought to their attention, their insistence that there is a rational distinction between dairy and flesh seems to require a great deal of numbing.  In this sense, they are very much like the so-called “conscientious omnivores” who eat products marked “humanely raised.”  They are both knowing and not knowing about the suffering in which they participate at the same time, even as they feel some empathy for animals.

I can say in all honesty that I've never had a conversation that reflects this attitude. Yes, I've heard vegetarians say they can't believe carnists eat flesh (I once said that myself) but when it's pointed out to them that dairy and eggs come from the same suffering, those I've spoken to have been completely open to the idea of veganism. Most vegetarians I speak to do know that all animal products result from animal suffering, but they minimize, in their minds, the suffering of so-called dairy cows and hens. Yet, they say they are "trying" to become vegan, or they are "moving toward" veganism, and are generally -- no, in my experience I can say consistently -- supportive of veganism, at least in theory. Perhaps my experience is unusual, but I haven't ever encountered the kind of defensiveness or resistance among vegetarians that you illustrate.

The other thought I've been pondering lately is one of social identity. A French speaker posted something on my book's French fan page saying something like "there's no 'culture of the egg' as there is a culture of flesh." And I think it's true. I think there's an identity that is involved in eating flesh that is not involved in eating eggs or dairy. Meat, and the consumption of meat, is culturally symbolic in a way that other animal products are not. I think this is part of the reason why I see vegetarians as having a very different self-concept, and consciousness, than carnists and the vegetarian self-concept, in my opinion, is quite close to the vegan one (in many ways; in others, not so much).

But yes, I do agree with you about always keeping our eye on the prize, and being careful to ask for veganism even if we only get vegetarianism. Absolutely.

Hope this makes sense! I'm still recovering from the semester. And I hope you're well and getting some time for a break...

Best, Melanie