Most of us vegans are pretty angry and upset at what’s happening to animals, and we have good reasons to be. We have reason to be angry at the indifference that most people display towards the billions of creatures that suffer at human hands. We especially have reason to be angry because we believe that most people by now should know better.
You might say about anger that it’s a positive, constructive, mobilizing emotion. An emotion that can get people to take to the streets, organize protests and dissent, and consequently, Change.
I’m agnostic about whether feeling angry is a good or a bad thing, or an essential part of a social movement, though my sense is that it’s definitely bad for a person to feel angry all the time. But what I want to talk most about here, is expressing or showing this anger. Because, even if anger can help us get going and get organized, I believe acting in an angry way towards people, showing our anger, is probably not a good thing in most cases.
So when I feel anger myself (and I do, sometimes), I try to transform it into something productive. And I try not to come across as angry. I try to not blame and critize and guilt-trip people. I basically try – I don’t always succeed – to be nice to everyone, even if I think they are participating in or doing things that are, at bottom, pretty horrible. What helps me is realizing that, even though I may boycott animal products myself, I am not without sin. And therefore I feel wary of casting stones and be angry at others’ behavior.
Yet around me, I do see so much anger being expressed, in the vegan and in other social justice movements. It is very visible anger, and I think it is anger that alienates. Anger that closes hearts rather than opening them.
And I see vegans not just being angry at non-vegans, but also at fellow vegans and animal advocates. Maybe those vegans are angry because they believe other vegans are not angry enough. In the eyes of the angry vegans, the nice vegans are pussy-footing their way around the sensitivities of those who eat animal products. The angry vegans would rather, from a place of passion and emotion, serve meater-eaters the truth, straight up. And they get impatient with advocates who don’t, and who suggest that we are a bit more considerate with omnivores, not just out of compassion, but also because of effectiveness.
I also see many vegans being angry with fellow advocates because they’re not heeding all the issues that they themselves find so important. Some angry vegans will not stop being outraged at how other advocates’ communication is, in their eyes, sexist, racist, classist, ableist, consumerist, or even speciesist. The angry vegans think that the others don’t get the interconnectedness, don’t get how all things are related, and are sacrificing one social justice cause for another. Maybe the angry vegans think their fellow vegans are not abolitionist, not intersectionalist, not anti-system enough. And maybe they’re right; most if not all of us still have blind spots (oops, an ableist term) for some or many of the issues that are important.
But here’s the thing, if we want to, we will always be able to find reasons to be angry. We can become addicted to outrage. I suggest that in the case of people who seem to be constantly finding reasons to be angry, their anger has more to do with themselves than with the righteousness of the cause they are fighting for. It’s probably not a very good idea to use advocacy as an outlet for your anger. Then veganism, or feminism, or any other social justice movement just becomes… angry-ism.
For myself, I know that anger doesn’t give me peace of mind. I’m not really enjoying myself or my day when I’m angry. I also don’t feel I’m getting better results when I’m angry. And I know that when I see an angry person or meet them online, I will do my best to avoid them, make a detour not to bump into them (or even block them online). I don’t find them entertaining, I don’t find them credible, and I don’t listen to them more than I listen to a person who manages to be nice and calm (and who could be equally passionate about their cause).
Speaking out against expressing anger all the time, I am by no means advocating that we be just silent, sitting in our room, careful not to step on anyone’s toes. I suggest we are out there, making a difference in the things that matter to us and to others. But we can do that, I think, with less anger, and more understanding. We can choose to trust people. Trust that they will see what is the most compassionate thing to do, some day – maybe not right away. We can see others as potential allies rather than opponents, or even traitors.
Whether we like it or not, we’re all in the business of selling something – our message of compassion – and I don’t think a car salesperson ever sold a car being angry at their customers.
Maybe there will come a time when massively showing our anger will be a productive thing to do. That will be when there are enough of us to make a difference that way. That time is, I think, not yet here. Right now is the time to turn our anger into a productive way of interacting with others, so that, rather than making them turn away even more, we can open their hearts and minds.
Dr. Jared Piazza is a lecturer at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on moral decision making, including how people think about the moral value of animals. Recently, Jared and his colleagues published the papers Rationalizing meat consumption: The 4Ns, in the journal, Appetite, and When meat gets personal, animals’ minds matter less in Social Psychological and Personality Science. I heard Jared speak at the Care Conference in Warsaw in July (2016) and afterwards had an interview with him. We talked about obstacles to animal advocacy. This post is a bit longer than my usual ones, but I’m sure it will be worth your time.
Vegan Strategist: Jared, why are there so few vegans in the world? We’re still at a mere one percent. Jared Piazza: There are different possible answers to that question. Is it because people don’t care about animals? I don’t believe that. Americans, for instance, spent over sixty billion dollars on their companion animals in 2015. I don’t believe that they care only about dogs and cats, and not also about farm animals. Is it because people don’t know what’s happening to farmed animals, and that all we need to do is educate them about the facts? I don’t think that’s the answer either. The movement has been raising awareness about the issues for decades.
So the real answer is…?
The best answer I can give is that people really love meat, and they want to keep eating it. This makes them less receptive to moral arguments about farm animals. If you can address the motivation to consume meat, then people may be more receptive to animal advocacy messages and behavior change. Appetite is something that develops very early in life, and that remains quite fixed after that. Many people are neophobic (afraid of new things) when it comes to food. So it’s not easy to change appetite. The upside of this seems to be that once people do make the switch, many of them can lose the previous appetite rather quickly and permanently. This is particularly true of people who adopt ethical reasons for abstaining from meat. If you’ve been vegan for a long time and have trouble understanding the alluring power of meat, I can recommend the book Meathooked, by Marta Zaraska.
You did research into two particular obstacles to animal advocacy: moral reactance and motivated reasoning. Please tell us more. Moral reactance boils down to people not wanting to be criticized or told that what they are doing is unethical. Simply raising the issue of vegetarianism – or even just refraining from meat while dining at a table of meat eaters – can elicit this kind of reactance, as people may feel there’s an implicit moral reproach in what you’re saying or (not) doing. Motivated reasoning is about post hoc justifications. Rather than being open to the full range of evidence, most people want the conclusion of their thinking to be that they don’t need to make a change. So they recruit reasons and thoughts that justify their preferred conclusion, reasons and thoughts that don’t require a change. When you are in a “motivated state” you are motivated in a certain direction. You are personally involved, and you will steer your reasoning so that it can justify your preferences – preferences which are shaped by your habits and appetites. By contrast, if you first create a context in which there is no external pressure to change, people may be more open to critically consider the full range of perspectives (e.g., consider that eating meat is unnessary.).
That’s not really great news for those of us who believe in the power of rational thinking…
Motivated reasoning is certainly not rational or objective reasoning. And it has some consequences that can be problematic. People will modify their views of animals so that these beliefs are consistent with their appetite for meat. This is called belief alignment. Research has shown that if you remind people that they eat animals, people will think less of animals (in terms of their mental capacities) than when they are not reminded of that fact. People will also reduce their moral concern for animals when they think of animals as food.
And then there is wilful ignorance, which you tested with an interesting thought experiment.
Yes, wilful ignorance is about the fact that, when people are in a motivated state, they may avoid or discount “annoying” information that otherwise would be relevant. In one study, Steve Loughnan and I gave people a scenario where, at some point in the future scientists discover a new animal species (the ‘trablans’) on another planet. When we presented the trablans as intelligent, people were more concerned about the animal than when we presented it as not so smart. We saw that there was a clear correlation between the perceived intelligence of the trablans, and people’s moral concerns for it. But then we did a second study in which we also put pigs and tapirs in play, telling people that these were intelligent animals too. What we saw was that in the case of pigs, which – unlike the tapir and the trablans – people eat, the intelligence of pigs had much less effect on people’s moral concerns for them. In other words, the fact of the pigs’ intelligence was strategically ignored.
What can we do about all these obstacles, as advocates for animals?
One thing that we can try is to avoid motivated reasoning. This is about getting to people before they need to defend their choices, that is, before they are in a motivated, defensive state to produce post hoc rationalizations. This might be achieved by getting people to think that they are already making steps toward meat reduction – by pointing out all of the tasty non-meat foods they already eat and enjoy. Indeed, this is how I moved from being an omnivore to a health vegetarian to a vegan. I first started reducing my meat consumption because my mom scared me about the carcinogenic properties of meat, so I started reducing my meat intake. Over time not eating meat became part of my identity, which made me more receptive to information about factory farming and animal liberation. Another strategy might be to create ‘safe’ environments where people can question their own reasons for eating meat, rather than having members of the moral vanguard tell them why eating meat is wrong. This may be easier said than done, but psychology may offer some helpful tips.
One clear finding from the psychological literature on persuasion is that people don’t like to think they are being persuaded (see persuasion resistance – VS), so don’t try to openly persuade them. Don’t say “I’m in this group and you’re not but you should be”. If as an omnivore, I’m afraid that you’re going to citicize me and I’m afraid you don’t want to compromise, then why would I engage with you if I know there’s only one direction this is going to go in? Maybe we should experiment more with giving people the opportunity to persuade themselves. In my lab we have found that if you have omnivores write a counter-attitudinal argument – for example, have them try to convince a friend why it is not necessary to eat meat – rather than a pro-attitudinal argument (e.g., why it’s necessary), people are more receptive to compassionate messages about farm animals and are more willing to consider vegetarian meals. The idea here is that people can be convinced by their own arguments, more so than compelled by outside influences, even when these arguments go against how they originally think. So as animal advocates we might consider more ways to get people involved in the process of animal advocacy, thinking critically about animals and meat, rather than guilting people about eating meat.
Maybe us vegans could present ourselves as even worse omnivores to meat-eaters, and let them take the opposite role?
An interesting idea!
If rational arguments can only take us so far, what about emotional messaging?
I think positive emotions can be particularly useful. One thing that comes to mind is the motivational power of seeing a baby animal. Baby animals are cute. All mammals share a “baby schema”: the physical properties of young animals (big eyes, round face, small nose) that can evoke nurturing, caring emotions and behavior.
One study showed pictures of kittens and puppies to participants (or adult cats and dogs) and then had them play the game of “Operation” (a game that requires careful, fine-motor movements, as you try to remove body parts with a stable hand so as not to get ‘buzzed’). Participants shown baby animals performed better at the game, suggesting they were being more “careful.” Also, when their grip was measured with a grip strength instrument, it was apparently less hard. This made me wonder if being exposed to baby farm animals invokes more tenderness, a feeling that may be at odds with an appetite for meat. Certainly animal advocacy groups implicitly think this is the case: many ads and leaflets I’ve seen are replete with photos of baby farm animals. We conducted a few studies to test this idea and found mixed evidence for it (we’re currently writing up the results). Exposure to images of cute farm animals does seem to evoke tenderness and reduce appetite for meat, but mostly among women, and when directly linking the animal to the meat. The effect was quite small but consistent, so tenderness seems to be a useful emotion for animal advocates to target, at least among women.
What about invoking negative emotions?
I think trying to evoke physical disgust about meat (for instance saying that it could carry e. coli, is rotten or whatever) might be effective. I wouldn’t recommend evoking disgust toward the killing of animals however. Disgust at cruelty is not a transformative emotion: the reaction of disgust is to repel or get away from the disgusting object (be it blood, guts, or whatever). I think anger is a more transformative emotion under these circumstances because it involves appraisals of injustice, and an impulse to right a wrong. But you have to be careful with anger too, because there’s a fine line between anger and guilt. You need to put the responsibility squarely on the producers, not with the consumers. If people feel responsible for the injustice, the impulse will largely be to pass the blame, rather than seek justice.
Can guilt ever work? Many vegans say they were convinced by other vegans giving them the truth straight up. What do you think?
Perhaps sometimes. But I think guilting generally fails because the person being guilted disagrees with the charges that they are doing anything wrong, and there are too many justifications easily on hand to dismiss the charges as valid.
You also did research on Melanie Joy’s three N’s of justification: eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal.
Yes, my colleagues Steve Loughnan, Matt Ruby, and I were interested to find out if Joy’s three Ns – that eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal -were the main justifications people gave when defending their right to eat animals. All three of us had read Melanie’s wonderful book, and wanted to put her theory to the test. So we recruited omnivores, a group of U.S. adults recruited online and a separate group of undergraduate students recruited at the University of Pennsylvania. We simply asked them “Why is it OK to eat meat?” and we categorised their responses. To our delight, we found evidence that people actually offered the three Ns that Melanie had written about. They also offered a fourth N – eating meat is nice (i.e., pleasurable, tasty, etc.). This is an odd argument to defend one’s right to do something harmful, but people offered it quite frequently nonetheless. Thus, we arrived at the “4Ns” of meat eating justification. Necessary was the most widespread N, but Natural and Nice had the highest level of endorsement, suggesting to us that they may be the least malleable of the four.
What are some of the other things that you think are worth looking into, researchwise?
I really think we don’t know a lot about why some people do end up as vegetarians or vegans. We know more about the obstacles people face toward meat abstention than how some people find their way to vegetarianism and veganism. What psychological characteristics or strategies enable such lifestyle commitments? Could anyone “go vegan” or is there something in particular that sets vegans apart? I’m particularly interested in better understanding how some people can be moved by the suffering of farm animals to such a degree that they quit meat eating “cold turkey” (pardon the metaphor), never again to succumb to the temptation of meat. I’m also interested in better understanding how so many people can be exposed to the same information about mass animal suffering and react with horror but simply do nothing about it.
To finish, I’d like to hear some recommendations you have for activists or the movement.
I guess my first recommedation would be to do your best to avoid the moral reactance and motivated reasoning when discussing the issue of eating meat with people. This is not always possible, but put yourself in their shoes. How would you react if someone suggested to you that something you really enjoy doing and have been doing most of your life was immoral? Perhaps this is something that you never considered to be a problem before and brings you daily pleasure. Do you think you would be receptive to their message at first? Or would you question their arguments? Would you immediately stop what you have been doing all your life, or would you immediately think of ways in which what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable and not problematic? Once you have made the conversion to not eat meat, it is easy to forget what it is like to see things from the other side – from the perspective of the meat-eating majority, who are wondering what all the fuss is about.
I’d also recommend to advocates to be inclusive and welcoming, and not to give up. We need people to think they really can make a change. We need to empower people, not only with an awareness of how meat production is destroying our world and ruining lives (lives that truly matter), but also give them an opportunity to imagine other ways of viewing the world, particularly how they view themselves, so they can reason through the arguments in a less defensive, self-preserving manner. I think we may have greater success that way.
In my previous post, I wrote about changing the default option as an interesting strategy to create behavior (and attitude) change. I suggested this was an interesting tactic especially where institutional change is concerned. It can be used by governments, businesses, organizations… It creates behavior and (indirectly) attitude change, and it doesn’t take away “freedom of choice.”
Here I want to suggest one concrete space where changing the default option could be implemented: airplanes.
When I want a vegan meal on a flight, I need to remember to specify that during booking, find out where on the site I can request it, or contact a travel agent. It’s not the default option, and it’s a bit of a hassle. And requesting my special meal does not even guarantee that I will get it (as happened on my last flight – I always pack my own meal to be sure).
Now imagine it was the other way around: passengers get served a vegan meal (which doesn’t necessarily need to be called vegan; it could be a “vegetable lasagna” or “mushroom risotto” or whatever). If someone complains that the meal contains no meat, the flight attendant would tell them: “I’m sorry, you should have requested a special meal.”
This scheme has several advantages for airlines:
it simplifies things: the number of special meals is greatly reduced. Look at this list of options that came with the special meal I had recently. Many of the allergies and preferences (religious or not) would be covered by a vegan meal (though we should be wary of lumping them all together in order to not end up with an entirely tasteless vegan option).
it cuts costs: vegan meals can be cheaper, and there are economies of scale
it’s better for the environment, and the airline can use it in their advertising
it’s better for food safety. Plant based meals don’t pose the same health risks as meat meals, for instance, in case of a refrigeration problem.
And on top of that, the first airline to do it could get international mediaattention. It would also set an example for other companies to follow and could be an important precedent. Ideally, the meals would be so good that no one complains, and the airline actually gets famous for its meals.
As the acceptance of vegan meals grows, and as businesses and governments get more sensitive to climate change and health issues, I believe a vegan meal as the default option on airplanes can be realistic.
Any individual or organization ready to campaign for this? Spread the message!
Here’s the conundrum: people don’t like to be told what to do and they don’t like to be pushed into doing something. Yet at the same time, they will often not do the right thing by themselves. How do we solve this?
Part of the answer may lie in what is known as “choice architecture“, a term coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. Choice architecture is about getting consumers to make better (healthier, more sustainable, or whatever…) choices by presenting their options in a certain way, like putting healthy drinks in a more prevalent spot in the cafeteria than sugared drinks. Through choice architecture, people are nudged, or gently pushed in the right direction.
Commercial companies have of course used this technique for ages, but with commercial interest in mind. Supermarkets, for example, will put prime (or sponsored) products at eye level, where the customer will see them first.
When we give people a nudge by designing their environment, our intentions are more benign: what we basically try to do is to make it easier for consumers to behave the way we want them to behave, and to make the undesirable behavior more difficult.
One specific kind of nudging is to change the default option. The default option is what you get when you leave the settings unchanged. When you enter a form on a website, there might be a checkbox below the form saying “subscribe me to the newsletter.” This checkbox can be on by default, or off by default. If it’s on by default, people have to take action to turn it off. So turning it on by default will get you more subscribers (though in this case it may sometimes not be legal to set it to on by default).
Let’s look at a more real life example. Regarding organ donation, chances are that in your country, the default option is that after you die, your organs will not be donated to other people who might need them. So if you want your organs to be donated after your death, you have to take action (opt-in). Imagine, conversely, that you have to take action in order to prevent your organs from being donated (opt-out). In this case, where governments “presume consent”, there will be a much higher availability of organs.
Here is in an example in our own field. Thursday Veggieday is a campaign by EVA, the organization I founded and worked for. The idea is much like Meatless Monday: that people start with one day of the week to go veg. The city of Ghent, where I live, adopted this campaign and made vegetarian meals the default option on Thursday in its 30 publicly funded schools. If the pupils want meat even on that day (or if their parents insist), they have to signal that beforehand. The result is that about 94% of the pupils eat vegetarian on Thursday. The default option was changed.
There are many situations and occasions where a vegan default option could be installed, or experimented with. Basically, this tactic could be used whenever any business or institution offers people meals but is afraid of taking away people’s “choice” to eat animal foods. Meals served at seminars or conferences, for instance, could easily be vegan by default. During sign up, registrants could get an option similar to this one:
The nudge to do the right thing could be increased by writing something like “meals are vegan for sustainability reasons.”
Changing the default option in this way has a double effect. Directly, it lowers the consumption of animal products. More indirectly, it shows that vegan is not as abnormal as people think, and that meat eating is not as normal as people think. Changing the default option thus contributes to making vegan the new normal.
I think changing the default option is a very promising strategy that should be applied more often. It may be especially useful when pushing for policy change.
In a follow up post, I give another concrete idea for changing the default option, which at the same time is a challenge for any individual or organization to pick it up and try to make it a reality.
In Italy, a controversial proposal by a rightist politician would have vegan parents who raise their children as vegans to be put into jail.
In the BBC article the politician is quoted as saying that “there is no objection if the person making this choice is an informed adult. The problem arises when children are involved… ”
When the conversation is about parents raising their children vegetarian or vegan, the terms “forcing” or even “brainwashing” often come up. Vegan 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.
As a parent, however, you cannot help but make certain choices for your children. Bringing them up as non-vegans is obviously a choice too, even though it may not seem so to many people, 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 animal products is in any way more valid, correct or justified than raising children without them. Hence we should have no real need for additional arguments in support of the vegan option (but of course we have them). Neither are there reasons to support the statement that children should be vegan only when they themselves have made a conscious decision to be vegans. Parents can make that decision for them.
Incidentally, my experience with vegetarian or vegan parents (I myself have no children) is that many of them do seem to have a bit of a flexible attitude regarding the diet of their babies or young 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 vegan parents must constantly defend and justify their perfectly sound choices to their family, friends, teachers, doctors, etc.
It’s probably hard to give children this information in a neutral and objective way. 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 “the 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?
Eating animal products is not a neutral idea or custom. The author and psychologist Melanie Joy finds it problematic that a term such as veganism exists while there is no term for the norm (eating meat). Veganism needs to be explained, but the norm doesn’t. Melanie Joy points out that behind our habit of the daily and careless consumption of meat, there is actually also an ideology, which she calls carnism.
When we choose how to raise our children, the choice is not between the “normal option” (animal products) and the ideological option, but between veganism and carnism. Whoever tries to objectively analyze the pros and cons of both systems, may very well find that it makes more sense to raise children vegan, to give them the necessary information when they reach the right age, and then let them decide whether they want to eat animals or not.
When we respond, as vegans, to cases where a baby dies from malnutrition, we need, as always, to respond rationally. Responding emotionally or dogmatically will only confirm to politicians and others what they are already thinking: that vegans are an irrational bunch, feeding their babies an unhealthy diet for ideological reasons. A good response is a calm one, not an angry one (no matter how angry we may feel). A good response will also admit that vegan diets can indeed be unhealthy if not done right. A good response will not present a vegan diet as a panacea against all diseases of affluence, nor will it claim that vegans live umpteen years longer than meat eaters.
When it’s about children, we should be extra cautious with their diet. This applies to vegan as well as non-vegan parents. Vegan parents should be mindful of the potential pitfalls (vitamin B12 among others), and not assume that everything will be all right because veganism is just such a great and “natural” diet (the term “natural” is quite meaningless and misleading). We should also be aware that when we don’t do our due diligence in raising a baby vegan and something goes wrong, then not only is that bad for the child in particular, but also for the whole vegan movement and the image of vegan diets. Many people who eat animal products know that their diet is morally problematic and welcome any excuse to keep on eating what they are eating. The idea that not eating meat is harmful for health would, of course, be a great excuse for them. Let’s be conscientious and careful in the raising of vegan children, and not give them that excuse, for it is a false one.
Kristina Mering is an MA student of sociology at Tallinn University (Estonia) and has conducted interviews with slaughterhouse workers about their attitudes towards animals and their job. She did this at the largest slaughterhouse in Estonia. Kristina presented her work at the CARE conference (Conference on Animal Rights in Europe) in Warsaw (July 16). I interviewed her after her talk.
VS: What prompted you to do this research? Kristina Mering: This research project was a part of my BA studies in sociology. I chose the topic of slaughterhouse workers because it seemed like interesting material for research. I also wanted to understand how these people cope with the violent nature of their work. To me it seemed like a good way to understand the human-animal relationship on a broader level.
Can you describe this slaughterhouse? Is it representative for the industry?
It’s the biggest and the most modern slaughterhouse in Estonia. They kill both pigs and cows. There are 21 people involved in dismantling the body of a pig, 37 for a cow. The line starts with the stabbing and ends with marking the meat for nutritional content. The pigs are put in gas chambers before they are killed by a stab in the neck. The pigs used to receive electric shocks to make them unconscious before the stab, but this sometimes made the bigger pigs even more anxious rather than unconscious, so they changed it. The gas chambers are also torture but at least the pigs won’t be stabbed while conscious. It’s the lesser of two evils.
What are the qualifications people need to apply for a job at this slaughterhouse?
There are no real job requirements. Basically the hiring procedure was as simple as this: the applicants are shown a video of the slaughter process. Those that don’t vomit, get accepted. They learn everything while doing the job.
What are the working circumstances like?
There’s a really high work pace. About three pigs are killed per minute. The workers are subject to rapid repetitive movements, incurring blisters and stiffness, having to work in heat and cold with really sharp knives which can cause accidents. All agreed that they were underpaid for the work that they do.
What do the slaughterhouse workers think about their job?
None of the interviewees saw it as their calling in life and the way they ended up working in a slaughterhouse was mostly coincidental. Basically, they’re working there because other options are rather unavailable. The turnover is extremely high.
How do they deal with the “unpleasantness” of the work?
In order for them to be able to do their work, they need to block out all emotions. Since they understand that they are taking the life of an animal, they need a strong blocking mechanism to keep thoughts like this out. They build a routine that numbs the emotions and lets them do their work without thinking about the killing. When I asked one person about the stabbing, they put it like this: “If we would think about it, it would be the wrong place to work.” They wear earphones and listen to music or the radio. The belief that there have to be slaughterers in the world, that someone has to do the killing, also helps them cope. There seemed to be an urge to justify the slaughterhouse as an institution, and their role in it.
They couldn’t imagine a world without slaughterhouses?
They couldn’t envisage a vegetarian world. When I asked them about a world without slaughterhouses, it rather made them confused about who would kill the animals raised in farms then.
What is the most suprising thing you learned?
That none of these workers was able to kill baby calves. Sometimes a barn in the region burns down and the owners look for a way to get rid of the calves, which then go to the slaughterhouse. The usual blocking mechanisms don’t seem to work with these young animals. “Calves are something different,” one of the workers told me, “I’m unable to make my heart cold to them”. The tears of baby calves affect the workers a lot more than the tears of adult cows which they see on a daily basis. So the surprising thing was, that when fifteen or so calves were sent to the slaughterhouse during an emergency, the workers couldn’t kill them and they were actually sent back.
It seems to me that killing so many animals daily is a pretty inhumane thing to ask of people. On the other hand, it might be even problematic if no humans were involved and everything would be done by machines…
Yes, if no humans were involved, this would obviously create even more distance between the act of killing and meat production and consumption. There is indeed a very strong tendency to automatize the whole process, and I would expect that somewhere in the future there will be just a few people supervising the whole thing. It probably wouldn’t be easy, however, to automatize the whole process. In this particular slaughterhouse, for instance, ten people are involved in just the skinning of the cow.
How was it for you to do this research?
I completely switched off my emotions, I guess in a similar way to what the workers do. While observing the kill line and seeing animals being bled to death in front of me, I tried to be as rational as possible about it, and to get as much info about the situation as I could. I saw it as an opportunity. I asked questions while the pigs were being killed. It was only when I was on the bus back to my home town and I could breathe calmly, that I noticed how my legs had started shaking. It was the first moment that I could be myself again and I understood how it had affected me. I still have the boots covered with blood stains from the slaughterhouse.
Did you find it possible, or easy, to empathize with the slaughterhouse workers?
I wanted to gather info to understand what it’s like for them to do this kind of job. It kind of persuaded me that it is unimaginably difficult and that their hands are often tied. What is also important is that they didn’t make this choice voluntarily. I don’t empathize with what they are saying about killing animals, obviously. But I don’t need to agree with their stance on animals in order to understand that what they are going through is also very hard.
What would you reply if someone said that we shouldn’t pity those people because what the animals are going through is incomparably worse?
The fact that what animals go through is worse, does not mean we shouldn’t have compassion for the workers themselves This isn’t about some suffering-competition, but about seeing the problems of the system as a whole. I believe the horrible working conditions at slaughterhouses can in some cases be a helpful argument for people who don’t get the “animal message”.
What do you hope to achieve with this research?
My aim was to peek inside the slaughterhouse and to show that the workers there shouldn’t be called “evil” or “bad people” (as I sometimes hear from some animal advocates). The core problem is the animal-industrial complex, the system of exploiting animals which also has negative effects on the workers in the system who are supposed to be the people keeping the system alive and going.
One way to see the difference between ourselves (vegetarians, vegans, animal advocates…) and the rest of the population is in terms of the famous “diffusion of innovations” model, which tries to explain the rate at which new ideas and technology will spread throughout a population.
Take a smartphone as an example, and look at the innovation curve to guess where you are. If you bought a smartphone just this year, you probably belong somewhere in the “late majority” (or even “the laggards”) category: the people who (in this particular field) are slow to pick up something new and wait till enough others have done it. If you already bought a smartphone many years ago, you were among the innovators or early adopters.
As vegetarians, vegans or animal rights activists, we are all part of the “innovators” (you can be in the innovator category regarding smartphones but at the same time in the late majority category regarding new foods, for instance). These different categories of people have different motivations for and concerns about trying something out, and it would be a mistake to think that we can necessarily get the late majority on board with the same arguments that convinced the innovators or early adopters.
Many people, for instance, have a great desire to be seen as “normal”. In their food choices too, they don’t want to be perceived as deviating from the norm. According to the research by Faunalytics on former vegetarians and vegans, 63% of them said they disliked that their diet made them stick out from the crowd. Some people will wait until it’s “safe” to switch to another diet (or whatever product). As a vegetarian or vegan, you may have some experiences where it’s really uncomfortable to be “the odd one out”. Some people just can’t deal with that, and it is important to be aware of these kinds of differences.
The famous marketer Seth Godin puts it like this: “The mistake merchants make is that they bring their fringe ideas to people who don’t like fringe ideas, instead of taking their time and working their way through the progression.” However, another way of tackling this, is to try to approach the majority of people with a much simpler message – for instance: asking them to participate in Meatless Monday.
We’re often prone to think that we will convince people with the arguments that meant something to us. Often, we believe an argument makes so much sense that others just can’t but buy it. But other people might not be very interested in rational arguments at all. Especially when it comes to food – and even more so: meat – people can behave incredibly irrationally. They will go out of their way, they will ignore all kinds of warnings, to keep eating the food they love to eat, that they have loved since their childhood, and that they associate with wonderful family moments.
Sometimes people ask me for ideas or advice about how exactly they could or should help animals. They are trying to find out what kind of activism fits them best.
Basically, I think we need to find some kind of sweet spot that is on the junction of three different aspects. You can see them in the drawing below:
What you love, or are passionate about: don’t just say “animals.” That’s probably a bit too general. Find something more concrete than that. Maybe it’s vegan cooking to help animals. Or public speaking about animals. Or maybe you are very passionate about people and how they function.
What you are good at: you may have a certain skill set. Maybe, because of your education, talent, or experience, you can do something many other people can’t do, or not as well. You might be a graphic designer, an IT-person, a teacher…
What has an impact: this is about what really helps animals. Everything has an impact, of course, but some things have more impact than others (some things may even have a negative impact).
The overlap between these different aspects can vary: it may be small, it may be bigger. You could be one of those human beings for whom effectiveness and feeling good entirely overlap. That is, you only feel good about your work when you know you’re having the most impact (don’t think you’re like that too quickly though, you might be overlooking things).
This is probably the exception, and more often the overlap is smaller, and there may be contradictions. You may love doing something, but that something is maybe not the most effective thing you can do. Or you may love doing something (like public speaking) but actually you suck at it (you may need other people to tell you that). Or you may be the most effective when you use that skill set of yours, but maybe you need some variation and you don’t feel like using it as a volunteer, outside of your day job (it would be a pity, obviously, if you have a degree in cellular biology and could make a contribution to cultured meat, but you choose to leaflet instead).
When there is little overlap or when there are conflicts, you can basically choose what you prioritize. Most people in general (I’m not talking about vegans or activists now) usually prioritize their own happiness. As activists or people concerned about the world, we can probably expect a little bit more from ourselves: we can at least give some weight to the impact that we have with our actions, and not just do what feels good. I would say it’s good to give the impact-factor a lot of consideration. Some people, however, may go too far in this, and will unequivocally prioritize impact, at the expense of their own well-being, which is probably not the best or most sustainable idea.
Of course, you can make combinations: distributing leaflets about animals seems to be a pretty effective investment of your time, but imagine you don’t really like it. Then you can do that maybe one or a couple of hours a week, and devote the rest of your volunteer time to something you like better (but which may be less effective).
Basically you want to do good for animals, but you also want to feel good about what you’re doing. If you do something that doesn’t make you feel good, you will probably be able to keep that up only for a limited time. This may be worthwhile in itself, because it is, after all, time that you have given to the cause. However, there is always the risk that people seriously burn out from doing something that they don’t like — even if it is effective — and that makes them give up on activism altogether, which probably would be a loss.
So my message is: make a healthy mix. Don’t just do anything because it makes you feel good, but don’t go all out on effectiveness either, because that may burn you out.
I’ll write more concretely about activism and what you can do in some future posts.
In the 1950’s, the American psychologist Solomon Asch recruited participants at Swarthmore College (United States) for a now famous experiment.* He told them he was doing research on perception, but in reality this was a study about conformity and social pressure. Asch showed the participants a set of pictures like the one below.
Each time he showed such a picture, Asch asked which of the bars on the right was of the same length as the one bar on the left. Participants had to state their answer out loud in the group. However, Asch made sure that all but one of the group members were conspirators, whom he had all ordered to give the same wrong answer. The only real, unsuspecting participant had to give their answer after all the others. To his surprise, Asch found that a disturbingly large number of people in this situation gave a wrong answer themselves. It led Asch to conclude: “The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.” In some cases, people’s reason to give a clearly incorrect answer was that they thought the group was right. In other cases respondents apparently were afraid of seeming different than the rest or didn’t want to cause any trouble.
It’s not difficult to transfer these findings to our own subject. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that many people feel deep down that there is something wrong with the food they eat. They might believe it’s okay to kill animals for food but also believe that those same animals should at least “have a good life.” Or they might believe it’s not worth killing an animal for food at all. But when all these people constantly see around them that eating meat (or animal products) is treated as normal, it is hard to even believe in that vague feeling of discomfort they may have, and it becomes a lot harder to think that something really wrong is going on. Even as a vegetarian or vegan, as someone who’s really internalized the principle that it is not ok to eat animal products, you may have these small moments of doubt, wondering if you are actually seeing things right. The South-African writer and Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee attributes the following thoughts to his vegetarian character Elisabeth Costello:
“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money. (…) Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”
In part because there’s still only a tiny minority of the people making a problem of meat eating or acting differently, most people don’t often consciously stop to think about meat eating as a moral issue. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, it is one of the major conclusions of the golden age of social psychology that “people take their cues on how to behave from other people.” To the question why most people eat meat, this is one answer that we can give: most people eat meat because most people eat meat.”
Hence, the importance of critical mass. Change requires numbers. We need enough people to voice their doubts, to show their concern, to not participate, to eat differently, so that others no longer get the idea that meat is natural, normal and necessary.
Congrats to all of you who are not afraid to think differently and stand out from the crowd!
*Watch this video to learn more about the Asch experiment.
At the Animal Rights conference in early July in Los Angeles, one of the keynote speakers was the legendary PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk. Ingrid and PETA are controversial for many animal rights activists and vegans. I understand some of the criticism, but usually I defend PETA against all too cheap attacks. I also respect Ingrid for her achievements. Being in a leadership position in the animal rights movement, (as a woman, moreover), for such a long time is actually an achievement in itself.
Still, some of the things she said during her speech at the conference made me frown. Ingrid was clearly having an issue with people emphasizing effectiveness. Effectiveness isn’t hard to understand: when you’re effective, you are good at getting the results you are aiming for. Effectiveness in itself shouldn’t be controversial. If we invest a lot of efforts into helping animals, (no matter if you define the latter in terms of reducing suffering, cruelty, or killing), because we care about them, we want these efforts to be effective. We want them to actually make a difference.
When you want to be effective, you probably will want to figure out where you can help the most, where you have the biggest effect (or let’s at least say: “a big effect”). This is particularly important in light of our limited resources. Even though our movement seems to get more and more funds, we still obviously can’t do everything we want, and we need to make choices. A sensible strategic choice is to spend our time and money in places where we can have the biggest impact. This may be a factor of the return on investment (how many animals can I affect for how much money), the intensity of suffering, the number of beings suffering, or the difference we can make because no one else is doing it — to name a few important selection criteria.
Looking at it this way, within the animal rights movement, a focus on farmed animals makes a lot of sense: there is less money to help them than there is for more popular causes, like companion animals, wild animals, etc. Of all the animals we torture and kill, ninety nine percent are killed for food purposes. And their suffering in general is probably among the worst human-caused suffering in the animal world. So if we can change something for farm animals, like legislation, attitudes, alternatives… we are changing things for a big group of animals.
In her speech, if I heard her correctly, Ingrid Newkirk seemed to somehow disagree with this line of reasoning. She said she had been asked to talk about farmed animals, but indicated that she actually didn’t want to do that. Her slideshow was mostly about animals other than farmed animals — like individual circus or companion animals. She stated that, if PETA would have listened to the people who are into effectiveness, these animals would not have been saved.
The argument made by Ingrid and many others against effectiveness-seekers, is that animals are individuals and that we can not make calculations with them or just look at numbers.
However, when those of us who cherish effectiveness go after the big numbers, they do that exactly because animals are feeling, sentient individuals. When we talk about helping or prioritizing the sixty billion chickens in the world, this may sound like a statistic, but we are fully aware that we are talking about a collection of individuals. And if we value individuals, would a big group of such suffering individuals not be a higher priority than a smaller group? The more individuals we can help, the better, no? With limited resources, there is always what we call an “opportunity cost“: when we are doing one thing, we can’t do another.
I’m sure that there are some valid points to be made regarding prioritizing effectiveness. I’m sure some people might take it too far. There is the possibility that they could let the end justify spurious means. Or some of them may even be lacking in empathy. Effectiveness-oriented people would do well to be aware of these risks.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with a desire, a striving for effectiveness. And it’s not as if all of a sudden, our whole movement has become effective. There is still a long way to go, and I think Ingrid’s criticism definitely didn’t come at the right time. Effectiveness might be a dirty word in health care and in other domains, but it shouldn’t be one in our movement.
No one is saying that the primate in the cage or the dog on the chain shouldn’t be helped. If some of us, however, would suggest prioritizing other beings, it’s not because we don’t care about those individuals. It’s because we care so much about suffering that we prefer to focus on where we can help the most of them.