I had the chance to see an early screening of Eating Animals, the documentary after the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Apparently, Natalie Portman, who is the narrator of the documentary, turned vegan after reading Foer’s book. Together, they approached filmmaker Christopher Quinn, whose work they liked, and asked him to turn the book into a movie. Eating Animals will be out in theatres in North America in June, and later on Hulu; so, it seems that it could reach a pretty large audience. That would be well-deserved, as it is a beautiful movie.
I think Eating Animals is one of the best food documentaries I’ve seen so far. As a seasoned vegan who is quite familiar with the issues, I had not expected to see or hear much that was new. But the documentary managed to surprise me, and offers more than just another catalogue of animal agriculture-related problems. For one thing, it gives us some history of how intensive animal farming came into existence and explains how corporations like Tyson came to be. And, it also tells us stories of people caring – in different ways – for and about animals. It tells these stories very well, and with a lot of heart.
One of these is the story of veterinarian and scientist James Keen, who worked at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), a huge livestock research facility in Nebraska, and became a whistle-blower after witnessing practices with animals he could not condone. Keen leaked the information to a journalist, which resulted in a long New York Times expose, which in turn led to a federal investigation, bills, and reforms. Eating Animals makes it very clear that all that Keen did he did at great expense to his own life and happiness. Keen had to move, and eventually saw his marriage break down under the pressure his whistle-blowing had created. It is hard not to admire the man for his courage and for following his conscience.
There’s also the story of a contracted chicken farmer and his family. He testifies about how difficult that kind of life was, and how he felt a slave to the corporation that contracted him. We see him move through a huge barn of chickens, picking up the dead ones and showing to the camera the health problems they suffer from. While this man is or was instrumental in exploiting chickens, he was himself exploited. It is hard not to feel compassion towards him.
Finally, there’s turkey farmer Frank Reese, who already featured in Foer’s book. Frank tells us a lot about turkeys. He talks about how breeding and selecting the traditional Thanksgiving turkeys for meat has made them “stupider”, and how his breed of turkeys is a lot smarter. Actually, his goal is to keep certain old breeds of turkeys alive. And, if you want to keep them in existence, they have to be part of the food chain, he says.
Now, me and most other vegans will not agree to this, obviously. First of all, I do think that, if we deem this important, we can keep breeds alive without the animals necessarily having to have a certain economic or food value (apart from animals in sanctuaries, there probably will have to be some value, but this value can be in terms of companionship or aesthetics). Secondly, why would one insist on keeping certain breeds alive in the first place? The extinction of a species can obviously have negative ecological consequences, and it may somehow look sad when a species goes extinct (particularly if it’s humans’ fault), but to me it is the individual welfare that matters, not the value of the species. Which is why I don’t always understand well-meaning efforts to reintroduce certain species of wildlife in an area, unless this would increase overall happiness and well being.
The eventual fate of Frank’s turkeys is the same as all other turkeys: they end up in the slaughterhouse. It seems undeniable, however, that these birds have a much better life than the average turkey, and very probably also a better life than many or most animals in the wild. To many vegans these may seem like “welfarist” non-arguments. Any of these vegans, however, would, any day, choose to be a turkey with Frank above being your average turkey, and one has to be blind not to appreciate the difference this kind of life makes. More philosophically, I have lately started to think more and more about the question of whether being killed by humans negates all the happiness of an animal’s life that came before that moment. I know this is vegan heresy (but, then, I’m some sort of vegan heretic), and I plan to explore this question more in depth in another post.
I don’t know the man personally, but it seems clear that Frank Reese cares for his turkeys (though not enough not to kill them – vegans might quickly add). I had the chance to have a drink with the director after the screening of the movie, and he told me that Frank finds the whole transportation and slaughtering process horrible, and is a great proponent of developing more humane ways of slaughter.
You may get the impression from all this that the movie advocates happy meat. Certainly, it is not as unequivocally vegan or abolitionist as say Earthlings or Forks over Knives, but at no time did I get the impression that people would come away with the idea that it’s just a matter of switching to better meat, and that this better meat can be found in every supermarket. Indeed, the director told me that Frank’s turkeys cost 150 dollars per bird. The way Frank Reese raises his turkeys is exceptional, which is one of the reasons why Foer picked him out.
Also, the film includes several appearances by long time vegan activist Bruce Friedrich, presently CEO of the Good Food Institute. Bruce openly asks the question of whether we need to eat animals at all.
The movie has some beautiful cinematography, with wonderful shots of agricultural landscapes and farms, and the scenes with Frank and his turkey’s are amazing – especially the final one. On the other hand, there’s a significant amount of graphic footage (most of it archival images) to swallow; so, be warned.
I’ll finish with the beginning of the movie, which consists of a few harrowing lines spoken in Natalie Portman’s beautiful voice. I asked the director whose words they were, and he said they were his own, based on conversations he had had during his research into animal suffering. This is not an exact quote (I didn’t write it down), but it should be pretty close:
If animals don’t dwell on the past or ponder the future, they have only the present. And, if their circumstances brought them to a present in which they suffer, then suffering is the totality of their existence.
Animal advocates are often prone to compare the struggle for animal rights with other social justice issues. We love to explain the parallels between sexism and speciecism, or compare animal farming with slavery. To what extent are these issues connected, and if they are, how do we bring this up in a way that is convincing rather than alienating?
I spoke about this topic with Dr Kristof Dhont, a lecturer at the University of Kent, UK. Kristof’s research focuses mainly on the role of personality and situational factors in human intergroup and human-animal relations. He investigates, among other topics, the psychological underpinnings and ideological roots of speciesism, and the motivations of eating and exploiting animals. In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Personality, Kristof and his colleagues investigated the common ideological roots of speciesism and ethnic prejudice. In this interview, we’ll look for those common roots, but we’ll also wonder about the implications for strategy and communication. We also talk about animal rights being mainly a liberal/leftist thing, and why the Christmas meal is possibly the worst time to bring up the plight of animals.
Vegan Strategist: Kristof, what prompted you to do research on the common roots of attitudes towards animals and towards human groups? Can you tell us a bit more about this line of research? Kristof Dhont: My interest in the assumed interconnectedness of speciesism and prejudices towards human groups (such as racism and sexism) was triggered by slogans like “speciesism = racism = sexism” and pictures of chained animals next to pictures of chained human slaves. Influential philosophers like Peter Singer have written about the parallels between how members from disadvantaged groups are (or have been) treated and the way people treat and think about non-human animals.
From numerous psychological studies, we already knew that people who dislike or express prejudice toward one outgroup (e.g. homosexuals) also tend to dislike a range of other social groups to which they don’t belong (e.g. Blacks, Latinos, poor people, immigrants, Muslims, Jews,… typically groups lower in status or power in a given context), a phenomenon termed “generalized prejudice”. Thus, for instance, people who endorse racist views are more likely to also endorse sexist views. This idea can be broadened to include attitudes towards animals.
And this is something you went on to test yourself?
Yes, as a first step, my colleagues and I wanted to extend this idea by investigating whether those who express more negative and prejudiced views toward ethnic and religious outgroups would also more strongly endorse exploitative attitudes toward animals (speciesist attitudes). This is exactly what we found, first in a study conducted in Canada and subsequently also in a series of studies conducted in Belgium, the UK and the USA (1). People who expressed greater ethnic prejudice also expressed greater support for a range of practices of animal exploitation such as hunting, factory farming, meat consumption, animal testing, whaling and using animals for human entertainment in for instance circuses or rodeos. In a new set of studies conducted with my graduate student Alina Salmen, we also found consistent support for the links between speciesism and sexism. Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford replicated these findings with a newly developed scale of speciesism.
Do you have an idea as to why this connection would exist?
That’s indeed what we wanted to find out, although we acknowledge that a variety of factors are involved, which we weren’t all able to study together. From the perspective of a psychological scientist, we looked specifically at the role of general ideological beliefs and motives. Our expectation was that desires for dominance and inequality between social groups would play an important role here. More specifically, people differ from each other in the degree to which they prefer a society characterised by a strong hierarchy and inequality between social groups, as opposed to a society characterised by more egalitarian intergroup relationships. This general social orientation or trait is known as social dominance orientation. Our studies showed that a desire for group-based dominance showed substantial associations with both ethnic prejudice and speciesism, and represents a key ideological factor explaining why ethnic prejudice is associated with speciesism.
Related to preferences for hierarchical intergroup relations, also the belief that humans are meant to dominate over animals and the natural environment appeared to be important, not just as predictor of attitudes towards animals, but, for instance, also in predicting attitudes towards women. This shows that the way people think about animals (and about the status of animals) has implications for the way we think about human groups.
Would you call what you are doing “intersectional” research?
Perhaps it depends on how you would define intersectionality. This term seems to be used in different ways, and I haven’t used it in any of my own work yet. Historically, this concept originates from feminist and critical race theories arguing that it doesn’t make much sense to consider social categories such as gender, race, sexual orientation and class in isolation from each other to address discrimination, social inequality and disadvantage in society. Members of disadvantaged social groups often belong to multiple low-status groups (e.g. working-class Black women) and thus experience multiple dimensions of discrimination simultaneously. Not considering these different interwoven (or “intersecting”) statuses is by definition inadequate or at least incomplete according to intersectionality theory. This framework has largely been focusing on the viewpoint of those who experience the disadvantage and, although important, I haven’t done much work from the disadvantaged group perspective.
On a broader level, intersectionality also refers to the idea that different systemic (and institutionalised) forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and homophobia are not just related to each other but are closely intertwined and thus dynamically interconnected. This is more what I have been focusing on in my research, but from a psychological perspective, investigating attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of people, rather than a sociological one. In this sense, I would say that our findings largely support the idea of intersectionality on the individual level. But note that, to date, the term “intersectionality” is still rarely used in mainstream psychological research (and outside specialised fields such as gender studies or ethnic and racial studies).
Back to your findings then, which suggest that the slogans you referred to in the beginning are true to some extent. How helpful do you think these or similar (often more extreme) slogans are for changing people’s ideas about animals?
From the viewpoint of a vegan or animal rights activist, these slogans make total sense and can also stimulate interesting debates and empirical research. Yet for most people it is rather unlikely that they will have the desired impact – perhaps even the contrary. First of all, slogans comparing animal exploitation or meat production to the exploitation of humans, for instance by referring to slavery, the holocaust, oppression of women, only make sense to people if they already accept the underlying presumption that the life or the suffering of human and non-human animals are of equal value. We know that many people and especially meat eaters disagree with this idea and value human life more than the life of an animal, especially of farm animals. For them, such slogans are perceived as irrational, and therefore further ignored at best.
I can think of at least three unintended, harmful consequences of using these comparisons. A first possible reaction is that people may not only feel being judged and criticised for eating meat, they may also think that you are calling them a Nazi, racist, sexist and so on, depending on the specific comparison. Rather than raising awareness about animal suffering, your audience will likely be offended and upset because of being accused of something which they (in the majority of cases) are certain that they are not. As a result, people will likely perceive the messenger (the organisation or movement) as more negative and hostile than before, and will be turned off.
A second reaction is that the message comes across as an attempt to downplay or trivialize the severity of the atrocious historical events or social injustice you are using in the comparison. Needless to say, these are extremely sensitive issues and by mentioning for instance the holocaust or slavery you shift attention from the suffering of animals (a topic people care less about) to a topic they care very deeply about and people may find it repulsive that you use others’ suffering for your “own” cause.
Finally, imagine the possible reaction of someone who belongs to the minority or historically disadvantaged group that is directly or indirectly compared to animals. How do they feel when activists (most likely white middle class people) compare them – in a way – to animals? Rather than thinking that you value the life of an animal as much as you value human life, they may actually think that you find black people or Jews as no better than animals. There is thus a chance that they feel dehumanised or are perceived as less than human. We know from psychological research that people who feel dehumanised by a certain group will in turn show a strong negative reaction and reciprocal dehumanization toward that group. Again, not the reaction you were hoping for, but quite the opposite.
Can we learn anything from interventions against racism to reduce speciesism or even reduce meat consumption?
It is too early to make strong claims about what works and what doesn’t. There is simply not enough solid research that has addressed this question. One important consideration however, is that what helps to reduce speciesism or improve attitudes toward animals, will not necessarily affect meat consumption. Even though our findings show that people who strongly endorse speciesist beliefs also tend to consume more meat, we also know that people are very good in dissociating meat from animals. This means that many omnivores do care about animals to some extent, but paradoxically have no problem with eating meat. And there are many other motivational, social and external obstacles that prevent people to stop or reduce meat consumption (see the interview with Jared Piazza on this blog).
Overall, however, I do think there is plenty to learn from research on prejudice reduction. I particularly see a lot of promise in interventions focusing on creating opportunities for positive and meaningful interactions between humans and farm animals. Extensive empirical evidence has confirmed that favourable contact between members of different religious or ethnic groups reduces prejudice and improves intergroup relations. Intergroup contact stimulates empathising and taking the perspective of the opposing group, which lead to better mutual understanding and more positive attitudes toward each other. There are good reasons and plenty of anecdotal evidence to expect that having personal contact with farm animals increases empathy toward them, which in turn increases opposition to animal exploitation. This is already possible by visiting farm sanctuaries. Of course, getting people to visit farm sanctuaries in the first place and letting them build a connection with animals, would be another challenge to overcome. Schools and youth or community organisations could play a meaningful role here to make this happen.
Also, other intervention techniques that increase perspective taking, for instance through media, storytelling, virtual reality, or mental simulations, may work in similar ways. Note that such interventions do not actively try to convince people about what is right or wrong, but allow them to experience something and consequently make up their own minds, avoiding the problem of persuasion resistance.
Another conclusion from your research is that people on the right/conservative side of the political spectrum on average more strongly support animal exploitation and typically consume more meat. Is there any way to make use of this finding in our animal advocacy?
Obviously, you don’t need to be a scientist to know or notice that animal rights and vegetarianism/veganism receive more support by progressives/liberals than by conservatives. Many vegans or animal advocates consider themselves liberal or left-wing. By emphasising principles of equality and advocating for social change, animal rights seems to belong inherently in the left-wing corner. But labeling these topics as liberal or left-wing may also further increase the ideological divide between left- and right-leaning people and groups, and thus lead to even more political polarization on this topic. It is not because conservatives are less likely to support animal rights or less willing to reduce their meat consumption, that calling conservatives animal exploiters and liberals animal lovers will help the animals. Such messages may even encourage conservatives to eat more meat and take pride in it, if it’s seen as a conservative thing to do. And in the end, also the vast majority of liberals still eats meat. At the same time, many people on both sides of the political spectrum are against animal cruelty.
How can we move away from the political polarization of animal rights and veganism?
By being more mindful of the values of people across the political spectrum, and especially by being mindful of the values that conservatives find important. Framing the case for animal rights in terms of equality values (or egalitarianism) and social change/justice values will turn off conservatives, given that these are values that they find either not important or even in contradiction to their own values. Conservatives tend to resist social change and care deeply about family and cultural traditions, which in many cases involve meaty meals or other kinds of animal exploitation. It is hard to overestimate the importance of such traditions for people’s identity and moral framework. They bring family and community members together, are a source of intense gustatory pleasure, and ultimately provide a sense of social cohesion, stability and collective security. They are the social glue of the family or community. Bluntly criticizing some of the core aspects of these traditions – such as the meal – will likely come across as an attack on the values and traditions themselves, and will be met with resentment and defensiveness. Left-wing animal advocates likely consider such traditions as irrelevant and unimportant for their own moral choices, yet they should acknowledge the central role they play in many other people’s lives, particularly of conservatives. In this sense, perhaps one of the worst moments to start discussing veganism is during the Christmas or Thanksgiving meal. The real challenge here is taking animal exploitation out of the tradition without ending the traditions themselves, and providing adequate alternatives.
Also important is that across the ideological spectrum, people are sensitive to suffering and harm, and value caring for those who are suffering. Compassion is thus not a partisan issue and appeals to people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In sum, when it comes down to moral arguments, the most important idea behind animal ethics, the principle of “do no harm” resonates with the moral values of both liberals/progressives and conservatives. Further avoiding the emphasis on principles that are only valued by the left and being mindful of some moral principles valued by conservatives like traditions, could go a long way in avoiding the ideological polarisation of animal rights.