Aggressive Posturing Does Not Produce Vegetarians

by Mike Jaynes

At the present moment, I am not concerned with absolute veganism. As it is used in this article, a vegetarian diet will be defined as one that consists of absolutely no meat products and attempts to avoid as much dairy and other non-meat animal foods as possible. All stages of animal consumption reduction will also be applauded. The person who decides to only eat fish is not a vegetarian; however, the pigs, chickens, cows, and other farmed animals of the world are better off from their decision and so on. Animal rights activists (ARAs) and animal rights thinkers have often pointed out that such utilitarian approaches can often be dangerous and that absolute abolition is the only true way to liberate animals farmed for food. However, for this short article, I will not delve into the validity of the lack of the abolition stance. I will instead discuss common barriers keeping most average Americans from becoming vegetarian. These people are not versed on Benthamesque theories and utilitarianism, and to veer off into the alienating vernacular of some groups does not accomplish what should be all animal activists' goal: to help animals and to enslave, use, and slaughter them in smaller and smaller numbers until we arrive at a completely animal-friendly human population. Not to ignore the end while glorifying the means, but convincing carnivores to be vegetarians is a difficult task indeed, and rigorous theorizing should be saved for another day. As for now, let's examine why people who love their companion animals and buy their dogs toys and sweaters, and can't stand to witness the unbearable cruelty inherent in the creation of the processed meat of which they eat, still eat meat.

In the Winter, 2008 issue of The Animals Voice Magazine, Alex Hershaft said, "Ninety three percent of American consumers oppose farmed animal abuse and 97 percent continue eating them" (pg. 16). When contemplating this vast divide between what people say they believe and what they do, it is paramount to understand that they are not evil, unfeeling, unthinking people who can simply avoid morality as they chomp away on their steaks. It is not that at all. I feel the American culture is so ingrained in the culture of meat that it takes quite a disturbing and violent paradigm shift for one to abandon these lifelong mores. Often, such as the case with me, people will become vegetarian after witnessing undercover videos shot in slaughterhouses or after seeing a truckload of chickens en route to the end of their line, or due to a host of other possible reasons. The question is why the remainder of people who care for animals choose not to change their eating habits.

A Terrible Disconnect

There remains, for most, a distinct disconnect between the cute pig prancing and romping on the summer farm and the breaded pork chop on the plate. Often preteen children will refuse to eat animal products if they actually look like an animal. For example, often young girls will not eat chicken legs or breasts or partake in a whole cooked bird due to the presence of bones and sinew and the obvious chicken form it still possesses but they will eat processed chicken fingers, chicken salad, or wraps. You see, it is very easy to imagine, when one sees a whole chicken or turkey cooked on the thanksgiving plate, where the head was, the feet, the eyes, the things that are not at all so dissimilar to us. Therefore, as long as this disconnect is upheld, non vegetarians will easily eat meat and thus observe the long held social more of meat eating and still care deeply for their companion animals, sometimes more intensely than they care for their human relations. As long as the reality of the pig as a suffering being who wants to be happy is muted, bacon and sausage will not become moral choices.

However, the question gets interesting when people do understand that the romping pig was exsanguinated, gutted, and killed in terror after a short life of horror and they still partake of its flesh. At this point, many ARAs will dismiss these people as selfish, uncaring, evil, or some other such easily all inclusive and dismissive moniker. If one truly wants to help animals and knows that each non meat eater saves approximately 100 land animals a year, dismissive haughtiness should not be one's approach. In fact, 50 billion land animals are slaughtered a year to feed six billion people. The math is staggering and vegetarian ARAs should be actively searching methods of engagement of the non-vegetarians who are at least peripherally aware of the cruelty and horrors of what eating meat supports. Myself, I focus on attempting to educate the public on the plight of performing elephants and the practice of shark finning, particularly whale sharks. Though I do write in favor of vegetarianism (obviously), I do not specialize in it and the ARAs who are specializing in promoting vegetarianism, I believe, need to concentrate closely on these sorts of issues in order to truly persuade the masses to change.

Now, how does one know of these issues and continue to eat meat? I think it is natural and not as "evil" as AR minded people typically assume. Here is where I sometimes differ with many vegetarian ARAs. The unfortunately late George Carlin was right when he said the world is basically a revolving buffet with weather and everything eats everything else. His death is a great loss to humanity; he was one of the few people who told us the truth. However, let me be very clear, regardless of the natural predation of most omnivorous species, the rate at which humans are devouring the animal populations of the planet is sickening and I cannot believe that our presence has been so overwhelmingly negative on the natural world. However, change is the goal and unfortunately most people are slow in coming to more animal friendly changes.

A New Non-Fanatic Approach

I think our social mores and cultural programming are the culprits and the barriers preventing most carnivores from abandoning meat, not non-vegetarians' lack of morality or goodness. Giving up certain meat products is seen as difficult or even impossible to them. This impossibility is not because they need the ham or the pepperoni or what not; this impossibility is reinforced by the cultural tradition of meat eating. It goes back to the dawn of mankind and at once was surely a means of survival. Studying ancient mythology, it is quite easy to see the apparent role in everyday life, religion, and diet that nonhuman animals have played since the early days of intelligent man. Many ARA thinkers and writers have pointed out that we no longer need meat to survive and we have the nutritional know how to get all we need from a plant-based diet to keep our biology up to speed. Following that statement is usually when the tone toward the meat eaters becomes dismissive, alienating, and even rude. ARAs desperately need to understand that circumventing unquestioned paths of central importance and changing fundamental beliefs of groups that have been generationally accepted without question are not overnight changes. Some people take longer to go against what thousands of years of human society have accepted. Even today, vegetarians only number around 3 percent of the American population (depending upon the study). Therefore, as an active AR writer, I urge vegetarian activists to slow down and realize that the people who stand up and say that they truly believe the other 97 percent of America is wrong and acting immorally are rarely accepted. This explosive and controversial stance (in the eyes of the non AR public) must be conducted with great deftness and patience. I understand animals are dying by the thousands every single minute; I know they are being tortured and enslaved. However, I also understand not a single thing will change that will provide any lasting relief for the animal creatures of our world if ARAs proceed with actions that are rapid, violent, and alienating. It is neither prudent nor helpful to assume that people who still eat meat in this world of increasing awareness are the enemy. To permanently change society's treatment of animals we must change the accepted social mores of this country. Tradition is the enemy, not the individuals socially programmed by said tradition. Inspiring guilt, anger, helplessness, and frustration in others is not the way to proceed. And that is the challenge because getting educated on everything from common hog factory farming procedures to the depletion of the world's giant Blue Whales inspires horror and rage at what we have become.

However, to alienate everyone who is not exactly like you and to practice humorless fanaticism does nothing save make the individual feel better in the short term. And there emerges one of the significant problems with the ARA "movement." Animals are having slaughter, extinction, and terror wrought upon them in horrifying nightmare numbers. Animals are being mercilessly destroyed and it seems a vast majority of the active people writing, protesting, thinking, and acting on the behalf of animals care more about the title of ARA than helping animals. Any time you alienate a potential future vegetarian out of your frustration, you are hurting the animals you say you desire so badly to protect. Consider the inverse of one of the preceding statements: If your alienating approach causes a potential vegetarian to remain carnivorous, you are responsible for the forced enclosure, torture, and death of one hundred land animals per year. Any time you cannot accept someone who has different fundamental beliefs than you, you are witnessing a blaring example of your inflexibility and humorless fanaticism. And come on, admit it, no one likes or will listen to a fanatic (even if said fanaticism is morally justified). So, I now ask you the unpopular question most in the AR world won't ask you: Do you care more about helping animals who are enslaved by humanity or appearing fashionably up-to-date liberal and free thinking and advanced and far superior to the mere masses who chomp their meat in uniform silence all across the less enlightened families, groups, and diners of this great land? If you care about animals, you will make it your priority to befriend people who do not share your views on the moral status of animals. In my writing, I often urge everyone to read the terrifying and beautiful Dominion: The Suffering of Animals, The Power of Man, and The Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully as it shows the horrifying truth in an articulate and non alienating (though refreshingly subtly sarcastic) manner. It is apparent, we must rethink the portions of our approach that are not working in order to help these helpless creatures that are being killed for trinkets, snacks, clothes, and other products that are not at all essential to our survival.

Are things changing? Perhaps. Are they changing in such quantity that we can all sit back and quit writing, protesting, thinking, discussing? No way. I hope this article at least opens up a line of inquiry regarding the ancient social mores which allow so many intelligent, kind, and caring Americans to continue to eat meat. I also hope it reiterates that it does not make them a "bad person," and that aggressively alienating them hurts the animals the ARA is pledged to protect. I hope to do further research on the underlying roots of meat eating in between my campaigning for elephants and whale sharks. However, I am convinced that the barriers preventing widespread vegetarianism lie in the centuries old customs and mores of our culture. This piece focuses on my country of America, but I suspect these long standing traditions offer similar barriers in other lands.

Change The World … For The Pigs

Perhaps it's simply a matter of being embarrassed during family cookouts or holiday gatherings that makes people continue to embrace the eating habits of the majority. No one wants to be seen as the "freak" who won't eat turkey on Thanksgiving or hamburgers at a cookout and therefore requires some special substitute cooked on a portion of the grill the meat did not sizzle upon. This embarrassment and fear is most likely normal and should not be attacked. Also -- and this is another oft unrealized fact in the AR world -- a person's view toward animals is not the only facet of his/her humanity. There are plenty of meat eaters who are much more kind and good and helpful to the world than many vegetarian ARAs and we should not reduce the whole of humanity's existence, self identification, and essence down to eating habits. Nevertheless, being one who is mentally tortured when contemplating the plight of these factory farmed animals, these sharks being long lined in the gulf, these creatures being skinned alive for their fur, these majestic elephants being gunned down from helicopters for their ivory…being one of these people, I know we have to do what it takes to help the animals. Animal ethics may not be the only thing that makes up the human core, but it is everything to these helpless creatures we are trying to protect. Finally, adopting as much of a plant-based diet as possible has been widely accepted as the most helpful thing the individual can do for the animals; vegetarianism is direct action. Knowing this, it is natural that we feel frustration toward people who still eat ribs, cook out vast quantities of hamburger meat, buy hot dogs at ball parks, eat fried chicken all summer long, and other such cruel American culinary traditions. So we thinking and feeling ARAs know we must try to spread vegetarianism, and the only question is how we do it because as it presently stands, it is not spreading nearly fast enough. One small example: by 2020 the global demand for pork is expected to double. If you care about pigs, this should terrify you. I truly feel it is by revising the public image of the ARA and questing to never alienate the non AR minded person that we will most rapidly transform this world into a world where animals are respected with fierce active respect equal to that we give to humans. They deserve our mercy and our good intentions. And so do meat eaters. We must respect them, talk to them, and show them by example that being a vegetarian is not a radical or strange choice they should fear. All the anti-AR arguments aside, not harming or eating animals is the kindest and most moral choice, and even most non-vegetarians would agree. The job of the ARA, therefore, is to suppress the righteous indignation that often erupts into useless personal attacks and to convince the remaining 97 or so percent of Americans that animals deserve much better than what we have given them. How one treats one's inferiors reveals one's character.

Rome Is Burning

As a lecturer in the humanities, I have thought a great deal about what it means that we treat so many animals as nothing more than economic commodities. After much thought, I truly believe as a human species we are vastly and permanently diminished by our apathy toward animals. Animals are helpless against our superior technology and reason and if we do not use that reason and technology to free these suffering creatures we will continue to diminish. Humanity has great capacity to be good; however, it seems that we sometimes do not deserve the praise most people and religions heap on humanity. If we do not quit crushing and destroying and demolishing billions of helpless, helpless, animals each year, we will descend finally into complete repugnance. So ARAs must find significantly different and more effective manners of promotion and change. Because today we stand on a world collapsing, humanity descending, and animal species disappearing at unchecked rates. Rome is burning and we either do something to put out the flames or we rationalize and stand aside as the animals endure torture, loneliness, despair, confusion until they at last disappear. Forever. Please save the animals.

M. Jaynes is a writer living in the Southeastern United States. He has written about animal ethics, feminist, and literary issues. He is the author of "Elephants Among Us: Two Performing Elephants in the 20th Century" (2013, Earth Books). 

Copyright © 2008 Michael Jaynes, All Rights Reserved