While we are partially in self-quarantine, we have some time to reflect on the hypocrisies that surround our food choices – the meat paradox.
Why nurture one and eat another
There are many who when faced with the option of consuming their dog or their cat would recoil. To eat an animal with whom they have had contact and affection would be an abomination. To even those who haven’t had the joy of a companion animal, the notion in our society of caging dogs and cats in animal factories is anathema. Yet, these same people happily consume the body of a cow, pig, chicken, duck, lamb, fish, or crustacean without any thought of the being who once was.
The suffering of farm animals
Thanks to social media, there are few in society who are not aware of the horrors of modern farms. People have seen the countless animals who are (legally) mutilated and kept in spartan conditions. Those with no room for mobility or freedom to express themselves physically. These animals have become relegated to churning out the highest amount of produce and flesh to the point of being Frankenstein.
They have been genetically selected to grow to sizes well beyond their capacity to function. Hence, we have chickens and ducks who suffer heart attacks and cannot walk on their burdened legs. Pigs who are slaughtered at just 6 months of age, when naturally they would live to be 15–20 years of age. Egg-laying hens who exist in cages to lay the maximum eggs before she is ripped from her cage. The industry refers to the workers as Rippers, as they literally rip hens out and shove them into crates. What is left of her tiny body will be used for baby cereal, soup, and stock.
Then, there is the dairy cow. She suffers more than most, as the farmer’s exploitation of her knows no bounds. In order to provide milk for humans to suckle, baby calves must be removed as they are competition. Think about that. The fact is, a cow produces milk purely to feed her baby. We, humans, are the only animal across the planet who continues to suckle after weaning – and from another species! We do so, despite it being linked to so many health issues and many people being diagnosed as lactose-intolerant. Dairies are also among the highest users of water and they cause soil and water pollution. Plant-based milk alternatives are on the increase
We know all this. We have heard it decade after decade. And yet, we continue to consume meat, wear animal skins (leather is not a bi-product), and consume cow milk products. It is not because we are cruel people. We would be the first to rescue a kitten or dog. We are outraged when we hear about animals being abused. Knowing we are not cruel and knowing what we do about factory farming, why do we and how can we, continue to participate in the abuse of animals in this way? This is known as the Meat Paradox and results in cognitive dissonance among meat-eaters.
Our willingness to participate in industry obfuscation
It is our collusion with industry that permits us to eat other animals with no more than fleeting disquiet (internal conflict). So long as body parts are wrapped under cellophane and called “ham,” “bacon” or “chop” and “steak” we don’t have to picture the animal who suffered so terribly before slaughter.
Most of us have never spent time with a “farm” animal. Making our disconnect from them even greater. If we do get to hold a piglet or a lamb we cannot help but see their beauty, their intelligence, their very individuality. Yet, that night we might go home and eat “bacon” or a lamb leg. As though the ones we met are worth our affection and all the others an amorphous “others,” abstruse by their very numbers. We can cheer for a cow who escapes transport and want her to be free. Yet, the plight of trillions of others does not register with us.
Our empathy is often only with those things that don’t require us to make changes. For example, with the live export of animals. Quite rightly, people are outraged by the unspeakable suffering of animals are put onto boats in numbers too large for movement and difficulty accessing water and feed, forced to travel long distances, and then at the destination, they are doomed to a ghastly death. People can more easily get behind this because they don’t have to change their behaviour to be supportive of a ban. This is similar to people who don’t attend horse and greyhound races. They find it easy to get behind calls to ban these “sports” because in the doing so will not be impacted if the industry ceases to exist. This also underlies a willingness to point fingers at other countries. You might be a meat-eating, dairy-consuming, leather-wearing person, who gets into high dudgeon about the consumption of dogs overseas for example. You might even rail against that cruelty and still not reflect on your own participation for other species.
These actions seem easier than one that requires a change in your life, for example stopping the consumption of a product, be it meat or dairy products that people balk. If it is suggested they could save many lives over the years through just changing their diet people can react with anger, derision, hostility, and denial.
Even knowing they are contributing directly to mutilation and deprivation of liberty and comfort and indeed direct suffering, people can somehow, through cognitive dissonance, mentally justify their actions.
It was in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) that Leon Festinger (who coined this term) proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally in the world.
Coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. It requires energy and effort to sit with those seemingly opposite things that all seem true. Festinger argued that some people would inevitably resolve the dissonance by blindly believing whatever they wanted to believe.
According to psychologists Brock Bastian and Steve Loughnan, who research the topic in Australia, the “meat paradox” is the “psychological conflict between people’s dietary preference for meat and their moral response to animal suffering”. They argue that “bringing harm to others is inconsistent with a view of oneself as a moral person”. As such, meat consumption leads to negative effects for meat-eaters because they are confronted with a view of themselves that is unfavourable: “how can I be a good person and also eat meat?” Thoughts like “but I enjoy the taste,” “my family has always eaten meat, it’s part of socialising” – on the face of it these are insignificant reasons for being part of the killing cycle. With regards to meat, we say we don’t like animal cruelty yet we consume their flesh and body parts.
Some poor life choices enabled by cognitive dissonance
Similarly, with smoking, we know it’s bad for our health yet we continue to justify smoking. These thoughts are unpleasant and uncomfortable due to the smoker knowing the dangers of smoking, yet, wanting to smoke. Cognitive dissonance comes into a smoker’s thinking by telling themselves that a lot of people smoke throughout their lives, while at the same time knowing the high rates of mortality from smoking. They actively ignore the warning messages on the packets. The same scenario can be used with regards to over drinking. A person will consider drinking, while at the same time go through negative feelings of knowing they will drink in excess. At that moment, they will justify that this time they can manage to stop at just a couple. This moral disengagement helps to rationalise bad decisions and the disagreeable feelings they evoke.
Cognitive dissonance can often be the precursor to a change in behaviour. When the vexatious feelings of contradiction triggers become strong enough, the person who is inwardly wrestling with these decisions can no longer argue against themselves to justify their negative behaviour.
And so it is with the consumption of meat. There will be a defining moment when a meat-eater, who has wrestled with their conscience over time and looked away from “farm” animal cruelty, makes the decision to change and ameliorate bad justifications. This is a liberating moment and will release the conflicts you have been wrestling with. Acknowledging the facts makes it easier to face something that you have previously pushed aside and allows you to move forward with positive action.
Cognitive dissonance and society’s disapproval
There will be people who call themselves climate activists, marching in rallies and recycling, who continue to eat meat and dairy knowing these two industries are among the highest polluters of air, water, and soil on the planet. How do these two competing thoughts align? They don’t. So that person will mentally try to negate these facts by either ignoring them or believe that their other activities cancel out their contributions to climate change.
Consuming food that you know is harming you, activates a negative sense of self that is offset to an extent by internally proselytizing. We say to ourselves, I will do better tomorrow or this amount can’t really harm me. That nagging inner voice, however, is telling you differently. The famous, Donald Duck, is known for wrestling with Cognitive Dissonance in the form of a little devil on one shoulder and a little angel on the other. Sometimes “good” Donald won and other times “bad” Donald won. This is conscience, this is also Cognitive Dissonance.
Societal changes over time
For hundreds of years, fur was fine, until one day, it wasn’t. It was a symbol of wealth and fashion and then became a symbol of vacuous selfishness. The knowledge of the torture and deaths of dozens of animals for a single person’s wardrobe became a monstrous statement.
This is similar to smoking. Years ago, you could freely smoke on planes and in offices, restaurants, or hospitals, and then you couldn’t. These are powerful campaigns that were at first ridiculed and dismissed. They were successful because of their truth, making both fur and smoking something to (mostly) be hidden. Shameful feelings are short-lived but can be potent. Initially, the person feeling shamed by society will, in turn, react with anger and resentment. Their internal waring will continue until they change their behaviour or settle into a belief that supports their actions.
With regards to stopping eating animals, people may posit that human lives are more important. That they are helping their own species and don’t have the resources to help other animals. In reality, all that is required is the mere act of changing what we eat. How easy and simple that is? By becoming plant-based, one person can save around 400 animals a year – imagine over their life! This change will not preclude them from assisting humans. Indeed this change will help preserve the planet and all its inhabitants. This is cognitive dissonance. Rationalising behaviour even knowing the arguments posed are irrational.
Want to make the change?
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