Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

Over at Wooly Pig, Heath wrote a whole post in response to this question that a reader raised in the comments, and it’s been stuck in my head for the past few days:

How can you reconcile the relationship you develop with these animals with the act of slaughtering them for food? Do you own pets? I’m not trying to insult you but merely trying to understand what I, as a vegan, see as the cognitive dissonance of people like you who are intimately connected with both the raising and slaughtering of food animals.

Heath wrote a great post answering this, but it struck me that he wasn’t getting at the guy’s real issue — for him eating an animal with which one has had an intimate relationship seems unthinkable in the way that eating one’s pet is unthinkable, while for people who work with livestock (or, I’d argue, who hunt) the idea of eating an animal with whom no one had an intimate relationship, as in the case of most industrial and CAFO livestock, seems equally unthinkable.

The last fifty years have seen this huge demographic shift that has left enormous parts of our population with no lived experience around farming or livestock, and so the only relationship they have with animals is with their pets. No one goes through those formative experiences of having known livestock — animals that will eventually wind up on the table and so it seems more foreign and horrifying than perhaps it might if people had more actual experience of being around animals that die so that we can eat them. The things we are unfamiliar with are always somewhat frightening. The difference in American experience of living with livestock animals between when E.B. White wrote “The Death of a Pig” and when Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote “Two Pigs” a couple of weeks ago in the NY Times is such that the two writers could be living in different countries altogether. Where most people understood the waste that White’s dying pig represented, Klinkenborg, in a different America points out that:

The questions people ask make it sound as though I should be morally outraged at myself, as if it’s impossible to scratch the pigs behind the ears and still intend to kill them. If I belonged to a more coherent, traditional rural community — one that comes together for pig-butchering in the fall — I would get to celebrate the ritual in it all, the sudden abundance a well-fed pig represents. It’s hard to act that out when the cast is a gruff farmer and son, and my wife and me, who have been silenced by the solemnity of what we’re watching.

It’s the death of that “more coherent, traditional rural community” that I think is largely responsible for the gulf between people who have only ever known animals as pets, and those who have had relationships with the animals that wind up on their plates. And even when you’ve grown up with animals you’ll eat, it’s never easy. My friend Hope had hysterics every Christmas as a little kid when her dad would go out and kill the goose — she doesn’t raise her own cattle on her ranch because she admits she doesn’t know enough, but she does feel her family on beef she buys from her neighbors. Her kids are growing up eating animals they’ve watched graze outside their windows all summer. They know that meat comes from an animal, and not from a plastic package at the store (and Hopie knows they’re eating animals that were sustainably raised and aren’t full of hormones and antibiotics).

A blog post is too limited a venue to puzzle out the moral ambiguities of veganism vs. meat eating, and while I haven’t read Singer et al, I understand the anti-anthropocentric argument upon which the animals rights movement is built. I guess I just don’t necessarily agree with it. I grew up around throroughbred horses — they are unnatural creatures because we have made them so — high strung, beautiful, big hearted, and on occasion, a little crazy. There is likewise nothing natural about a domestic cattle, sheep or swine — we have, over the centuries, created these creatures to meet specific human needs. In return, the least we can do is husband them appropriately — keep them out of CAFOs, raise them humanely and treat them as the sentient beings they are. We could also work to keep heritage breeds alive by breeding and eating them — otherwise they’re going to die out and we’re going to be left with a very limited gene pool which won’t do either of our species any good.

Everything dies and for me, eating sustainably-produced meat, as well as eating the vegetables out of my garden is a way to connect to the inevitable. (But then again, I’m the one who planted my brother in the garden.) Maybe it’s the latent Catholic in me — but if we started treating our food less as a commodity, and more as a sacrament, then perhaps we’d all be better off.

7 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance

  1. You might be interested in this blog that a Seattle chef named Tamara Murphy wrote, The Life of a Pig. She followed a litter of piglets from birth to slaughter; they were slaughtered for her, and she and her restaurant used everything they could to hold a “Celebration of the Pig” dinner. As the pigs are growing week to week, she interrogates her own thoughts and feelings about the process of converting cute animal to dinner. Narratively/emotionally it is not a perfect project; I was disappointed she didn’t attend the moment of slaughter, which seems to me the crucial act of witness. But her exploration of her attitude toward meat is infinitely preferable to the much-too-common, “Hmm, this animal probably didn’t have a good life. But wow, it’s tasty” ethics-dodging that’s out there.

  2. I’m glad you responded to this comment over at Wooly Pig, because I felt that it wasn’t really addressed, either. I was having a hard time putting a finger on what I wanted to say in response, but you have pinned it much better than I in your discussion of breeding over the last 12,000+ years and our resulting relationship with and responsibility for these animals. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

  3. I *love* this post. As another once and perhaps future (ya never know!) Catholic, the idea of food as sacrament is hitting the nail on the head. As a hunter, the game my husband and I take is looked upon as such an incredible blessing and gift. It makes me so grateful to even see it in the freezer! When we begin raising animals to eat, I imagine we will regard them as equally huge blessings from the beginning of their lives. So, of course, I will treat them lovingly!

    To raise an animal from infancy to maturity humanely and in good health and for the animal then to feed and sustain you, is inherently intimate and also very practical and natural. I think that the Klinkenborg quote spoke to that very well. Great post!

  4. I don’t see any cognitive dissonance raising animals to eat. I have no guilt over eating another be they mineral, plant or animal. Everybody eats to live. That is the nature of Nature.

    Plants eat. We eat plants. Animals eat plants or other animals. We eat other animals. We in our turn will be eaten by plants, bacteria and worms – assuming you don’t go for the wasteful cremation or preservation routes or perhaps tangle with another animal that eats you. It is the cycle of life.

    I raise pigs, scratch them behind the ears, rub their backs, talk to them and make sure that they have a good life out on our pastures. When the time comes they will die for me – I cherish them both in their life and their death. Good life. Good food. A better life for them means better quality food for us and the customers of our small family farm.

    Buy Locally, Do Good, Live Well & Prosper.



  5. Really good and really interesting post. I expect (and other readers maybe :)) new useful posts from you!
    Good luck and successes in blogging!

  6. I do agree.

    From a Christian perspective, the concept that the gift of the animal’s life being used to sustain our lives goes back to Genisis. We should, nay must, honor and respect those lives that God has granted us the pleasure of knowing and enjoying, both in death as in life.

    I think it must be that we need to reconnect to the concept that all life is sacred and therefore we must make the most of it. To just allow an animal to pass away without other life benifiting from it, is a waste of the sacred.

  7. Great Post! Many of us are trying to narrow the gap between those who know and those who no longer have a connection. It’s not as wide a rift as some would make it. As a child growing up in suburbia I never came close to any livestock, save perhaps a horse occasionally. We had plenty of pets though. I had never seen an animal slaughtered, or thought about where my food came from until I was 14. Then, it seemed the most natural thing–cattle equals beef. But again, one isolated incident during a farm stay gets forgotten in a busy life and I didn’t face my food on a blood and guts level for another 10 years. Now it is a normal occurrence in my and my children’s lives.

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