…and some we eat and love. Like most children, past and present, I had an immense love for animals. Just like today, they had figured prominently in storybooks, cartoons, movies, and games. Even folk songs, lullabies, and schoolwork referenced them. The most common animals we grew up with, aside from pets, were domesticated: cows, pigs, chickens, and the like – the same animals we nonetheless simultaneously consumed.
I still love animals of course. But now I’m old enough to recognize the strange contradiction with which we treat them. Even in our youngest years, when we anthropomorphize and adore animals the most, we were able to eat them with regularity and casual indifference. We knew what we were eating, and we could connect each animal with the meat they provided. Yet that didn’t stop us from caring about them anyway. We were still able to reconcile their slaughter with our love.
Reading a literary classic like Charlotte’s Web, a family favorite about a pig being saved from slaughter, didn’t impact the widespread consumption of a culinary classic, bacon. Visiting petting zoos, another common childhood pastime, rarely ever lead to serious doubts about eating meat. People of all ages adored the animals all the same, even though the overwhelming majority of them were probably meat eaters. Adults saw no conflict surrounding us with images and stories of personified animals, even as they taught us that eating meat was normal and okay.
Obviously, nothing has changed. Kids are still going through these experiences, and meat eating is still ever-present. The explanations are plenty: children don’t know the extent to which these animals suffer when they are slaughtered, or they only superficially acknowledge the fact that they’re eating them – they know, but not in a truly deep way. Then there is the most potent influence, in the form of social and parental pressure. Meat is unavoidable and ubiquitous, compromising nearly every major dish (at least in the West). We’re taught that it’s abnormal and unhealthy not to eat it.
Cognitive dissonance is perhaps the biggest factor to explain this paradox, as it explains why even conscious adults – including those who are self-professed animal lovers – continue to eat meat in spite of their sincere compassion. Our complex minds are capable of holding conflicting beliefs at the same time. We can compartmentalize very different things in such a way that we can believe or disbelieve them periodically, depending on the context. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around (no pun intended), but that’s the way the mind works.
I’m currently making an effort to become a vegetarian, which isn’t easy, given the ubiquity of meat in our society (and the expectation that eating meat is the “normal” thing to do). For a long time, I shared the same incongruous approach towards animals that most people do (vegetarians remain a small, if somewhat larger, minority). I can’t recall when exactly I changed my stance, or what triggered it. Perhaps I just thought long and hard about it, enough to finally break through my mind’s internal barriers. Whatever the case, I’m doing my best to synchronize my ethical concerns with my actions, however difficult that is in practice, given the lingering temptation of meat (I’ve gotten over all but chicken, and I’m still technically a “pescetarian” aka seafood eater).
To be clear, I’m not saying those of you who are omnivorous are immoral or unethical. The compunction to eat meat is very strong, and most people only avoid it for medical or religious reasons. I’m just analyzing a very curious relationship that we have with animals, and expressing my desire to at least try to address it in my own way.