Do you believe animal cruelty is wrong? Chances are you do, if you’re like 96 percent of people living in the United States. And if you’re like an estimated 97 percent of this same population, you also eat animals. Deep down, you may feel uneasy about this, especially when confronted by the abundance of evidence demonstrating that consuming animal flesh is bad for human health, is bad for the environment and is especially bad for the billions of animals raised and killed every year for food. In fact, you may feel downright conflicted.
Psychologists call this feeling “cognitive dissonance,” which is defined as the discomfort we experience when holding two incompatible thoughts (cognitions) at the same time. For example, millions of people smoke tobacco in this country, despite knowing that smoking is bad for them.
Activists in the animal-rights movement frequently discuss cognitive dissonance, musing about people who insist they love animals yet eat pigs, cows, chickens, fish, turkeys and sheep as if these beings somehow don’t qualify as animals. We even wonder what could be going on with animal shelters and humane societies that offer meat at fundraisers. They serve hot dogs at dog walks (cute, huh?), sausage at their pancake breakfasts and corpses of all kinds at their annual dinners (well, perhaps no dogs or cats are on the menu). If these “animal advocates” cannot make the connection -- if they can’t see they are supporting the very abuse they claim to be fighting -- what hope is there for the rest of the world?
Trouble is, many people regard meat-eating as a right, perhaps even a God-given entitlement. Humans enjoy the taste of meat, and they argue that we’ve been eating animals for thousands of years. It’s tradition, meat-lovers claim. Why change?
Well, history is full of traditions that we now agree were repugnant. Indeed, every social movement that had any impact -- whether it’s the abolition of slavery, the suffrage movement, civil rights, the child-protection movement or reforms for farm workers -- was initially backed by a person or a group thought to represent the minority opinion, and those opposed to them tried to provoke the fear that overturning the status quo would lead to chaos: the end of slavery would result in economic ruin, granting women the right to vote or banning child labor would weaken national strength, passing laws against child abuse would dissolve families and so on.
Animal-rights activists are now hearing the same sort of nonsense from those who profit by abusing animals. According to them, the only way to feed the world, cure diseases or advance scientific knowledge is by using animals. To them, animals are not sentient individuals with their own interests, but commodities to be exploited for human profit, amusement, convenience or taste. Taste, for crying out loud! A fleeting gustatory pleasure versus animal cruelty that includes crushing the skulls of pigs, scalding fully conscious birds and butchering cows while they are still alive. No wonder people feel conflicted.
What would make an otherwise ethical person disregard the indescribable suffering of ten billion animals a year in the U.S.? Is it simply a case of one cognition losing out in the dissonance war?
Part of the answer is habit, which animal agribusiness abets with a huge marketing machine to make people feel good about the Standard American Diet and silence the cognitive dissonance lurking within us. Advertising campaigns, for example, perpetuate the myth that health and even masculinity require meat protein: macho-themed ads tell us that beef is what’s for dinner and steakhouse commercials depict cowboys cooking dead animals over a campfire. So entrenched is animal protein as a nutritional tenet that many people in Europe and North America regard meat eating as fundamental to maintaining physical fitness, even in the face of tremendous evidence to the contrary. Never mind that people throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America have long thrived on diets based on grains and legumes and in which meat is much less common. (That model is sadly changing, thanks in part to fast food; now once healthier populations are succumbing to ailments like heart disease, cancer and obesity in ever-increasing numbers.)
Meanwhile, marketing campaigns telling us that “milk does a body good” are designed to allay any misgivings we may have about drinking the lactations of another species, and ads depicting “happy cows” grazing on green pastures challenge evidence from animal advocates that show how dairy cows suffer -- and become hamburger after being abused for five years, a fraction of a cow’s natural lifespan. Not a very “happy” ending.
One theory of cognitive dissonance holds that it is not the result of people experiencing dissonance between opposing cognitions; instead, it surfaces when people view their actions as conflicting with their self-image. For the meat-eater, this means not wanting to see themselves as contributing to animal abuse; they would rather not hear the truth than think they are selfish and cruel. Such was the case with a woman I dined with once who asked about an article I was working on for an animal-rights magazine. When I proceeded to tell her about the lives of egg-laying hens in battery cages, she cut me off -- abruptly raising a hand from the roasted chicken breast she was cutting into -- and told me: “I don’t want to know about it.” In other words, just thinking about animal cruelty would threaten her desire to eat meat. Unfortunately, as social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson observe in their book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” many people reduce cognitive dissonance by justifying their behavior rather than making a change.
No social change occurs overnight, however, and cognitive dissonance frequently serves as an agent to reform. The first step in accommodating new ideas -- whether it’s abolishing slavery or going vegan -- is often holding another view in balance long enough to critically examine it, weighing a new concept against popular opinion. So, for those readers who believe in the primacy of animal flesh and regard eating meat, eggs and dairy foods as the right of every human being, consider for a moment the suffering that is carefully hidden from the public:
- Chickens in factory farms who are bred to grow so quickly that their brief lives are filled with misery: fragile bones, lung congestion, limb deformities and heart failure are common.
- Pigs who spend their lives in crates so small they are unable to even turn around.
- Cows who are strapped into what the dairy industry calls a “rape rack” and artificially inseminated each year so they will give milk. Their newborn calves are taken away, the females going back into the dairy system while many of the males are crammed into small crates and later sold as veal. Mother cows are slaughtered when their milk production declines.
- Ocean-dwelling animals who are scooped from the sea by the billions each year to slowly suffocate or be boiled alive.
- Egg-laying hens who spend about two years packed into wire “battery” cages with other hens without room to spread a single wing. If she doesn’t die from untreated illness or uterine prolapse pushing out an egg, the exhausted hen is slaughtered as soon as her egg production declines.
- Male chicks hatched in the egg industry who are immediately gassed, ground up while fully conscious or flung into garbage bags to eventually suffocate.
The good news is we can all do something right now to improve the lives of animals, as well as help the planet and benefit our health. All we need to do is keep meat, eggs and dairy products off our plates. Yes, that requires we have an open mind and rethink some personal choices. It may mean facing the state of tension that characterizes cognitive dissonance. But before you cut into your next animal-based meal, I challenge you to “meet your meat” at www.meat.org and then ask yourself if your taste for flesh outweighs the terror a cow feels as she’s led to slaughter. Fortunately, it has never been easier to eat delicious, nutritious plant-based foods.
Just think about it.
Mark Hawthorne is the author of "Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism” (O Books).