Our explorations this evening will take us through
perspectives from behavioral psychology, clinical psychology, psychiatry,
cultural anthropology, linguistics and sociology. [ ----- What else
did you expect from a professor? Pay attention. There will be a
short quiz after the lecture.]
Starting with a few definitions, we need to
make clear what I mean when I talk about physiological, psychological
and emotional well-being.
If we need a statement that applies to all
living creatures, we can answer like this:
The fundamental requirement for physiological
and psychological well-being is an organism in harmony
with its environment, an organism living in equilibrium
between its sources of stress the demands it faces
and its resources. We need to point out that the word
environment goes beyond physical properties, and includes behavioral
and social properties.
With this in mind, let me share a quotation
from a distinguished philosopher, Bertrand Russell. He wrote,
"Where the environment is stupid or
prejudiced or cruel, it is a sign of merit to be out of harmony
On the face of it, it would appear to be supportive
of the challenges that regularly face the community of vegetarians,
and strengthen their resolve to continue to swim against the mainstream
current. But although it is encouraging, it raises some troubling
issues regarding some of the requirements for what we have called
behavioral and emotional well-being: Can it ever be truly healthful
to be "out of harmony" with ones environment? The
opposite of "harmony" is "discord" or "dissonance."
The dictionary offers as synonyms for "discord"...,
strife, contention, dissension, conflict, and clash.
If ones life is distorted by any of the
above, what would the individuals stress level be like? How
much tranquility would we find in that persons life? We know
that both conflict and ambiguity generate high levels of stress
and anxiety. These properties of the environment are known to lead
to high levels of hormones that put the cardiovascular system at
risk, but in their totality, they stress and weaken
the immune system . Discord, in any form, is not good for human
beings -- vegetarian or otherwise.
We come back to a central issue: We can mount
major campaigns to control and diminish properties of the physical
environment that threaten our immediate and long-term survival.
We can attempt, through legislation and other governmental action,
to slow down the poisoning of our air and our drinking water, to
restrain or restrict the increase in radiation levels, and so forth.
We can make an effort to practice "safe eating," "safe
drinking" and "safe breathing." The really hard question
is "How can we work to protect our behavioral our social
environment, an environment that has such a broad impact on our
We have an acknowledged list of challenges to
psychological and emotional well-being that vegetarians experience.
We are excruciatingly aware of the occasions when the difference
in our food choices becomes apparent to those who are either serving
us or dining with us, and reactions cover a spectrum that ranges
from raised eyebrows all the way to annoyance, anger, resentment,
questions about our sanity, and outright attack.
There is a downside of vegetarian living.
There is an aspect of a vegetarian diet that is hazardous
to your health. Actually, Its not the diet thats
hazardous to your health its telling people about
it, and explaining your reasons that is the source of stress,
anxiety, etc. Its what happens when you feel strongly enough
about a set of moral values to change your life style, but feel
uncomfortable, intimidated or reticent about talking about or explaining
those values to others.
It is time to take a closer look at what makes
mainstream, meat-eating culture so harmful to its members. Our psychological
foundations the socially determined boundaries and contingencies
for the establishment and management of our behavior as a
culture are built on a base of moral axioms... statements
that are accepted as true without the need for proof as the basis
We need to start with some definitions... the
first one being "culture." When anthropologists
talk about culture, they are referring to the totality of behavior
patterns, beliefs and institutions the set of shared attitudes,
values, goals, and practices that characterizes a society and is
transmitted to succeeding generations.
"Acculturation" is the process
by which a human being acquires the culture of a particular society
What makes this definition so central to our
discussion is that it highlights the relationship between the "official,"
"published" set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and
practices, and what actually is observed in the population we are
I have compiled a description of "American
Culture" derived from brochures and Guide Books distributed
by travel agencies abroad to tourists who are thinking about coming
here for a visit, American school-textbook characterizations of
our culture, its historical foundations and its values, and Chamber
of Commerce-type publications about the delights of life in America.
From these sources, "American culture" is described as
being..."loving, caring and nurturing of its children, protective
of its disabled citizens and its fragile seniors, generous to its
needy members, and holds high moral standards. Although America
has been a "melting pot" of many different cultures, its
people are united by their commitment to peace, gentleness, and
the rejection of violence. Its educational system is concerned with
more than just academics; it places great stress on teaching and
modeling moral values. Although there is no "state religion,"
most of its citizens consider themselves to have in common a deep
respect for the ethical principles embodied in the Ten Commandments.
American children are taught in the home, in school and from
the pulpit to be kind to one another, to be kind to animals,
to abhor cruelty of any sort, that violence is not the way to resolve
conflicts, and that taking life is wrong."
And in this wonderful and glowing self-appreciation
of American culture we can find the syllabus for the acculturation
of its children, the package that is to be passed on to the next
While what the Chamber of Commerce publishes
is not very different from the publicly held stereotype of our culture,
the daily reality is glaringly different. It presents a culture
that accepts and sometimes even relishes and admires
behavior that flagrantly denies, contradicts and mindlessly violates
most of the high ethical and moral principles which it claims as
What are the psychological consequences of living
in a culture that is in profound discord with the moral principles
it teaches its children in the home, in religious settings, and
at school? What is the behavioral impact of a two-tier value-system
that is presumed to set the contingencies for the conduct of its
What happens to people who live in an atmosphere
of scrupulously maintained denial and deception deceiving
ones self and ones children ?
When the image, or self-perception of a culture
is not in accord with the behavior of its practitioners, we have
a case of behavioral dissonance.
There is a well-recognized behavioral pathology
that is usually characterized by withdrawal from reality, illogical
patterns of thinking, delusions, and accompanied in varying degrees
by other emotional, behavioral or intellectual disturbances. It
is called schizophrenia. Schizophrenia results from the coexistence
of disparate or antagonistic qualities, identities or activities.
My concerns are intimately tied to what emerges
as a two-tiered, internally contradictory system for acculturating
the children in our society. In brief, we typically raise children
from birth to five or six years in a kind of fantasy-land of ideal
behavior on the part of the worlds inhabitants... a "land
of goodness and mercy," a land where the animals are our friends,
and we are the friends of the animals. The picture books and the
childrens storybooks do not show scenes of bloodshed and other
forms of physical violence. Children talk to cows and the cows talk
back. The models for right conduct very often appear as talking
mice and ducks and hens, as wise old bears, and the like. There
are pictures of animal mothers with their animal babies, scenes
that reinforce the idea that a child is protected by, and safe with,
his or her mother. We talk about the birds and the bees as models
of reproductive behavior... how wonderful it is that there are no
children of divorce, no child abuse or neglect, no battles between
mother and father. And birds commonly build their nests before
they mate. The animals that romp through the pages of childrens
picture books are never seen hanging upside down in a slaughterhouse
or in pieces on a dinner plate. All is in full accord with world
as prophesied by Isaiah... "where none will hurt or destroy
on Gods holy mountain."
This kind of acculturation sets the moral climate
for little children. What happens when they get older? They are
subjected to a behavioral reconditioning program that is required
for complete acculturation and participation in the denials and
delusions of the adult world.
Psychologists employ the term cognitive map
to refer to relationships between the innumerable things that people
learn. It suggests an image of a map that shows what fits with what,
what ideas, what labels, what responses are appropriate in what
settings, what contexts call for a special set of rules. Cognitive
maps also indicate appropriate attitudes and feelings that are linked
to other items on the map.
The first stage of acculturation we have talked
about created a distinctive cognitive map for the child. She has
learned what goes with what, when and with what sorts of associated
feelings. The cognitive map of the Garden of Eden is utterly beautiful.
Somewhere around the age of kindergarten, it
is deemed time for the end of innocence, and preparation for entry
into "the real world," a world where there are people
who are mean, hurtful, cruel, deceitful, hostile, exploitative,
violent and murderous. It is now time for the beginning of some
serious disillusionment, to carry out a culturally sanctioned program
of systematic desensitization. The animals in the picture books
change from fantasy friends, who have feelings, and behave just
like people, to objects of utility.
It remains for the cognitive map of the child
to be rewritten and refined so as to create a list of those members
of the animal kingdom who fall "properly" and "logically"
under the shelter of socially acceptable human compassion, and which
animals are excluded from the circle of our compassion. This section
of the unwritten textbook the "Manual for Desensitizing
Children to Cruelty, and Adapting Them to Live in the Real World"
goes beyond simply giving a list of the animals who can be excluded
from the injunction to "be kind to animals; Section II gives
the general principles elaborating the circumstances or conditions
under which any animal may be denied the protection of human
The "Good List" exempts from the slaughterhouse
and/or the dinner table, those animals whom our culture describes
as cute, lovable, cuddly, loyal, affectionate or noble. These are
any and all of the animals we call pets not only dogs and
cats, but gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, iguanas, parrots or other
exotic animals. This list also includes those animals whose primary
usefulness to humans is in their performance, like race horses,
homing pigeons, circus elephants and animals in the zoo.
This may be an appropriate place to refer to
the T-shirts and bumper stickers that say: "If you eat animals
called dinner, how come you dont eat animals called pets?"
Getting off this "zinger" may make vegetarians feel better.
Behaviorally, it represents an attempt to challenge the behavior
of meat-eaters by making them feel so mortified and shamed by their
logical inconsistencies, that the only way for them to achieve their
life-sustaining logical consistency would be for them either to
stop eating cows and chickens, or start eating dogs and cats.
The central point here, is precisely what our
culture has defined as acceptable and unacceptable compassionate
behavior according to the name or word that is used to identify
some entity. It means that any creature that can be bought in a
pet shop, or captured and christened "pet" can be legally,
and as socially acceptable behavior protected, defended
and kept from harm. Any animal that has some utility is outside
the law... either civil, criminal or cultural. Attempts to display
our compassion for these animals is seen as irrelevant, irreverent
or (to use technical language) just plain crazy. Whichever category
they fall into, however, all animals can be "property"
they can be bought, sold, or otherwise disposed of.
These "adjustments" to childrens
cognitive maps actually evoke the notion of an "ethical map."
Little children are rigorously, and insistently taught
as a rule that killing is wrong. In early childhood
there are rarely any clauses in fine print appended to this lesson.
But this lesson is only a preliminary, infantile, "G-rated,"and
provisional version of the rule.
In the "Adult Rated" version of our
culture, we have a script in which killing the ultimate violence
is a societally acceptable practice when applied to non-exempt animals.
When we have a human whose outrageous behavior is characterized
as "like an animal," it is considered socially acceptable
to kill that human.
In a way, we have a cultural formula that ranks
living creatures in terms of their distance from the core of humans
(like us), whose killing is called "murder." Some humans
called "criminals" may be killed it is called "execution."
Other humans, citizens or soldiers of nations that have been renamed
"enemies" may be killed in "war" in which
killing is called "heroic service to ones country."
This is also called "patriotism."
We have only just glanced at the implications
and extent of our susceptibility as adults to the names
that characterize and control the constraints on our
ethical perceptions, and on our behavior.
We need to reflect for a moment on the psychological
pathologies of a population of adults who are fully aware
perhaps even awfully aware on a conscious level
of the need to reshape childrens perspectives so that they
may ultimately become unthinking, automatic, guilt-free carnivores.
When things go awry, and the children of meat-eaters become vegetarian,
they can be a source of annoyance and frustration. The children
are inclined to ask how come their parents still eat the flesh of
dead animals. It can be very disconcerting for a parent to be put
on the defensive regarding issues of ethical commitment. When the
grown-up children of meat-eaters become vegetarian, it marks, in
some way, an ironic triumph of their parents early educational
efforts to inculcate an empathetically based respect for the world
of living creatures. It can be taken to mean to the parents that
their children have ultimately accepted the validity of those early
lessons. It also means that subsequent parental and societal efforts
to re-educate this child, to re-write his or her ethical map, have
failed to eradicate the values established during early childhood.
Vegetarian adult children typically seek some kind of accommodation,
and while some succeed in having their parents accept and
respect their change in diet and life-style, in some families
the tension continues for years.
Cultural anthropologists have long noted that
food is not just nutritional intake. It is a basic part of
the social structure of the group. Which substances are considered
fit to eat and which are either forbidden or simply revolting, how
food is prepared, and which special foods are an intrinsic part
of religious observance or communal celebrations.
"It wouldnt be Easter without a baked
ham." "How can you celebrate Passover without gefilte
fish?" "But you do, at least, have turkey for Thanksgiving!"
Attempting to lead people to make sweeping and fundamental changes
in their diet is like trying to "re-engineer" vast areas
of their culture. When people sense that someone is attempting to
intrude on their culture they are often more than just resistant...
they defend, and they strike back at the invader.
Efforts at promoting the acceptance and the
spread of a vegan view of the world will clearly have to address
the challenges not as an issue of simplistic "behavior
modification," but as broad-scale "cultural values modification."
Successful and sustained suppression of empathy
absolutely depends on obscuring, disguising, or simply lying about
how meat, fish, poultry, eggs and milk are actually produced for
As soon as we break through the wall of carefully
maintained ignorance, it is obvious that we are touching old chords
of compassion, stirring old feelings of conscience.
The strongest power to move people to think
about and act on those feelings, is the power of emotion.
Gandhi put it in clear perspective:
"If you want something really important
to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move
the heart also."
We have had little success in getting people
to make major changes in their lives purely on the basis of "facts."
While we obviously need the support of solid data, it takes more
than "reason" to lead someone to exchange the comfort
of old and accustomed ways for the challenge of a new and unfamiliar
discipline. It takes the added power of emotion... of feeling...of
compassion... of caring about the plight of others, be these "others"
fellow humans or non-humans, be it the plight of people suffering
from hunger or toxic environments, or the plight of animals suffering
in the slaughterhouse, on the dairy farm or in the hen-house. Without
the spark of emotion, it is almost impossible to ignite peoples
To attempt changes in deeply-rooted, culturally
established value systems is a thoroughly daunting task. We do have
a potent resource, however: the "curriculum" of that first-level,
early educational program that people were enrolled in as children
the acculturation program that established as ideals
the values of benevolence, of empathy, of kindness, of the primary
"laws" regarding killing, cruelty, the kinship of people
and animals, inflicting pain, and the rejection of violence.
Summing up our diagnosis of mainstream, meat-eating
culture, we must note that the treatment of animals and the consumption
of their flesh are far more than just incidental schizophrenic strains
in an otherwise harmoniously balanced profile. They represent a
deep root system that nourishes a culture that is grossly conflicted
about all forms of violence.
The well-being of vegetarians calls for tackling
two kinds of Environmental protection:
1., Creating, protecting and cultivating a social/behavioral
environment that supports the values and attitudes that make vegetarianism
a sub-culture in which there is a central commitment to seeking
harmony between its values and its standards of behavior. We need
to create and maintain social islands of safety from antagonistic
challenge, social settings which affirm and dignify our distinctive
behavior and the value-system that supports it. This kind of defensive
action is life-sustaining. Being together with people who are like-minded
and like-spirited is essential for our survival and for our growth.
2., Making active and constructive efforts to
reach -- and change-- those elements of the mainstream, meat-eating
culture that threaten our well-being. I mean in no way to imply
any kind of intrinsic malevolence on the part of meat-eaters. Some
of my best friends eat meat. But there is no question but that the
Meat-Eaters' Culture is engaged in a form of Collective Collusion
for Confusion" ... a tacit agreement to distort and hide the
truth about the process of turning mammals into meat, birds
into poultry, and fish into seafood.
If mainstream, meat-eating culture is afflicted
by falsehood, the remedy is truth. If that culture hides behind
half-truth, the remedy is whole-truth.
If people's troubled conscience is soothed by
euphemisms -- using nice words for nasty deeds-- the first step
in the cure is calling things by their true names. Flooded with
the truth, some people will lose the protection of their euphemisms,
and stop doing nasty things.
If a person shows discomfort with the truth,
shall we respect his discomfort -- and strengthen his evasions by
letting the lie that comforts him go unchallenged? Would we let
a defamatory slur against some racial, ethnic or religious group
To let an untruth go unchallenged is to extend
its vigor and its life span.
There is an old Latin proverb..."Qui tacet,
licet." ... "He who keeps silent, gives approval."
In the small, but growing numbers of vegetarians,
meat-eaters sense a threat to a comfortable way of life, made possible
by a blissful ignorance. They are behaving in a completely innocent
way to protect that ignorance and their peace of mind. In all likelihood,
I suspect that meat-eaters would prefer to deal with vegetarians
in accord with a new social contract "Dont Ask,
Dont Tell." That is, "I wont ask
where my food comes from, and exactly what I am eating, and you
wont tell me."
The protection of our vegetarian sub-culture
and the healing of the sickness of the mainstream, meat-eating culture
depends on our readiness to commit ourselves to tell the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing less than the whole truth.