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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
  Stanley M. Sapon, Ph.D.e | To Tell the Truth

To Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth....
or Perhaps a Little Bit Less

Challenges to psychological and emotional well-being
related to lifestyle and diet choices.

Stanley M. Sapon, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Psycholinguistics, Univ. of Rochester (NY)

Presented at a Plenary Session of the
North American Vegetarian Society’s Summerfest, July 10, 1998

[Stanley Sapon]I want to talk to you this evening about a theme that has long been waiting for serious exploration. For many years now, we have had an abundance of truly enlightening and inspiring talks by distinguished speakers dealing with Issues of vegetarian lifestyle and personal health, the health of the environment, and the "health," or well-being of farm animals.

Physicians continue to add to a long list of medical disasters that threaten people who eat animal foods, but several years ago, Dr. Michael Klaper offered a broad diagnostic examination of "The Patient Called Earth." Inspired by his example, I want to speak, as a specialist in behavior, about another set of issues -- issues that relate diet and lifestyle to concerns with psychological and emotional well-being...the "mental health," if you will, of the mainstream, meat-eating culture of our country.


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 with it."

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 one’s environment? The opposite of "harmony" is "discord" or "dissonance."

The dictionary offers as synonyms for "discord"..., strife, contention, dissension, conflict, and clash.

If one’s life is distorted by any of the above, what would the individual’s stress level be like? How much tranquility would we find in that person’s 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 lives?

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, It’s not the diet that’s hazardous to your health— it’s telling people about it, and explaining your reasons that is the source of stress, anxiety, etc. It’s 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 for argument.

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 from infancy.

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 studying.

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 generation.

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 its distinction.

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 members?

What happens to people who live in an atmosphere of scrupulously maintained denial and deception – deceiving one’s self and one’s 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 world’s 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 children’s 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 children’s 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 God’s 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 compassion.

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 don’t 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 children’s 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 one’s 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 children’s 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 wouldn’t 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 the market.

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 people’s passions.

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 pass uncommented?

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 — "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." That is, "I won’t ask where my food comes from, and exactly what I am eating, and you won’t 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.


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