Selling Us Apathy

The other night I ordered a pizza from a popular chain. If you’ve read my other articles, you can probably guess that it was a vegan pizza. The website where I ordered it even had no cheese as a standard option. But the box they sent it in told a different story.

The top of the box named and pictured five cows. The company hailed them as their unsung heroes, calling them an important part of their team.

I guess they picked the wrong box for my cheeseless pizza.

It’s hard to read it with a non-vegan eye. Was I supposed to take the box seriously? Was I supposed to be moved to a newfound respect for cows’ importance in the web of pizza? What was the purpose of this?

For one thing, I doubt those five cows produce enough cheese for the entire chain’s pizzas. So obviously it’s not meant to be taken seriously. That became even more obvious when they closed off the text with, “So next time you come across a Bessie, Buttercup or Daisy, don’t tip her over. Just tip your hat.” That, right there, seemed to me to sum up our approach to animals and the idea that they have rights: convince ourselves that the animals we use are happy and valued, but don’t take it seriously enough to really find out.

I’m convinced that most people do really care about animals and don’t want to hurt them. But the industry is working hard to convince us that animals are treated humanely, that we need to eat them, and that eating meat is part of our place in the food chain. The pizza box wasn’t there to inform me about important members of the team. It wasn’t there to say something about the relationship between humans and cows. The box was there to sell me a message: that the company respects animals; that they’re fun and witty; that animal rights isn’t something to take completely seriously.

A coworker of mine used to work at a chicken facility. She never really explained the horror of what she experienced there, but she didn’t eat chicken for years after leaving that place. When she told the story she laughed at how ridiculous and sentimental her reaction was. But it sounded to me like a genuine reaction when confronted with the reality of the situation. I might have wished that her experience in the chicken facility would have made her question what must go on in cow facilities, pig facilities, dairy farms. But instead, she convinced herself, and only years later, that it was all necessary and that feeling compassion was silly.

I think this kind of advertising is actually very clever. It’s got a mix of some important ingredients – it addresses animal rights objections, at least obliquely; it makes us feel good about our relationship with cows; and it makes the whole thing silly enough that it makes animal rights into something to laugh at. But by making the cows their heroes, they make a small concession that cows are important, and when someone makes a concession it gives the whole argument a feeling of genuineness. It tries to win the argument with witticism without really addressing any criticisms. The box doesn’t address whether Stella, Edna, Abigail, Estelle, and Nancy were happy.

It’s not just the animal industry, of course. I’ve recently seen a cell phone commercial that tries to sell the phone not by pointing out its virtues, but by stating that the consumer is smart enough to look up the phone on the internet and decide for themselves that it’s the best on the market. Totally clever. The thing to remember with advertising is that they’re not just trying to sell you a product. They’re trying to sell you on an idea. In the case of the phone, they’re selling you a self-image: that by buying this phone, you’re proving yourself to be savvy, hip, in-the-know; a modern person in the information age who isn’t susceptible to advertising but makes their own informed choices. In the case of the pizza box, it’s the illusion of compassion. But not the type of compassion where you actually feel anything difficult or heavy. It’s a lighthearted compassion. You’re supposed to eat their pizza and say, “Yeah, they really are the unsung heroes!” This pizza makes you feel positively magnanimous. Who wouldn’t want to eat it?

And heck, we live in a culture where feeling raw and vulnerable is to be avoided at all costs. We don’t want to face hard truths and then figure out how to change our behavior. We want to feel like things are just fine and life will continue like normal. So often when people encounter images or video of what happens, let’s say in a slaughterhouse, their reaction is not, “Have my actions contributed to this? Is there anything I can do to lessen this?” Often it’s, “I wish I hadn’t seen this. I don’t want to know.”

If your goal is to feel comfortable all the time, it’s a great strategy. If your goal is to make the world a better place, it’s probably not very helpful.

Whitewashing and making light of the situation is a coping mechanism. And I totally get it. I do it too, probably more than I realize. And I certainly try to cover up my feelings with stoicism. Or like my friend who laughed at herself for being so horrified at the chicken plant that it moved her to change her behavior – I can think of times when I’ve shown contempt for my own natural compassion. Times I’ve sat in a theater thinking, “Don’t cry! People will see.”

Sometimes when we feel uncomfortable, we feel the need to double down and do more of the thing that’s making us uncomfortable. If you’ve read my article on cognitive dissonance you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes, what that means is that when we have tender feelings, we not only show contempt for the tender feelings themselves, but for the object of those tender feelings. Our own discomfort, and the need to feel comfortable again, can make us callous if we’re not careful.

PigButcheringSelfOf course I see vegetarian jokes all over the place. I see cows in advertisements exhorting me to eat more chicken. (How adorable! They want to live). I see chickens advertising eggs and live tuna selling me canned tuna, something they call suicide advertising. And sure, some of it is just to be funny. Some of it is because people really do think animal rights is just silly. But that’s not all there is to it.

Facing someone who has given up something that you haven’t is uncomfortable, whether or not you agree with them. But beyond even that, I think there’s still that initial horror that so many of us experienced as kids when we realized that meat comes from animals. We bury that by being nonchalant about it. That’s not the same thing as accepting it; it’s the difference between truly approving of something and being numb to it. In my own experience, I had an initial awakening experience and a flirtation with vegetarianism, years before I went fully vegetarian and finally vegan. During that time, every time I ate meat was not so much a vote in favor of human omnivorism, as me talking myself into it. Cognitive dissonance. I don’t think it’s just me.

There are many ways that we “tip our hat” to animals without doing anything really meaningful. But I think it’s a good sign, and in a moment I’ll tell you why.

The pizza box tried to turn the cows into heroes. I see a similar attitude among Pagans perhaps more than anywhere. We cite Native American hunters – because in people’s minds, Native Americans were one homogenous group with similar beliefs and did everything the same way, rather than an entire continent of different nations – and how they would pray for a willing animal to come forth, use every part, and give prayers of thanks. When we’re confronted with the reality of exploitation – usually when we’re confronted with someone who no longer exploits – we come up with these kinds of explanations. People aren’t normally thinking about this on a day to day basis. We aren’t thinking about our noble place in the food chain, how if we use every part it is magically non-exploitative. If a slaughterhouse worker waited for a willing animal, they’d be fired.

Native Americans didn’t all live in perfect harmony with the natural world. They drove species to extinction. They clearcut the forests of North America to build cities. Putting them on a pedestal isn’t showing respect. It puts me in mind of the David Wong quote: “But remember, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.”

We tip our hats to animals when the crowd cheers for a particularly passionate bull to be spared at a bullfight. When a single turkey is pardoned at Thanksgiving. This is a way of both honoring our natural respect for animals and not taking it seriously at all, both at the same time. In a way I’m kind of impressed.

Animal exploitation doesn’t just exploit non-humans. The rationalizations we use, the bacon jokes we make, all close us off from our natural compassion. A closed heart is not usually the goal of Pagan practice, though of course just like Native Americans, Pagans don’t all have the same religion or ideals.

Tipping the hat is a good sign because it shows that we really do have an innate respect for other animals and do want to live peacefully with them. There’s a reason we hide what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, and a reason the industry wants to make undercover recordings illegal. People often don’t want to know, but more than that, the industry certainly doesn’t want you to know. It doesn’t want you to have a chance to make an informed decision, or to even think about it at all.

A Buddhist podcaster once said to his audience that if they could mindfully eat meat, then he would support it. I’d like to give you a similar challenge. Are you able to do that? To truly examine your relationship with animals, to examine your arguments to see if there are any rationalizations in there? To examine whether “I see no problem here” is just a cover for “I don’t care if there’s a problem here” or “I don’t want there to be a problem here”?

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