Why We Cry for One, But Not for Billions
As 2019 progresses, eventfully one might say; we humans find ourselves at a fascinating point in our moral development and attitudes towards animals—one that’s driven, to a large degree, by social media. Veganism is on the brink of transition, becoming a movement with the potential to change the world. It’s no longer merely a trend, nor a niche lifestyle—vegans are now part of the mainstream consciousness.
However, as with all social movements, change and progress also bear backlash and resistance. Fundamentally, people do not want to be told they are wrong—and we should approach this fact very carefully. The disconnect between loving animals and eating them is so pervasive and embedded in our culture; there’s no question it will be challenged and fought at every step.
But, slowly, it’s working. Look around. It’s happening.
The human race is intrinsically connected to animals. We feel love for them, we keep them in our homes, and we experience sadness and anger when we see an animal hurt or in distress. We feel joy and calm in the presence of animals. For example, a recent UK program allows convicted criminals to spend time with baby goats to develop feelings of responsibility. We grieve the loss of our pets as much as the loss of a human. We’re inherently connected to them.
As children, we automatically love all animals: our instinct is to embrace and play with them. This makes sense because—and this is often forgotten—we are animals too. But as we grow older, and far too soon, the conditioning of speciesism begins. On our plates, and around our tables, we begin to separate those we love from those we pay to have brutally murdered for our “food.”
Interestingly, the empathy towards non-human animals remains in all of us through adulthood, but on another level—one that’s hidden deep amongst the rest of our tangled moral compass.
In 2015, a Minneapolis dentist paid $55K to have a twelve-year-old lion named Cecil lured from a protected area so he could kill the animal for sport. What followed was a global outcry for this beloved, black-maned giant. But there is no global mourning of the thousands of lions and other animals who suffer and perish every year in zoos for our own entertainment.
In 2018, four dogs were tied together and burned to death in Cairo. The incident caused outrage when photos circulated on social media, citizens demanding improved laws against animal cruelty. Whenever social media picks up on the abuse of a cat, dog, or orca—such as a photo, in 2015, of a dog muzzled with duct tape or just last year when a dog died in an overhead bin on a United Airlines flight—we see an immediate viral response around the world.
So why is it that we will cry for one, but not for billions? Why is it that we mourn Sota the dog and take to the streets to protest her death, yet most people wouldn't consider protesting the 58 billion land animals being raised in miserable conditions and slaughtered every year for humans to eat and wear? At Animal Clock, there is a timer which displays in real time the number of animals, by species, we have been murdered in the UK so far this year. The numbers are beyond comprehension.
If I show you a piglet or a lamb, a real baby animal, in real life–if I take this baby animal and put it in your arms–your instinct will be to adore it. You will smile, laugh, and be in awe in of its beauty. However, if I show you footage of countless baby animals being harmed in the most brutal way imaginable, or if I explain to you the common modern practices in animal agriculture committed against billions of those babies, the common response is to turn away, to flip a switch, to put fingers in your ears.
So Why Do We Feel Compassion for One, but Not for Many? Why Do We Feel Outrage so Selectively?
Lars Oystein Ursin of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, describes The Meat Paradox: “When we eat beef, chicken wings, hot dogs or spaghetti Bolognese, we do it in denial. Already, by referring to what we eat as "beef" instead of "cow," we have created a distance between our food and an animal with abilities to think and feel. Philosophers and animal rights activists have long claimed that we avoid thinking about the animal we eat, and that this reduces the feeling of unease. This mechanism is described by the ‘disassociation hypothesis.’"
Vegans encounter this disassociation daily, and it’s frustrating and confounding to most of us. The term “cognitive dissonance” helps to explain the phenomenon of the disconnect. Coined in 1957 by American psychologist Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance describes "the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values."
Legendary activist Gary Yourofsky has spoken at length about speciesism, and Dr. Melanie Joy created the term "carnism" in her studies on the psychology of eating meat. Carnists can continue to regard the eating of animals as normal by categorizing certain animals as food objects—they can say “pork” instead of pig, and “beef” instead of cow, because this helps to displace their guilt and maintain a disconnect. This use of language also removes any attribution of qualities like intelligence or emotional capabilities from our perception of these “food objects.”
How We Can Make Use of Social Media and Selective Moral Outrage?
As a movement, as a collective, vegans have the power to harness this rising selective moral outrage. Instead of preaching, ask, ask, and ask more. Invite the people around you to confront their moral system, to ask themselves why our compassion and pity extends to the one dog, or the one lion, but not to the 58 billion.
When meat eaters are feeling the dissonance, which leads to feelings of frustration and often anger (due to the conflict of guilt in their own moral system), it is better to ask than to push. Why is it okay to eat animals? For what reason do we show compassion for one but not for billions? Why are these practices acceptable? If we implore someone to search inside and provide a genuine reason, they may come to see that none truly exists.
Selective moral outrage? Yes, we are angry. People are becoming filled with outrage when they see animal abuse—when they hear of Yulin, or Korean dog farms, or when a dog is shot by police. This is powerful; we should embrace it! This is the correct response to outrageous acts of violence against our friends. The part which we should try to change, as vegans, is the selective part. Let’s feel furious together and encourage our friends and family to have such responses. We have reached the time where global consciousness is starting to accept veganism. It’s the next step that’s critical.
Help others to reach the paradigm shift--to recognise the moral disconnect in loving animals and eating them. Now is the time for us to help others to repair that disconnect, and to make this vital connection which once existed within every one of us.