Wednesday, December 28, 2011

#13 - Christmas, Pets and Avatar.

Our society is experiencing mass-scale cognitive dissonance. I think it might be a combination of adoration for my grandparents dogs, re-watching Avatar and reading an extensive amount of Peter Singer that lead me to this - perhaps melodramatic - conclusion. I visited my grandparents for christmas and told them that I had recently become a vegetarian. As usual I was met with the usual mixture of bewilderment and disbelief - like the idea is so foreign that it is unthinkable. I repeated my usual explanatory spiel (it's not about the sanctity of animal life, just about suffering, uncertainty of origins of supermarket meat, etc) and tried to move on, to downplay the whole situation. This was difficult, however, amidst christmas ham and turkey where avoiding meat is akin to refusing to open presents. Nevertheless my grandparents catered for my dietary choices and for that I am grateful.

Throughout the day my grandparents commented on how much they love their dog and how special their dog is to them, you know, the usual stuff. They expressed a love for the dog that (on mere observation) seemed similar to the love a parent expresses towards a child. Furthermore I have no doubts that if their dog were to fall ill they would willingly incur significant financial loss to ensure the dogs wellbeing.

Later on the day we watched James Cameron's Avatar. Apart from being just a generally enjoyable film it is interesting in the way that it subtly (perhaps inadvertently) challenges social norms. Specifically I am referring to the way in which the viewer is positioned to overcome speciesism and feel empathy towards the Na'ri race rather than the human race. This is in stark contrast with reality in which Anthropocentrism is predominant (or at least widespread). The dramatic power of the movie relies upon viewers feeling a sense of disgust towards the humans' flagrant dismissal of the well-being of the Na'ri race. The Na'ri race have an entirely different set of priorities and DNA (if the acronym 'DNA' even applies here) to the human race yet they share our capacity for emotional and physical suffering. . . Perhaps you see the parallels I am drawing here? . . . If only the Na'ri race were more anatomically different to human beings than they are portrayed (rather than essentially just being blue copies of ourselves with tails) and were unable to speak the movie could well have been a parable-like animal rights documentary. The movie appeals to a sense of empathy in the viewer that surpasses arbitrary concerns of race and species. The almost obligatory quote to use here is Bentham when he states: ' The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?' and it seems as if this sentiment is instinctly shared by many people (as evidenced by their reactions to Avatar) whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not. People express these same feelings when they save their pets from burning buildings or when they decide to become vegetarian. It is a feeling that comes naturally and frequently but it's effects are usually rather limited.

It seems odd that the potential exploitation and suffering of the fictional Na'ri race arouses such a passionate response from viewers yet our real equivilant of this - the factory farming of animals for human consumption - is met with a disproportionate lack of concern.

As mentioned earlier I tend to feel sheepish and overwhelmed at the incredulity people express towards my vegetarian eating choices. I am now beginning to mirror this reaction towards meat-eaters. All matters of morality aside the vegetarian can appeal to a strong sense of consistency when pampering a pet or showing emotional responses to movies like Avatar. The meat eater is in a more difficult position and must choose to defend one of several equally counter-intuitive positions to retain credibility. The meat-eater must either;

A) Admit that they would subject their pets to factory farming conditions; OR
B) Claim that there is a relevant difference between their pets (and the Na'ri race) and factory farmed animals that allows for their differing treatment.

If neither of these concessions can be made the meat-eaters position is untenable, inconsistent, and a prime example of cognitive dissonance.

As vegetarians (in my admittedly short experience) are often thought of as being self righteous I think that the criticism of inconsistency directed at meat-eaters is far more fair than claiming that they lack empathy or compassion. Clearly meat-eaters are as equally compassionate as vegetarians, it is simply that many meant-eaters (whether they are aware of it or not) are holding conflicting sentiments, or 'cognitive dissonance' if you like. Many people are unaware of this dissonance and I see it as nothing less than a respectful service to the individual in question to have this hidden affliction pointed out. Likewise I would welcome criticisms that would help me refine my position on the matter. If these people are aware of, and accept that there are, inconsistencies in their position yet they refuse to change their ways they could be claimed to be suffering from what Kant called 'akrasia' or simply 'weakness of the will'. In my experiences, however, this is rarely the case and most people are simply apathetic. Regardless that is a rant for another time.


  1. I quite appreciate your intellectually provocative and engaging comments upon our society as an entity, however I would have to respectfully disagree on some points. Firstly, and to me most importantly, is the choice of A or B, for I believe that these are not the only choices. Now, I would like to firstly state that I do not have much knowledge at all about health related subject, so if someone decides to disagree with me their is not much that I can do about this. Though, my wife, who has studied medical science at university has explained that often vegetarians that may not understand sufficiently issues of health related aspects of their food eating choices may actually be anemic as they can often miss out on essential nutrients that are easily available in red meat. Now this is not to say that there aren't alternative ways of gaining these nutrients, merely, that like myself I think many people would benefit from gaining a healthy aspect of their choices. To add to this, I also find it equally negligable to enforce these choices of vegetarianism or vegan on their children, not from the point of view of advocating for it, but that when children are quite young if they again miss out on some essential nutrients while they are growing it can stunt numerous aspects of their intellectual and physical growth. However stating all of this, if someone does have enough knowledge on what a growing child needs at all stages and be able to suggest equitable alternative dietary suggestions, then I find no fault in either of these issues. For to advocate something that a person believes is an improvement to the condition of this world with an informed opinion on various aspects of the consequences of their choices, then far be it from me to stop an improvement to our contemporary society. To add to this, their are various aspects of vegetarianism and veganism that is quite respectable, but all in all, what has usually dictated what I have thought about this choice is the reasons for it. On top of this, I would state that on most aspects of this choice I am indifferent, the only aspect to which I am not is if it affects that persons health negatively simply to due to be uninformed/misinformed of their current state of health, and correct alternative dietary suggestions that indeed do fulfill their dietary requirements.

    Also, as I have known a few vegetarians, I can empathise with the willingness to loathe other peoples supposedly contradictory criticism of their choices.

    With all of that aside, I hope you have a fantastic Christmas. (I also quite like Avatar).

  2. I think that health concerns are important too, but that health concerns alone (unless they are in an exceptional case) don't give a reason to avoid being vegetarian. In many ways being a vegetarian is a healthier lifestyle provided that an effort is made to compensate for the lost nutrients that are usually sourced from meat.

    Hope your christmas was good too!

  3. I think you've rather interpreted the animal factory-farming parallel out of nowhere, or perhaps, simply in accordance with your own current sensibilities. You write

    "It seems odd that the potential exploitation and suffering of the fictional Na'ri race arouses such a passionate response from viewers yet our real equivilant of this - the factory farming of animals for human consumption - is met with a disproportionate lack of concern."

    But the Na'vi aren't being "used" for human purposes at all - if anything they are an impediment to the real goal, the unobtanium. I guess you could call it habitat destruction, if anything, or perhaps even "pest control" at a stretch. But factory farming? I have no idea where you pulled that from.

    1. A fair comment I think. I might not have articulated the parallel very well.
      My use of the word 'exploitation' wasn't quite right and I think this is what you have picked up on.

      Nevertheless, the link I was trying to make between the Na'vi race and factory farming is simply that in both cases a different race posesses what humans want. In the case of the Na'vi it is land, in the case of factory farmed animals it is flesh.