I think it’s instructive to ask why a large majority of us give financial support to industries that cause such tremendous suffering to such huge numbers of animals when there is no need for us to do so. If we had to eat animals to survive, then supporting the meat or dairy industries would be another matter entirely, but this is not the case as the Australian government-funded health information and advice service, Healthdirect vi makes abundantly clear. We don’t need to consume any animal products to be healthy, which means we don’t need these industries either. So why are they still here? The main reasons, it seems to me, are their sheer size, their integration into the economy, and their high levels of public acceptance; but all these could change very quickly if the broader public comes to understand the harm they cause, not just to their animal victims, but to the environment, human health and the ethical basis of the whole society.
But still, the question remains: why are these industries supported? Why is it, for example, that smart, caring folk, many of whom would claim to ‘love’ animals, and may indeed have pets of their own, and certainly would not like to think of pigs being tortured, have no qualms about eating bacon for breakfast? One obvious explanation is that they have a blind spot when it comes to animal suffering, at least as it occurs within the animal-abuse industries. They’ll rush their cat or dog down to the vet at the drop of a hat, but do they ever consider what actually lies behind the pet food they buy?
I think of blind spots as psychological safety nets, somewhat akin to burying one’s head in the sand and hoping it will all go away or at least it won’t be mentioned. It’s not difficult to see why blind spots have arisen in relation to animal welfare because there are so many very bad things going on; and bad things are usually easier to avoid than to confront, especially if everybody else is doing it. But that alone doesn’t make it OK.
Here are three reasons which I believe may explain (in part) why blind spots are so common when it comes to the welfare of animals caught in the maws of the animal-abuse industries:
Firstly, for most of us, watching, even thinking about, extreme cruelty is a disturbing thing. Not only can it be very upsetting, it has the potential to cause us psychological injury, and so we instinctively protect ourselves against it by not looking at it. I, for example, have never watched people being beheaded by terrorist organisations online because I know it would give me horrible recurring thoughts for the rest of my life.
Secondly, there is the inconvenience of knowing that if we do confront the truth about something that relies on extreme levels of cruelty for its existence, and we are financially supporting that behaviour, we might, indeed we should, feel an obligation to do something about it—and nobody likes the thought of that! It’s much easier to ignore reality a lot of the time than to face it.
And thirdly, we’re cautious about leaving the safety of the herd—which, in the case of adopting a vegan lifestyle, means parting company with the non-vegan majority. This caution is quite understandable because as social animals the advantages of belonging to a group are wired into our psyches. Indeed, our very survival has relied upon membership of a group for eons and we cannot change our instinct to belong any more than we can change the colour of our skin.
These three reasons: a ‘self-protective’ avoidance of the facts, and reticence to do anything because it just seems all too hard, and fear of leaving the herd may between them explain the existence of some of our blind spots. Other reasons could be just not caring one way or the other—the ‘I don’t give a shit’ mentality, fear of being thought of as a weirdo or a sappy do-gooder, a love of meat and dairy products to the exclusion of all else, the misguided notion that humans need to eat animal products to remain healthy or the mental disposition of psychopathy—the inability to care about suffering in others.
Whatever our reasons, and we can determine them through some honest self-examination, they are all, by definition, subject to reason itself. Our ability to change our behaviour in response to a reasoned argument is one of the greatest strengths of being human and part of why we are this planet’s dominant species. Nobody should doubt their capacity to respond in this way or think they are too old or set in their ways to change. That’s called ‘giving up’.
Self-delusion is another method we use to guide ourselves into safer psychological waters. It can be a useful protective mechanism and one might argue we live in a delusory state most of our lives, but self-delusion can also be the mechanism by which we allow ourselves to believe that what goes on behind the walls of the abattoirs and factory-farms might just creep across the line of what we would find acceptable, even if we knew all the details. Deep down we know this can’t possibly be the case but there’s nothing like a little self-deception to create a psychological wormhole just large enough for us to wriggle into. Highly delusional people may even tell themselves that the government is regulating the animal-abuse industries competently on their behalf; although given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that would be a delusionary stretch few of us could make with any semblance of conviction.
Many of our blind spots first took hold in our young and developing childhood brains. Most of us, in the developed world at least, begin eating meat within the first year or two of our lives where it is simply treated as ‘food’ in the same way that dairy products, fruits, nuts and vegetables are thought of as food and the ethics about where meat comes from are never discussed. Consequently, very little connection was ever made between the object on the fork and the animal whose flesh it once was. Euphemisms such as pork, beef, lamb and chicken deflect the argument away from its brutal realities and into a safer psychological space where a lamb chop can be equated with a peanut butter sandwich. It is in this same gravelly soil of the mind where our ingrained conditioning has taken hold that the arguments for animal welfare and veganism must try to germinate and sprout. Shifting one’s psychological position from the status quo to one where meat and milk are seen, not for what they are in an organic sense, but for what they represent, can take a good deal of individual effort. But it can be done and often is, with surprising ease.
There is an almost endless stream of reasons to explain why we turn a blind eye to the widespread and horrific animal suffering in our midst, but at the end of the day, can any of us plausibly let ourselves off the hook as easily as we do?