No One Leaves the Herd for Long

Much of what we call ‘common sense’ is fossilised thought; arguments and ideas left behind by brains long turned to soil. The world is round, wear a seatbelt, germs make you sick, democracy is good, it’s unacceptable to strike your spouse, it is acceptable to strike your child.[1] You’ll find people who disagree with each and every one of these assumptions but, to the extent that it’s possible to say this, they are all ‘officially’ true. They are ‘the way of things.’

Some of these assumptions are empirical and others are normative: the world is round, one ought to wear a seatbelt. For normative statements especially, it is consensus that determines ‘ought’, not whether something is inherently right or wrong. In Europe, it used to be common sense that a man should chastise his wife, nowadays it isn’t. In the UK, it’s still common sense that a parent can chastise their child but, in a few decades, it may very well not be. Slavery was once common sense but nowadays most people think benefiting from slave labour is unacceptable unless it’s sanctioned through a smartphone contract. Does that mean that slavery once was right but now is wrong?

The obvious concomitant of something being common sense is that most people haven’t really thought about it because the thinking has already been done for them. It’s cultural learning. How many people could say now how they know the earth isn’t flat? Or take the age of the earth: before 1600, a reasonably well-educated European would have cited the Bible to answer with 6000 years. In 2018, they would tell you that it’s vastly more ancient than that, citing something they remembered from school or saw on TV. In both cases, the prevailing view is based on the authority of an institution; church or science.[2]

Diet is a signal example of cultural learning and one of the most ingrained. The challenge of changing behaviour for the vegetarian and vegan (veg*n) movements has been to politicise common sense, to show that eating animal products is a choice rather than merely the way of things. This is done, for instance, by marshalling evidence on the consequences of animal agriculture; for the global environment, for people’s health, and for the animals, themselves. Veg*ns also seek to show the arbitrariness of according respect and consideration along species lines. In this latter respect, the veg*n movement is engaged in what may be the final stage of expanding the circle of ‘moral concern’ (to borrow Peter Singer’s phrase), which began with our own family or tribe and widened over millennia to include larger communities, nations, and — for some — all humans, irrespective of petty differences of skin colour, religion or culture. This development was anticipated by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, when he wrote in 1823:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.[3]

 

Jeremy_Bentham

The corpse of Jeremy Bentham at UCL (No, really)

Naturally, the veg*n project at every stage has encountered resistance and hostility, just as other great emancipatory campaigns, such as women’s rights, race relations, LGBT, and the peace movement have. This is understandable in each instance, since not only often have vested interests been at stake (property rights, the slave economy, the church, the military industrial complex) but so has people’s deeply ingrained common sense. I’ve experienced the annoyance, defensiveness, and hostility of flesh eaters on any number of occasions, face to face and online. I don’t usually bring the subject up anymore unless asked but even just being at a meal where I am not eating what others are eating can be taken as a silent rebuke.

 

Years ago, at a local food fair, I ran a stall giving away vegan cakes and savouries (granted a stall for free, we weren’t allowed to sell anything). For two long, hot days, we gave away hundreds of home-baked cakes and snacks to anyone who was curious (or thrifty). Many chatted with us (mostly women), some argued (mostly men), and others were apologetic for not being vegan but cited the usual justifications (‘my body needs meat,’ ‘I couldn’t give up cheese,’ ‘I once heard of a vegan who became ill,’ etc.). Almost without exception, all were pleasant. It’s hard to be aggressive while eating cake. The person who sticks in my mind, though, was an elderly man who never got as far as our stall. As he stamped past, he broadsided us with, ‘you’re not going to stop me eating meat!’ Never underestimate the ability of a cake stall to enrage the passer-by.

I think one explanation for this defensiveness and the precipitous descent into anger and incoherence I often see is that people are having to defend a behaviour they never consciously adopted in the first place. Veg*ns have made a reasoned decision to step outside the herd and adopt an opposing lifestyle. This means they’ve examined their behaviour and built some sort of intellectual case for changing it.[4] People who eat meat will likely never have taken the time to build a case for it because they just been following the herd. That means they’re most likely not equipped to offer anything but the thinnest, most sloganistic defence for their actions. They’ve brought a carving knife to a gun fight.

DefOmniBingoIn the early 21st century, most veg*ns are, I imagine, those who have adopted the lifestyle. As it involved a clear choice, they should be able to articulate their reasons for doing so. But as veg*nism grows, this will change. Firstly, we will see more second and third generation veg*ns who will have inherited the lifestyle from their parents. More broadly, I’m optimistic enough to believe that what I see as the latest stage of human ethical evolution will gather speed, just as other progressive social movements have. Vegetarianism has been ‘legitimate’ for decades and now veganism appears now to be moving from being a fringe pursuit to a recognised lifestyle, too.[5] I suspect the 3.5m indicated by one recent survey is an overestimate of the number of vegans in the UK but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe it’s now a seven figure number.[6] As veganism gains visibility, the current common sense about our current hellish tyranny over billions of animals each year will continue to crumble. The more popular veganism becomes, the easier it will be, and the even more popular it will become. Perhaps decades from now, a combination of increased ethical awareness, second and third generation vegans, and economic and environmental pressures will relegate the consumption of animals to a fringe pursuit; the equivalent of fox hunting or wearing fur today. Not to exploit animals will become the new common sense and those who deviate will be seen as reprehensible or at least objectionable. One day, it will be illegal entirely.

But will this be the utopia vegans dream about? The slaughterhouses will be demolished, save for a few standing as bleak witness to our past barbarism. The billions held in pens and cages waiting for a sharp, brutal death to end their short, agonised lives will be no more than pictures in history books and documentaries. The ‘eternal Treblinka’ will be gone.[7] Certainly, that will be a triumph for the animals with whom we share our world, for the planet, and for our health. A victory in all the ways that truly matter. But intellectually, will the vegan campaigners of the early 21st Century have won when the society of the 22nd Century is vegan but never stops to think why? Will a 5th generation vegan who has merely absorbed society’s values —who’s just part of the herd — be as ‘good’ or as ‘enlightened’ as their early 21st century great, great grandparent? Will we continued to be ‘enlightened’ when our good behaviour is not backed by a conscious understanding of why it’s good? Without an almost impossible state of constant reflection and reappraisal of our own beliefs, what are we but plagiarised people; patchworks of other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and struggles?

At least I can take comfort in the belief that none of this will matter to the animals themselves, who care nothing for what we think or say but only for what we do. So, here’s to auto-utopia. One day, my brain will have turned to soil, but I can at least hope that it will be part of a vegetable patch.

Notes

___________

[1] You may think that you don’t think it’s acceptable for parents to hit children but ask yourself how you’d react in the street to a man slapping his wife compared with a mother slapping her child. You may not agree with either, but I suspect you would accept the latter.

[2] Naturally, this is not to say that both views have equal validity. There is no comparison between, on the one hand, Bishop Ussher’s study of the Bible, which led him to conclude the world was created on 22nd October, 4004BC, and, on the other, over a century of radiometric dating.

[3] Jeremy Bentham (1823) ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,’ available at https://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML.html?chapter_num=3#book-reader

[4] Unless they just don’t like meat, which is often true as well.

[5] See for example Dan Hancox ‘The unstoppable rise of veganism: how a fringe movement went mainstream,’ The Guardian, 1st April 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/01/vegans-are-coming-millennials-health-climate-change-animal-welfare

[6] Olivia Petter, ‘Number of vegans in UK soars to 3.5 million, survey finds,’ The Independent, 3rd April 2018, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegans-uk-rise-popularity-plant-based-diets-veganism-figures-survey-compare-the-market-a8286471.html

[7] This phrase is from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Letter Writer’. ‘In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. “What do they know — all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world — about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.’

 

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