How can people claim to love animals — as most of us freely acknowledge — and then kill them for our eating pleasure? Psychologists have one explanation; I’ve got another.
Are you familiar with what psychologists — well, at least one such professional — call the “meat paradox?”
Me either, but it’s an interesting and potentially powerful way to connect people’s dietary habits with evidence of racism.
In a Psychology Today article from a few years back, but one that’s getting newfound traction, titled, “The Meat Paradox: Loving But Exploiting Animals,” a Dr. Gordon Hodson proposed that people’s perspectives on animals are linked to why they engage in “dehumanizing behaviors,” ie, racism.
The good doctor theorized that the greater the “human-animal divide,” the perception that humans are superior to animals, the more social value is afforded to representing human outgroups as “animal-like.”
“Put simply,” the article stated, “we dehumanize other human groups because we consider animals beneath humans in value and worth in the first place. If we didn’t, representing others as ‘animal-like’ would have no social currency.”
That leads to the so-called “meat paradox”, whereby people express concerns about the welfare of animals, but then make dietary choices that require them to be killed, a situation based on viewing animals as less than human.
According to this theory, people classify animals as “pets,” “wild animals’ and “farm animals.”
“These categories affect how we treat those within the category,” the author argued. “Without doubt, animal categories are artificial and culturally bound. There is nothing inherent about an animal that makes it consumable or sacred — this comes down to human psychology.”
The spiritual perspective
Before offering a counter-argument, let me pose a hypothetical question: Do you consider the Native tribes that populated North America in pre-Columbian times, the millions of indigenous people who lived here for many millennia, to be nothing more than ignorant savages? Do you look at their cultures, languages, spirituality and lifestyles and decide that they were merely an uncivilized, primitive people somewhere below the rest of humanity in terms of their intelligence and aptitude?
If so, you need to check yourself — big-time.
If not, please consider that the description above was shared by virtually all of the Europeans who first landed on our shores — and immediately claimed the entire continent and all its resources for some distant monarch — including explorers, missionaries and eventually, colonial settlers.
Centuries later, we now understand that Native Americans have much to offer us in terms of their understanding of Nature, their connection to the cosmos and the reverence with which they connected with what we now label as “the environment.”
Since my first wife, God rest her soul, was a member of the Yurok Nation in Northern California, I had the rare opportunity many years ago to visit with her grandmother and other tribal elders, and I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration to say that they believed all of Nature was sacred: The redwood forests that were their ancestral homeland, the Pacific coastal beaches, the wind, the waves, the rocks, the land itself were all filled with spiritual energy, all part of the Great Spirit’s creation and all worthy of respect.
And of course, the wildlife on which they depended for survival was the most important part of that creation: the salmon, the shellfish, the deer were all sacred, all gifts that humanity should appreciate.
Yet they harvested these animals as the basis of their diets, and did so without any of the angst the scolds at Psychology Today imply that we should be feeling at the death of an animal.
Consider just one quote from a Native chief (in 1805) regarding the hunting, killing and consumption of animals. He was Chief Red Jacket (obviously, his Anglicized name), a leader of the Seneca Nation that was — is — one of the Iroquois federation of the Six Nations who inhabited western New York state:
“Our forefathers’ seats once extended from the rising to the setting of the sun. The Great Spirit had made this for the use of Indians. He created the buffalo, the deer, and other animals for food. He made the bear and the beaver, and their skins served us for clothing, He scattered them across the country, and taught us how to take them.”
I would argue that such a perspective is the opposite of speciesism. It articulates a viewpoint that considers all animals to be sacred, all part of the natural world animated by the Great Spirit.
Native tribes got it right: All animals deserve respect, and with that respect comes the recognition that all of Creation — including humans — are part of the food chain, to put it bluntly.
We don’t disrespect animals by using them as the Great Spirit intended.
We disrespect them, and Him, by pretending that there is some existential distinction between the ones who live in a forest, and meet their demies via predation or starvation as surely as the sun sets in the West, and ones who live on farms and provide sustenance for humanity.
Why people object to that perspective, to me, is the real paradox. □
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator