8.27.2013

What is it about meat? How to talk to people about Compassionate Eating

As part of my job position, I help coordinate a departmental "Green Team". One of the projects I chose to undertake was a "Meatless Monday" campaign. This included simply giving a presentation to our department highlighting the sustainability benefits in giving up meat one day a week. As I sat in my cubicle working on the presentation, a coworker, who is also a friend outside of work, came over and sat down to chit chat. He read the title on my computer screen and exclaimed "Meatless Monday?! Stop trying to push your veggie bull on everyone!" I was surprised with the "everyone" comment because I hadn't discussed this project with anyone yet but the team leader and many of my coworkers don't even know I'm vegan. So I completely ignored this and went into a different conversation. When the conversation dragged he again repeated his previous exclamation about Meatless Monday. Finally, on the third or fourth time, I addressed it by simply asking: "Aaron, do you know where your meat comes from and how it's processed?" That's when things turned ugly....

....I've run into this circumstance many times; when I bring up factory farming or ask if someone is familiar with the meat industry, the defense mechanisms ramp up! Aaron didn't answer my question at all. Instead, sitting more forward in his chair to get closer to my face, he immediately asked me what I "do" when I go to Burning Man? And asked do I "know where the weed comes from that I smoke". Hmmm, well I don't smoke weed; have tried it in the past but don't personally like it. So, needless to say, Aaron's question was confusing. Aaron was trying to attack me, on a very personal level, instead of having to engage in the conversation he had been mocking me about just moments earlier. He didn't have much to go on, so he grabbed at any straw he knew, which turned out to be that I've attended the Burning Man festival (twice to be precise) and he apparently assumes everyone there smokes weed. When a person is in this much denial and anger, I've learned it is better to diffuse the situation than to push it, so I didn't fire back; Aaron was clearly not ready to talk about what's on his dinner plate each and every night.

Another reaction I've encountered is omnivores pointing out that "cavemen ate meat", and that it's natural for humans to do so; or that any mistreatment of animals is the exception by a few "bad eggs". These people are at least willing to engage in a conversation about the topic, but still defend their position without considering the real facts about the current condition of animal agriculture. We do not live in a caveman world. We do not have to hunt down our own prey. We don't even live in a world where family farms with 50 head of cattle and 200 chickens are prevalent. Instead, we live in a world where thousands upon thousands of animals are packed into small spaces, genetically altered, saturated with antibiotics, and billions killed every year so that humans can eat them (disease ridden and all) in nearly every meal everyday. 99% of all meat and dairy comes from factory farms that run mostly automated and employ cheap, unskilled laborers: there are no "farmers" on a factory farm. You can see how the old excuses simply don't translate; yet many still cling to them.

So what is it about meat that makes people react this way? Jonathon Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, states:
Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science I've discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory- disavowed.
This sentiment is probably true in Aaron's case and many others I've encountered, because if nothing is wrong with our meat/dairy/egg industry, then why so adverse to talking about it?

So what can you do to talk to defensive people about factory farming and adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet? A couple things to remember before engaging in conversation are:
  1. No one likes to be told that they're "wrong". If people really understood the situation and saw the conditions of factory farming, they most likely would agree with you. But not everyone out there has the education on the issue or they continue to eat meat because they've ignored the education in defensiveness, not because they want to hurt the Earth or animals. So be understanding to their situation, we've all been there. Especially when it comes to the morality of animal treatment, it calls into question the entirety of their identity: how they were raised (their parent's morality) and the choices they've made throughout life. Figuring out things for one's self is usually the best way, so all you can do is to help provide the information, not tell someone to change their lifestyle.
  2. There are other issues just as important in world. Factory farming may be a big issue in climate change, health, and animal rights, but it's not the only issue within those things. If someone rides their bike to work everyday to reduce emissions, but still eats a turkey sandwich for lunch, they should still be applauded for their efforts. Again, it's more due to lack of education that people insist on eating meat rather than them wanting to do harm.

What I've found works best is first to approach the issue from an environmental position. When you talk about the effect animal agriculture has on a larger scale, it depersonalizes the issue. Then the person doesn't feel attacked or feel like they need to entertain unpleasant thoughts about the animals themselves. They are receptive the hearing statistics, especially since factory farm statistics are so awe inspiring- for example: A third of all land area on planet Earth is dedicated to animal agriculture (FAO). Climate change's significant contributor is animal agriculture, something more and more people (both right and left leaning) are starting to accept as a critical issue facing humanity; therefore, climate change is another initial angle of approach. It also helps illustrate that eating meat/dairy is not simply a choice that affects someone only personally (many will say "it's none of your concern what I do, get off my back"), but one that affects all of us on a global level.

The next best way to approach the subject is by talking about the health benefits of adopting a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. Health concerns bring the issue in more personally, but without plaguing on the moral centers of the brain. Instead, the individual retains their comfort zone and keeps the issue focused on their immediate and long term safety. Men who do not eat meat are 40% less likely to develop prostate cancer and heart disease; women are LESS likely to develop osteoporosis by not drinking milk. Though taste usually still overpowers morality, at least statistics like the ones just mentioned will help people reevaluate food choices for their own safety.

Finally, at this point, you may be able to talk about the actual concerns for the animals and their quality of life. Often people ask me what difference does it make how an animal lives if it's just going to be slaughtered anyway? In this situation I'll ask them to put themselves or their child in the place of the animal: would you rather have a pleasant, long life before a wretched death, or a life of pain and torture leading up to the kill? I think the answer is obvious (and actually surprising that it needs to be explained). Animals are sentient beings, not much controversy surrounds that fact. So helping people see that they too are sentient "animals" may help them feel compassion for factory farmed animals. As Jonathon Safran Foer said: "what we forget about animals we begin to forget about ourselves" (Eating Animals p. 37).

Admitting that in an ideal world where farmers raise animals properly and we only eat animals when necessary to feed our families sounds nice. But again, as I highlighted already, we do not live in that idealistic world and we have to ask ourselves how much meat is enough? Do we really need it everyday or in every meal? Do we really think that greater meat production will be used to feed hungry kids around the world? The amount of meat consumed in America and other developed countries is staggering and as long as agribusiness thinks that's what the people want (cheap meat in every meal), they're going to keep giving it to us. They'll pass the cutting-corner-profits onto the consumer, not to the animals; the price of meat and dairy has nearly stayed the same over the last 50 years. The almighty dollar speaks, and we as consumers need to tell agribusiness what we want by showing them with our purchases. So yes, each person can make a difference, it all comes down to individual food choices: out of many, comes one (big) voice.

"It's not a requirement to eat animals, we just choose to, so it becomes a moral choice and one that is having a huge impact on the planet, using up resources and destroying the biosphere." - James Cameron


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