Guest post for That Dang Vegan.
Impossible Foods, a startup with $75 million in venture funding is reportedly working on a meatless burger that bleeds. Yep, bleeds. Gross, right? Well, no, that’s part of the appeal, apparently. As a society we are (usually) so squeamish about blood and bodily functions that it is surprising that something so otherwise well, off-putting would be considered a positive attribute. People often speak of liking the “taste” of meat, but does it really taste that good? Good enough to overcome the normal aversion to blood? Or fecal matter, which is found in over 90% of most US meat? Not to mention the host of moral, environmental and health concerns. The true draw to meat is likely a complex emotional attachment, which likely augments the perceived pleasure many people get from eating it. In making rational arguments against killing animals, and often overlooking or discounting these emotional realms as weak justifications, activists are focusing too much on being right, and missing opportunities to actually influence more people.
The "4 Ns" Help Us Rationalize Meat Consumption.
In a recent New York Magazine article called, The 4 Ways People Rationalize Eating Meat, the author explains that new research found that the primary justifications people give for eating meat are the “4Ns”. The most prevalent is a (misguided) belief that meat is "Necessary" to get enough protein, followed by (in slightly varying order depending on the group surveyed): meat is “Nice” (basically, that it tastes good), “Normal” (everyone is doing it) and "Natural" (our ancestors ate it — they also raped women, and burned witches — oops, that last part was my commentary). According to the author, the “Nice", or taste rationale has been often disregarded because it's so "weak seeming" a justification for immorality, and many vegetarians try to dissuade meat eaters by correcting the "Necessary" fallacy. In order to get at the emotional connection, rather than rational arguments, a 5th N should be considered, which I’ll call “Nurturance” — the emotional feel-good that a certain food brings, likely related to childhood memories and family traditions. Nurturance is closely related to, and augments “Nice” “Normal” and “Natural”, but goes beyond rational arguments to address feelings.
Sensitivity For a Life Long Meat Eater.
My boyfriend was a fairly regular carnivore — he liked the taste of vegetarian food but believed it was “natural” to eat meat. Though he understood my reasoning, when I looked askance as he savored prosciutto, he seemed almost hurt, grappling to explain how he, a good person, could eat pigs: “this is my culture! My grandmother is Italian, I grew up eating this!” He also spoke of the taste being “incredible,” but that seemed intrinsically linked to fond memories. So, on a purely “rational” level, it seems, well, kind of lame, to justify eating pigs (animals that are smarter than dogs, with rich emotional lives) because someone fed them to you as a child. But, food choices are evidently not rational, (or more people would avoid meat).
Nurturing the "Emotional Dependence" to Meat.
I realized there is probably a subconscious dialogue to the effect of: “if meat is ‘bad’, how could my grandmother [any nurturing caregiver] feed it with me out of love?” This viral youtube video of a young boy crying and refusing to eat octopus when he realizes it was alive, likely mirrors the reaction of many children to learning that meat is animals. Most parents however (at least those I know) override their children’s concerns, with a combination of the Ns, thus setting up the irrational behavior where even animal lovers disconnect from the reality on their plate. I can somewhat relate to this inner dichotomy — raised a vegetarian, I had frequent stomach aches and later discovered I was lactose intolerant. Even once I’d learned about the dairy industry’s ills, I still had trouble reconciling these seemingly contradictory facts and feelings. Milk made me sick, and calves are turned into veal, but can milk really be bad?! Afterall, my parents lovingly poured it over my cereal! Being fed is obviously strongly linked to survival and associated feelings of “nurturance”, so for anyone given meat as a child, meat is linked to those feelings too.
Empathy is the Key to Kindness and Compassion.
The beliefs that make up the 4 Ns, cemented in an emotional feeling of Nurturance, could be considered “cultural” (the evolution of which is beyond the scope here, but it is neither inherently necessary nor natural, at least in its current form). Obviously, many atrocities have been justified as “culture”, but luckily culture is ever-evolving and we can create new cultures for our children. I am very grateful that although my parents grew up eating brisket and grilled chicken, I have nurturing associations with tofu and nori rolls. So, though I understand the temptation of angry, rational arguments against meat, they need to be supplemented with empathy and nurturing, alternative traditions. When I was sick my mom would make me cinnamon toast with swirls of sugar and spice -- maybe chicken soup heals, but the love of my mother's care in that sweet treat is what truly made me feel better.
Starting a Non-Threatening Dialogue About Going Meatless.
After a few conversations with the aforementioned boyfriend, he did stop eating meat, but not because he was told he was “bad” or evil, rather, because he could see that the “meat” was really animals, and that his grandmother's meat-related traditions were well-intentioned but unnecessary. Ironically, I learned, in speaking about meat, it’s important to be understanding about people’s emotional attachment, even if we disagree with it as a justification. Together, he and I tried to take this understanding approach and created this “Tofu” tee, which pokes fun at the pork industry (the “other … other white meat”) and raises money for animal protection. We intentionally made a cartoonish design that would be fun and uplifting, rather than abrasive and accusatory. It usually gets a smile from people of all dietary persuasions, though at least one vegan was offended with the term “meat”, even used ironically on the shirt. While I understand her feelings, I think that kind of rigidity hurts the cause — we might be grossed out by the word “meat”, but our sensibilities aren’t really the point here. Similarly, while I personally think a “bleeding” veggie burger sounds abhorrent, I care more about saving animals than my own proclivities, so hey, if eating fake blood saves real lives, go for it. That said, there are already delicious and (I’m told) “authentic” fake meats, so until people can address their own emotional attachments, which go beyond taste alone, I doubt that even near-identical alternatives will be a sufficient substitute to the “real thing”, however irrational that may be.