Editor’s Note, August 2, 2022: This piece was originally published in February 2022 and updated on August 2.
Last week, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay posted a TikTok video climbing into a cage of lambs and saying, “I’m going to eat you!” He rubbed his hands as he said “yummy, yum, yum, yum” and asked, “Which one goes in the oven first?” He pointed to a lamb, said, “you,” and then exclaimed it was “baking time.”
The cheeky video elicited a lot of laughter emojis and comments from fans about the joke (in 2006, Ramsay asked a contestant on his “Hell’s Kitchen” TV show for lamb sauce, which is a meme). But many commentators were also alarmed, saying the video was sad, that Ramsay had lost it, or that they had lost respect for Ramsay because of his seeming insensitivity to cute little lambs.
The video and the reactions that followed are a strong example of what psychologists have called “the meat paradox”: the mental dissonance caused by our empathy for animals and our desire to eat them.
Australian psychologists Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam and Brock Bastian coined the term in 2010, defined it as the “psychological conflict between people’s dietary preference for meat and their moral response to animal suffering.” We sympathize with animals – after all, we are animals ourselves – but we are also determined to search high-calorie, high-energy foods. And for most of human history, that meant meat.
When confronted with that dissonance, we try to resolve it in a number of ways. We downplay the feeling of animals or make light of their slaughter (as Ramsay did), we misreport our eating habits (or reject personal responsibility altogether), or judge the behavior of others to claim the moral high ground, as some of Ramsay’s commentators did (even if they probably eat meat themselves).
But the meat paradox doesn’t just flare up when it plays in pop culture; it is a feature of our daily life, whether we pay attention to it or not.
Almost one in four US adults tell polls they are cutting their meat intake – as the country sets new records for meat consumption per capita. We abhor the treatment of animals on intensive livestock farms where: 99 percent of meat is produced in the US, but we don’t like vegans. And even those of us who say we are vegetarian or vegan often distort the truth.
The flesh paradox is also the subject and title of a recent book by Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, a UK-based non-profit organization advocating for organic farming practices, increased animal welfare and reduced meat consumption.
I wanted to speak to Percival because he is a walking embodiment of the flesh paradox. He spends his days campaigning against industrialized animal husbandry, insisting that animals still have a role to play in our agricultural and food system, albeit a much smaller and more humane one.
While deeply sympathetic to the vegan cause, Percival goes so far as to call animal slaughter “murder”, he is not a vegan himself and has no hesitation in criticizing the vegan movement. eccentricities and exaggerations. And he is deeply concerned about what will happen to the world if humanity does not figure out how to solve the flesh paradox. The West’s meat-rich diet is a major accelerator of the climate crisis that shows little sign of slowing, and that diet is already being exported to the rest of the world.
So in an effort to unravel the meat paradox, Percival spoke to farmers, anthropologists, psychologists and activists to better understand humanity’s messy, complicated, and millennia-deep relationship with the animals we hunt and breed for food.
The meat paradox in ourselves
Percival discovered that the meat paradox is not just a product of modern industrialized animal husbandry, but a psychological struggle dating back to our earliest ancestors. That animal carvings and cave paintings made tens of thousands of years ago? It could be more than just caveman doodles.
“It’s partly speculative, but the case was made by” several scholars that these provide evidence of a ritual reaction for consumption by animals that may be rooted in those discordant emotions, that contradictory ethical sense,” Percival said. “Killing and consuming animal persons poses a profound moral dilemma.”
But the meat paradox has intensified in modern times. One of the founding studies of the literature on the meat paradox, Percival told me, was published in 2010 by psychologists Loughnan, Haslam and Bastian. They gave questionnaires to two groups, and while the subjects filled out answers, one group was given cashews to snack on while the other group was given beef jerky. The surveys asked participants to rate cows’ feelings and intelligence and their moral concern for a variety of animals, such as dogs, chickens and chimpanzees.
The participants who ate the beef jerky rated cows less consciously and less consciously — and expanded their circle of moral concern to include fewer animals — than the group that ate the cashews.
“The thought of a cow’s mental faculties while eating a cow had created these discordant emotions beneath the surface, which had distorted their perception in very important ways,” Percival said.
Even exposure to strict vegetarians or vegans can trigger a “heightened commitment to pro-meat justifications,” Percival says of a study. This could explain why we see per capita meat consumption increasing along with the degree of veganism and vegetarianism.
One of the funnier and more telling passages in the book describes a meeting Percival had with Charles Way, the head of food quality assurance for KFC in the UK and Ireland. After Way tells Percival how proud he is of KFC’s animal welfare standards, Percival asks Way, “If you knew you would be reborn as a chicken, would you really rather be born on a farm in KFC’s supply chain? , more than any other farm in the UK?”
Way claims the company’s standards are above the industry standard (which doesn’t say much), but then says it wouldn’t make a difference, “so no.” Percival tries again: “If you knew you’d be reborn as a chicken, do you think you’d eat less chicken?”
As Percival puts it, Way just doesn’t answer.
When confronted with these discordant emotions through reports of the harsh realities of factory farming, we try to deny them, separate the meat on our plate from the animal that produced it, and thereby give animals their sense and intelligence. deny.
We also make up myths to justify our relationship with animals. One of the most popular is the “old contract,” which goes something like this: animals give us their meat and in return we give them domestication and thus a chance to succeed evolutionarily. This concept was invented by science writer Stephen Budiansky in 1989 and has been touted by food writers Michael Pollan and Barry Estabrookas well as iconic animal welfare scientist Temple Grandin.
Pollan and Estabrook don’t condone modern industrial livestock farming, and Estabrook says it’s a violation of this old contract. However, “there is a blatant deception at the heart of our old contract,” Percival writes, “No animal has agreed to the terms of the deal.”
We also use language to obfuscate; a study found that replacing “slaughter” or “kill” with “harvest” reduced dissonance, and that replacing “beef” and “pork” on restaurant menus with “cow” and “pig” elicited more empathy for animals. Adding a photo of an animal next to the dish further enhanced empathy and made vegetarian dishes more appealing to study participants.
Percival says the meat paradox can be found in different cultures and time periods, and that “there is no culture in which plant foods are equally problematic.”
The meat paradox in our institutions
The flesh paradox is as active in our institutions as it is in ourselves.
Percival’s book begins with a tour of the Natural History Museum of London, where exhibits tell the story of animal habitat loss and the effects of climate change on wildlife. But if you visit the museum’s restaurant, “you may be served food that contributed directly to all those crises,” Percival said. (Meat production is a major cause of habitat loss, as large areas of forest are cleared to grow soybeans and other crops to feed farm animals.)
In the end, the museum changed its menu – offering plant-based dishes, higher welfare meats and organic foods – after a busy campaign from Percival.
That story had a happy ending, but I’m afraid the meat paradox will only harden in ourselves and in our institutions as meat becomes more grist for the culture war, such as when some Republicans panicked over a made-up story the Green New Deal might have. result in a “citizen ban”. To overcome that, Percival argues, we need to find a middle ground in the meat debate.
“We need progressive farmers and omnivores who are trying to reduce tensions with vegans and animal activists, and we need the vegans who say, ‘Okay, step one is let’s phase out the industrial systems and focus on higher animal welfare'”, he says. told me. “And if you can get a demographic large enough to claim that middle ground, then maybe we’ll see some progress.”
The middle ground is hard to find in an increasingly polarized world. But there are signs of progress: When given the choice to ban cages for chickens or pigs, voters vote yes, and plant-based meats have become mainstream in recent years.
And since more daring regulations, such as a meat taxpolitically toxic at the moment, change must start with us.
“I don’t believe that individuals can fix all of this on their own or that it’s the sole responsibility of consumers to fix the food system,” Percival said. “But at the same time, I believe that our own choices have an influence. They help set social norms. And you need that kind of mass mobilization before political change becomes viable, before you can force companies to change.”
And to get there, we must first think about the flesh paradox within ourselves, which would enable us, he said, to “see our kind of complicity and entanglements in all of this and understand what it might mean to untangle ourselves. “
Changing how we eat is one of the most effective actions we can consider climate, but it is also one of the most personal, as evidenced by the deep-rooted influence of the meat paradox. But by freeing ourselves from its dissonance, we can really work our way out of some of the crises we find ourselves in — if we’re willing to face it.