Critical Thinking

Deconstructing “Happy Meat”

“Happy meat” is the notion that the flesh of Nonhuman Animals can be “raised” and killed humanely.  This prevailing myth has understandably complicated teaching animal rights.  Most students now equate “rights” with well-intentioned torture and death.

On one hand, teaching animal rights is made easy at the college level because most students sign up for the course voluntarily.  On the other hand, these same students enter the classroom with the cumbersome baggage of industry-created misconceptions.  What’s more, most students sign up not because they are radical animal rights activists, but because they love their dog or cat, enjoy zoos, or ride horses.  While this may predispose them to seeing Nonhuman Animals as persons, it also means they have yet to think critically about their oppressive relationship with most animals…particularly the ones they eat or wear.

Exploiting other animals is something that goes relatively unquestioned in Western society.  As with many systems of oppression, those who benefit from that exploitation have the support of the state and other major agents of socialization which work to normalize that oppression.  The educational system, the media, religion, the family, and the institutions of science and medicine have been influential in making speciesism a taken-for-granted reality.  They have been so successful in this project that individuals who dare question the morality of enslaving and killing other sentient beings are labeled deviant at best, terrorists at worst.

However, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has been relatively successful in bringing the question of animal ethics to mainstream discourse.  Most are now familiar with the main arguments of Nonhuman Animal liberation, and vegetarians (increasingly vegans) are recognized as part of the American landscape.  This has not gone unnoticed to industries that exploit Nonhuman Animals.

Increasingly, the “meat,” dairy, egg, and “fur” industries (to name a few) have begun to incorporate the language of Nonhuman Animal rights to counterframe their unethical practices.  The animal hair industry, for example claims that “welfare is at the heart of everything the fur trade does.”  Strangely, animal “rights” groups are in on this fabrication.  Most of the major organizations act as what can only be described as economic consultants, helping exploitative industries improve efficiency and productivity through welfare reforms and improved public image.  Now consumers, who may understandably have qualms about the suffering behind these products, can be assured that their guilt is unfounded.

In this era of industry/animal rights collaboration, teaching critical thought in regards to anti-speciesism is frustratingly complicated.  Respecting Nonhuman Animal rights must necessarily entail veganism–the eschewing of animal flesh, products, and labor and a refusal to participate in their exploitation.  However, most have been socialized to believe that respecting animal rights means buying products with minimal welfare “improvements” which do little to benefit Nonhuman Animals and absolutely nothing to challenge their exploitation and property-status.

Unfortunately, teaching animal rights now entails the added burden of deconstructing the notion of “happy meat” and building an argument for veganism.  “Happy meat” mythology has been very successful at eliminating cognitive dissonance in allowing changing attitudes about animal rights to mesh comfortably with consumerism and the profits of multi-billion dollar industries.   An explicit case for veganism and a critical look at industry claimsmaking, however, could enrich classroom learning and return the integrity to animal liberation discourse.

Image courtesy of author.

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RR: 31 March 2013

Corey Lee Wrenn

Corey Lee Wrenn

Ms. Wrenn is an ABD PhD and adjunct professor of Sociology and Social Psychology. Her interests include social movement theory, abolitionist Nonhuman Animal rights, social inequality, and veganism.

17 Comments

  1. March 30, 2013 at 12:57 am —

    I agree that it’s crazy-complicated, partly because of the appropriation of terminology. Have you seen Vegucated? Might be an interesting primer for discussion.

  2. March 31, 2013 at 8:01 pm —

    Is your argument based on the extension of personhood to nonhuman animals? I have to be honest, I’m quite uncomfortable with extending social justice discourse and personhood to nonhuman animals writ large.

    Exploiting other animals is something that goes relatively unquestioned in Western society.

    I find this statement to be confusing and problematic. What do you mean by “exploiting”? Relative to what? What do you mean by “Western society” (there are myriad heterogeneous societies that make up “the West”)? I would think, given the in-depth ethical considerations in popular culture and in academic literature and ubiquitousness of vegetarian/vegan foods and establishments, that Western societies are more questioning of the treatment of animals than your statement gives credit for. Is it your argument that indigenous foragers who subsist on hunting and gathering question the use (or “exploitation” depending on how you’re defining it) of animals in their lives more so than people who live in Western societies? If so, I have to ask what the empirical basis of such a claim is.

    I’m sensitive to the ethical arguments for veganism, but I don’t think statements like this are very convincing.

    • March 31, 2013 at 9:45 pm —

      I agree personhood is problematic and unnecessary, but I’m not sure it’s actually being argued. I think the post is more of, “There’s a whole big mess, and that’s on purpose, and THAT’S very annoying.” Not that I entirely disagree with your assessment.

      I wrote an atheism leads to vegetarianism/veganism argument a couple months ago http://miserlyoldman.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/horraytheist-reasoning/ which doesn’t mention personhood nor the issues around happy meal language. I didn’t consciously avoid those topics, but I do think they’re distractions from the larger point which renders them unnecessary. Not everyone’s atheist, and that could be an issue for some of the arguments I personally presented, but they are easily naturalist arguments. Belief in any higher power that told you to eat/rule things will obviously butt heads with it.

      • April 1, 2013 at 11:18 am —

        miserlyoldman, that is an excellent post. I shared it to my Facebook page, I like it so much. Thanks!

    • April 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm —

      My argument is simple: Teaching animal rights is hugely complicated by the rise of “happy meat” mythology.
      If you’re interested in learning more about the personhood of other animals and the meaning of exploitation and oppression as applied to other animals, check out “Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?” by legal scholar Gary Francione.

      • April 1, 2013 at 9:15 pm —

        Ehh, I don’t think your argument is that simple–at least not as presented. There are a lot of loaded words you’re using that obfuscate the point you’re trying to make. I don’t doubt that the “happy meat” mythology impacts teaching about animal rights. I doubt the personhood approach and monolithizing the West.

        I don’t have much time to read anything outside of my school work right now, but I’ll put that book on my “read this eventually” list. I have to be honest, though, I find personhood arguments for most animals to be quite unconvincing.

        • April 1, 2013 at 10:07 pm —

          Until you’ve taken the time to read up on the issues–actually an entire academic field, and the one in which I specialize–it would probably be prudent to refrain from dismissing an entire discipline. I’m not presenting a case for animal rights in this piece, I’m only sharing my frustrations as a professor of animal rights.

          • April 2, 2013 at 12:04 am

            Meh, I find that sort of a dismissive, elitist attitude. Sure, reading up on a subject in-depth is definitely great, but I don’t think people need to read x amount of books or articles before they’re allowed to dismiss an ideology. Knowledge is constantly evolving, and most people can and do change their minds all the time about issues they previously dismissed.

            I agree with Will in taking issue with some of the words you used in your piece (and, by extension, the assumptions and cultural beliefs you SEEM to adhere to) re: Orientalism (or at least legitimizing the concept of “Eastern culture” vs “Western culture”) as well as animal personhood arguments. I definitely subscribe to the idea that these issues are complicated, many people have different heirarchies in their minds when it comes to organisms and reasoning behind said heirarchies (some more thought-out than others), and animal personhood arguments TO ME just aren’t convincing.

            I can see how “happy meat” is a concept that can complicate teaching the issue, but I also think “happy meat” is a big step in the right direction. However, full disclosure, I’m an omnivore, and I subscribe to sourcing my meat carefully. I find nothing wrong with killing an animal quickly in order to consume it, so long as it does not suffer in its life. While I love my dogs and melt any time I see a dog, I don’t think people who eat dogs are bad people. I just don’t want to take part in eating dog.

            Complicated or not, I think it’s good that any discussion about animal welfare is being had.

      • April 1, 2013 at 9:55 pm —

        I haven’t read it, but my wife was a very big fan of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism http://www.amazon.com/Love-Dogs-Pigs-Wear-Cows/dp/1573245054/ which sounds like it dovetails really well into what you’re talking about.

  3. April 2, 2013 at 12:16 am —

    So, let me get this straight, I write a post about my teaching experience with nonviolence and social justice…and I get a rude comment about how I’m supposedly out of line for challenging speciesism…and because I suggest a person actually do some research into the topic before patronizing me, now I’m elitist…and racist??? I’m not impressed.

    I reject violence and I reject oppression. Yes, eating a dog is ALWAYS wrong, eating a cow is ALWAYS wrong (even if the killing is done “quickly”) regardless of how “convinced” anyone is…especially anyone who can’t be bothered to learn a little about the subject they feel they have the authority to criticize.

    There is NO way to exploit, kill, or torture ANY sentient being for your convenience or pleasure and have that being not suffer, that’s an unrealistic position and an oxymoron. I vehemently oppose violence against women, violence against any human, and violence against other animals. I am unapologetic on that stance…call me “elitist” if you will, but I find violence and the defense of violence deplorable.

    • April 2, 2013 at 11:02 am —

      It’s interesting to see how you’re perceiving this thread, because honestly I am pretty floored by this summary.

      First, how was I rude? When did I say you were out of line? Challenging a person’s arguments is not rude–an academic should understand that. I said nothing about you as a person or your character and focused solely on your arguments. It is quite telling to me that my criticism is valid and you have no argument against it because all you’ve done is deflect, dismiss, and throw insults.

      You are offended at being called “elitist,” yet you have no idea what I’ve read and haven’t read on this topic. You assume that because I don’t agree with you that I just haven’t read enough or the right things. That does come across as elitist–as if you and only you and those within your discipline hold the answers and anyone who dare challenge it is automatically wrong. Also, I haven’t dismissed any entire discipline. I’ve questioned your word choices and the obviously unexamined ethnocentric biases behind them.

      Your moral absolutism regarding eating animals is extremely problematic, ethnocentric, and, frankly, irrational. I find Manichean arguments like yours to be disturbing and leave little-to-no room for dialogue. And it is clear to me that you do not want dialogue–you want unquestioned acceptance of your position.

  4. April 3, 2013 at 12:21 am —

    The last twenty minutes or so of this week’s Skeptically Speaking ( http://skepticallyspeaking.ca/episodes/206-frankensteins-cat ) feature George Dvorsky discussing the attempts to attain legal personhood for nonhuman animals. Dvorsky relies on arguing for personhood through arguments for sapience. Those in turn rely on the arguments that the testing for sapience are valid (which I’m not contesting–I think they’re actually pretty cool, and I wish they’d gone into them more), but those tests have to be argued as admissible for legal standing as personhood. I don’t have particularly high hopes for the ability of any organization to effectively lobby for the admission of these tests (either alone or in combination) as the legal basis for personhood.

    Granted, I was driving while listening and not paying complete attention, but crows and ravens are super awesome, and I don’t remember their mention in this episode despite their feature two months ago ( http://skepticallyspeaking.ca/episodes/198-natures-compass ) wherein they ‘passed’ some of the very same tests Dvorsky mentions. Crows, man, they’re great.

    I am dubious that Dvorsky’s particular approach will be effective. And I’m not particularly fond of his favoritism to tattoo animals and apes when there are crows left out of the equation. Crows! http://video.pbs.org/video/1621910826/

    • April 3, 2013 at 11:00 am —

      See, this is indicative of my problem with personhood arguments. They are based on arbitrary lines that different people find to be important. Some say sapience (wisdom), others say capacity for suffering, others say simply being a member of H. sapiens, and others say it is all relational. The thing is, personhood is a cultural construction and the boundaries of “person” vary wildly across cultures. There are some societies that personhood is delayed for some time after birth (some societies upwards of a year) (for example, see: http://www.jstor.org/stable/640518). There are also societies where personhood status is stripped of fully-grown humans (I’m thinking of Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of “bare life” here). And some even say that corporations are persons!

      If we can’t even agree on what personhood is, how are we to agree what beings should be granted it and which beings shouldn’t? This is the basis for my discomfort with personhood arguments for non-human animals–and fetuses. And I think that’s an important political point that cannot be overlooked when extending personhood to non-human animals writ large. When we grant personhood to, say, a cockroach, it seems quite illogical to not grant it to a fetus. That makes me uncomfortable.

      But then, if the argument is only to extend it to some animals and not all animals, well, that’s the same as the argument to not extend it to animals at all–i.e., speciesism as it is called by animal rights people–because it’s an argument that some species are worthy of the label “person” while others aren’t.

      These are (some of) the problems I wish Corey would have fleshed out (if not here, in another post). There are a lot of ethnocentric assumptions underlying these arguments, and the unwillingness to examine them makes them unconvincing in the extreme to me.

      • April 6, 2013 at 11:06 am —

        Crows are neat!
        As for personhood, I have never been convinced it’s the way to go either. Why do we have to consider a creature a “person” before stopping ourselves from harming it? Look, if I had to choose between saving the life of a human and saving the life of a beetle, I would save the human, as would most of us. But I also don’t kill beetles if I can avoid it. When I see insects struggling in my swimming pool I fish them out and return them to the grass. I don’t like suffering, and I will alleviate it if I can. I don’t eat meat anymore, not because of some complex philosophical heuristic, but because I don’t want to. I feel better when I don’t. I believe that someday we’ll all think it was kind of weird and gross that everyone ate so much meat in the past. You’re right about the fetus thing, too, though of course the response would be that no one advocates personhood for fetal cockroaches either, and then we’re back where we started, with an argument that just doesn’t work very well.

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