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.