Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Time Magazine Takes the Low Road

I missed this article by Jeffrey Kluger a few weeks ago. I figure that it's because the writing at Time Magazine has been generally unimpressive over the years and that even if the piece had shown up in my news feed, my eyes may have glazed over a little and I may have moved on to the next item. It caught my attention this morning on the Gary Francione: The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights Facebook page, where Prof. Francione had included a link and brief commentary in response to it. The general consensus by all, myself included, was that it's garbage journalism at its worst.

According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Kluger is a senior writer with Time. He's taught journalism at New York University, he's written for magazines like Science Digest and he's written several science-related books, including one eventually used by Ron Howard to form the basis for his Apollo 13 film. A bit more digging, however, brings up that he was lambasted just two years ago when he wrote a piece on the Higgs Boson discovery and several science writers immediately fingered it as being "riddled" with errors.

Knowing this makes the poor quality of "Don't Feel Guilty About Eating Animals" a bit more understandable, if not more acceptable. On his Facebook page, Francione summed it up by saying that Kluger "argues that we are hardwired to justify immoral behavior and, therefore, we should feel free to engage in immoral behavior". Basically, Kluger's piece is about a study showing that if people do things that make them uncomfortable (e.g. things which they feel or know are wrong to do), they will try to justify it. According to Kluger, this fact in turn warrants that they continue to engage in the behaviour they've attempted to justify.

Kluger's opening sentence itself is scientifically wrong. He writes: "Like it or not, you're a carnivore." Ask any nutritionist or dietitian, general practitioner or high school biology teacher and they'll set you straight: Humans are omnivores. This trendy use of "carnivore" as a buzzword in mainstream media articles ranting against veganism or animal rights has really gotten old. Kluger then goes on to say that if a cow wanted to -- and could -- eat you, she would, as if the fact that if a cow suddenly became a carnivore and might eat you is justification right off the bat for the continued human consumption of cows. (It's basically a spin on the whole "Lions eat other animals, therefore we should do what lions do" line of reasoning.)

How many logical fallacies and falsehoods can one man stuff into a single paragraph, you've always wondered? Now you know:
The hard truth is, we eat meat, we love meat, and our bodies are built to digest meat. It would be nice if we could pick the stuff off the trees, but we can’t. So apologies to goats and pigs and cows and chickens and fish and lobster and shrimp and all the other scrumptious stuff that flies and walks and swims, but you’re goin’ down.
Just because we do something doesn't justify continuing to do it. "Loving" the taste of something (e.g. cigars, handfuls of sugar, antifreeze, etc.) doesn't justify continuing to consume it. As for picking the stuff on trees? I'm guessing that Kluger has never eaten a fruit or nut in his life.

Kluger basically says that in response to the guilt humans may feel as the result of their consuming animal products that they have two options: He mocks the first, which he says is to go vegan ("try that for a week") and suggests that the second is to morally absolve ourselves of wrongdoing -- to convince ourselves that we're still nice folks even if we continue to engage in behaviour we know is unethical. He brings up animal intelligence as a means to shrug off our exploitation, citing the deadbeat dad of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer, as having told him that "there’s very little likelihood that oysters, mussels and clams have any consciousness, so it’s defensible to eat them.” History has shown, however, that Singer is no advocate for other animals. For Kluger to cite him as a sort of authoritative voice to add weight to his own argument that it's alright to eat some of them? It's sort of laughable. At least it's laughable to anyone who has kept up with reactions in animal rights circles to Singer's blatherings in recent years.

Kluger uses this as a springboard to further discuss animal intelligence (calling the chicken "as sublimely dumb an animal as ever lived") and uses the terms "intelligent", "mindful" and "conscious" interchangeably. He writes that most people agree that "the more mindful an animal is, the less defensible it is to eat it" and that, the more one tends to eat a certain species, the lower one tends to rate that species' "consciousness". Basically, our perceptions alter -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- so that we are able to shrug off what we might otherwise deem wrongful behaviour. This isn't really rocket science, though. It's hardly ground-breaking news. Anyone who's ever interacted with a child who's done something bad and who attempts to make excuses for it gets this. Heck, anyone who works in addiction counseling sure as heck gets it, too. It's cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization at its finest. We try to save face. We try to make ourselves feel better about the things we may say or do which we know we shouldn't say or do. Nobody wants to feel guilty and we scramble to alleviate our guilt.

Kluger ends his article saying that however we feel about what we inflict upon others, that it's ultimately up to us to "make our own peace in our own way with what's on our plates". In response to this, your average abolitionist animal advocate would say: "Y'know what? I have an easy solution for you that will allow you to live with yourself in an authentic and meaningful way without the self-deception and without exploiting others." Kluger, on the other hand, gets it backwards and views this self-deception -- this compartmentalization -- as a "necessary skill for a species with a conscience like ours trying to make its way in a morally ambiguous world". So rather than sit back and suss things out and consider not participating in the exploitation, Kluger opts for the self-deception, calling it "ethical expedience" and attempting to prop it up with relativism. "Pay your own check and the meal is up to you."

This is what Time Magazine calls journalism, just when I thought that popular mainstream media couldn't possibly become more disgraceful.


WritePublishDie said...

I am baffled why, interspersed in the Facebook comments, some chose to blame the scientists (or even science in general) rather than the Time magazine journalist.

It is solely Jeffrey Kluger who makes a moral pronouncement on the results of the study, and seemingly without any justification whatsoever. It is non-sequitur to go from “this is the psychological process humans engage in to justify their animal consumption (paraphrasing Loughnan)” to “because this process occurs, then it is perfectly fine to do it (paraphrasing Kluger)”.

The original investigators did not in any way take sides regarding the morality of animal consumption, thereby maintaining their scientific detachment and neutrality. I fail to understand why criticism was leveled at them.

The researchers simply wanted to understand the paradox wherein, “Most people care about animals and do not want to see them harmed but engage in a diet that requires them to be killed and, usually, to suffer”. As a vegan, I too want to understand this disparity and cannot see it as anything but valuable to know the reasons behind the carnist’s behavior.

The conclusions of the study, although not very surprising, are nevertheless fascinating. The rationalizations that carnists employ to justify their consumption of animal products reveal much about how they mentally either attempt to detach themselves from responsibility for the animal’s demise, or minimise the intrinsic value of the animal involved.

As a curious person myself, I would also love to know the reason why, with such a great moral case for veganism, it isn’t much more prevalent. Is it because of carnist obstinance to alter such an integral part of their lives, or vegan incompetence communicating the message itself (or both)?

Can cognitive dissonance really explain the degree to which meat-eating consumers detach themselves from their own sense of justice and indiscrimination? If so, what would be the most effective way to counter this?

Is meat really that tasty and tofu that disgusting (obviously not)? Then why does this false assumption come so automatically? Is ignorance, bias, and cultural indoctrination sufficient to account for this?

And why do so many vegans eventually give up being vegan? (I personally find this to be the most tragic part of the unfortunate circumstance we find ourselves in today. It pains me to think that someone would embrace their own conscience’s yearnings, only to discard it later. Whatever reasons they give for leaving must always be inferior, yet the exodus persists.)

Regardless of explanations, the approach that we should never take is compromising veganism. Unfortunately, so many have done great harm in that area already: vegans who are supposed to be on the side of animals caving to pressure from those with dubious intentions.

WritePublishDie said...

Moreover, Steve Loughnan’s other journal articles concerning human/animal relations, while still retaining academic objectivity, seem to extol the value of examining the relationship between animal consumption and the psychological gymnastics required to partake in it. His examination of the bizarre mentality exhibited by meat eaters more closely illuminates the constant dissonance they engage in just to enjoy their meals.

Using any of these articles to justify animal consumption would be inappropriate and misguided. If anything, Loughnan’s article entitled “When closing the human-animal divide expands moral concern: The importance of framing,” co-written with Kimberly Costello (herself a known animal rights advocate), points in the opposite direction that the Time magazine journalist suggests.

I cannot for the life of me understand how Jeffrey Kluger so egregiously misconstrued the intent of the article he references. The conclusions he draws from it are ridiculous.

Dr. Steve Loughnan -

Kimberly Costello -

When closing the human-animal divide expands moral concern: The importance of framing. -

Don’t mind meat? The dementalization of animals used for human consumption. -

M said...

I haven’t bothered to scroll through the comments. It does seem rather odd that people would choose to criticize the scientists (who, as far as I’m concerned, were merely reaffirming what’s always seemed obvious to me). Kluger is indeed the one who takes off running with the findings and attempts to twist it into something akin to a reason to justify the continued behaviour. As has been seen again and again, just because something is doesn’t mean that it ought to be, right?

"Can cognitive dissonance really explain the degree to which meat-eating consumers detach themselves from their own sense of justice and indiscrimination? If so, what would be the most effective way to counter this? "

I shared an anecdote on the My Face Is on Fire Facebook page yesterday concerning a conversation I’d had with a coworker who’d insisted to me that, even without saying a single word, a vegan would be a buzzkill at a barbecue. Basically, she said that by not eating meat (and/or other animal products), the vegan would be a reminder to others of the reasons for which consuming animals could be (well, is, of course) problematic. She basically finished by asserting that without someone like me present, party-goers would gleefully nibble on bones and so forth, but that if I were there, my not participating in the same activity might lead some to feel guilty. It sort of gave me a new understanding of why it is that non-vegans often refer to vegans as preachy or proselytizing. It doesn’t really matter what a vegan’s intentions are or how he or she go about doing it, I think. The very fact that he or she would bring up that he or she chooses not to engage in animal exploitation redirects a non-vegan to the issue that non-vegan tries to keep "out of mind " to continue participating in the activities which would otherwise bring him or her pleasure (e.g. gnawing on a barbecued t-bone).

This is why I think that being matter-of-fact and open about our veganism is important. Many balk at even bringing it up around non-vegans because they invariably get branded "preachy " or get challenged on their veganism. I think that putting it out there, though – being that reminder – is important, to bring the focus back on what’s never really truly "out of sight " for good for non-vegans. And actively participating in vegan education is even better. It prompts people to re-examine what they try to ignore in their everyday activities.

"And why do so many vegans eventually give up being vegan? "

I think that the main reason is that they weren’t vegan in the first place. Many people go on a plant-based diet for health or environmental reasons – call it "going vegan" -- and then get bored with it. Often the most vocal so-called "former vegans" are folks who were never truly serious about it to begin with and who weren’t on board with the ethical reasons to reject all animal exploitation. On the other hand, I think that some may truly wish that they could un-know what they know – that in the face of the continued torture and slaughter around them caused by all of their non-vegan loved ones and acquaintances that they could go back to that blissful state of having it out of mind and feeling a sense of kinship with these others around them. I mean, let’s be honest: It’s alienating to realize and accept that animal agriculture is a heinous practice and to reject it, only to be constantly faced with our loved ones and others with whom we interact daily continuing to participate in the cycle unapologetically and often just across a table from us. This is why I think it’s important for vegans to find a sense of community with other vegans – to form support networks, whether in person or virtual.

M said...

Thank you for finding and sharing those links, by the way. I'll look through them today.