“Vapid”: Animal Ethics and the Mainstream Media

This morning I was running with a friend—and an accomplished scientist—who declared my ethical justification for not eating animals to be “vapid.” Pressed to explain this response, he refused to discuss the matter in any further depth. It should be said that my friend has worked impressively over the past year—largely as a result of my own influence– to cook vegan for himself and his family. However, he only wants to hear about the health justifications for his choice. The ethics remain irrelevant to him.

My skin is thick. Thus, the vapidity comment didn’t leave a mark (well, maybe a little one). What’s lingered all day, though, is the depressing reminder that virtually every aspect of society is structured to prevent rational discussions about animal ethics. I’m reminded of Bob Torres’ book Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. In it, he argues persuasively that “Most of us give the consumption of animals and their products as much thought as we do the oxygen we breathe.” The reason, Torres adds, is that “speciesism is woven into our mental, social, and economic machinery.”

It’s also, I would add, an integral part of something much less mechanistic: our culture.  As with any problem, what we don’t see is just as important as what we do.  What’s conspicuously amiss in our contemporary media-saturated environment is an accessible discussion of speciesism and animal rights. These discourses are certainly thriving, but they’re doing so in the more distant corners of cyberspace and, to a lesser extent, in some academic journals.  These venues reliably serve the interests of those who have already lent their minds to the matter. They generally do not, however, reach into the intelligent mainstream of modern culture and shake up pre-existing conceptions.  This, as I see it, is a huge problem, one that vegan writers, artists, filmmakers, and social media experts must collectively address.

Oh, and what a barrier we face. Big media generally relish stories that challenge the status quo, but here’s the rub:  only so long as advertisers aren’t threatened. I’ve heard from several reliable sources—one of them an editor at a major magazine—that advertisers have become so dominant in print media that they’re now insisting their ads run next to “upbeat” stories. Ever wonder why foodie magazines dedicated to the world of cuisine won’t go near an article questioning the ethics of eating animals? Advertising would vanish. One editor who’s published some of my writing on-line has claimed that my articles would “sink” a mainstream print magazine.  I realize this may be old news for an adbuster generation, but it bears repeating.

Plus, it explains so much about my friend’s “vapid” comment. He’s hardly alone in being a highly intelligent, Ivy League educated, professionally successful individual who won’t go near the issue of animal rights. But he’s also hardly alone in that, should the issue eventually escape into the mainstream, and stay there long enough, he’d be the first to spar with it. I’m no media theorist, but here’s the critical thing about how culture structures knowledge: when the “legitimate” media ushers a topic into the limelight, that topic is not only legitimated, but it’s knocked around enough to the point that it becomes part of an educated public discussion.  This is a necessary step in the long journey to end the exploitation of animals for human wants.

As a writer, I believe deeply in the power of words to shape ideas in the public sphere. This is why I’m always trying to put stuff “out there.” It’s a struggle. But here’s what I know:  it must be done with tact as well as conviction, passion as well as reason, and patience as well as raging desire to elevate, rather than evade, our discussions about animals, sentience, speciesism, and ethics.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

13 Responses to “Vapid”: Animal Ethics and the Mainstream Media

  1. SusanVeg Valle says:

    Enjoyed your comments. Gee, I hope none of my so-called non-vegan friends tell me my ethical reason for being a vegan is vapid! OUCH!

  2. brian lindberg says:

    Cultural evolution is a partially mysterious (esoteric?) subject. Some recent writing (e.g., The Tipping Point, Six Degrees of Separation) touches on the subtle but potent interconnectedness of human consciousness. Mass media is always a follower, not a leader, and their gossipy practice just serves to bring along the mass of followers who are tyrannized by norms.

    The utilitarian (health) argument for a plant-based diet, at this time, has by far the broadest effect to instigate change (even a hard-core scientist can sign up). An ethical argument which addresses our responsibility to the Earth’s ecosystem has a potentially large audience (we all want to be heroes…that’s helpful). But ethical arguments which refer animals as our partners in consciousness are for “those who have ears to hear.” Not many of those around, right now. Minimally, one has to come to an understanding which John Muir expressed when he referred to the animal kingdom as “our fellow mortals.” Surprisingly (perhaps), what is difficult about that is not seeing the “other” as mortal, but having the humility to see oneself as mortal (at least in our particular aspect). That is the solvent of selfishness.

    Vapidness is in the eye of the beholder.

    • CQ says:

      So Muir is the one who coined the phrase “fellow mortals.” I didn’t realize that when I saw this lovely video set to Will Tuttle’s lovely music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6Qgb5R4-s4

      While I consider animals my fellow-beings, I like thinking of all of us as immortals, not mortals. A controversial statement, I know. But it makes more sense to me that our lives continue forever, as individualized emanations of the one Mind that made the universe, than that we are finite, material entities who come to an abrupt end — or even that we start out at mortals then evolve into immortals. But that’s another subject for another day….

      James, the word “tribalism” comes to mind with regard to your friend. I can feel his discomfort at the notion that he and his clan (humans) are actually NOT (God forbid!) superior to the “other” — those lowly nonhumans who will never get into an Ivy League school, except in a laboratory cage.

      I would suggest that he’s pointing a finger (or three fingers!) of vapidity at himself. Anyone who doesn’t get energized and enthused conversing about the endlessly fascinating, provocative subject of animal ethics is, in my book, one dull fellow (mortal) — not acting at all like the Life-filled, Love-filled, Truth-filled IM-mortal he is made to be! 🙂

      • CQ says:

        Self-correction: “…start out as (not “at”) mortals…”

      • Mountain says:

        Interesting thoughts on the mortal/immortal idea. We are all mortals, since the inevitable end of life is death. But we are all part of an immortal process, since everything that dies must be eaten (whether by predators or microbes), and by being eaten becomes once again part of something alive & mortal. That’s one reason I don’t find the distinction between plants & animal to be very useful– our remains are destined to end up as part of both plants & animals.

        As for Muir, I live right by his old farm. I find it funny/unfortunate that he sprayed his own crops with copper & tobacco to deal with pest problems, but one can only be so far ahead of one’s time. Had he incorporated chickens into his system, he could have minimized his pest problems without using toxic sprays.

      • CQ says:

        That’s good of you, Mountain, to give Muir a pass on his pest-ridding methods. I do, too.

        And it’s kind of you to give a nod to the mortal/immortal idea.

        I understand what you’re saying. However, going by the dictionary definition of “immortal,” it means living forever, undying, imperishable. Only a 100% spiritual being can be that. Matter and material (biological, chemical, physical) processes can’t be immortal, to my way of thinking.

        Granted, we think we see dead people. And we think we will die. But do the physical senses, allied as they are to a mortal view of life, give an accurate assessment of immortal life? I say no.

        It’s a huge subject — metaphysics — requiring study, reflection, reason that’s not materially-based, the humility to see that things aren’t what they seem and aren’t what conventional wisdom dictates, and the willingness to leave behind old thinking and its accompanying ways. Sorta like what carnists do when they become ethical vegans! 🙂

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Thanks for posting Will Tuttle’s truly beautiful video. I’ve saved it and passed it on to my family. I don’t know if human animals have an immortal soul, but if we do, then I’m certain other animals do too.

  3. James – Thank you for continuing to write and put out there what does indeed need to become a “mainstream” conversation. I very much appreciate reading your thoughts on these subjects.

    Brian – I think you are so right that we humans don’t want to see ourselves as mortal or as in the same category as animals. For so long, we have elevated ourselves to a new “kingdom” of life – definitely not part of the plant kingdom but certainly not in the “animal” kingdom either. How unfortunate the consequences have been because of the blinders we have put on.

  4. Ellie Maldonado says:

    James, I agree on the importance of bringing animal ethics into the mainsteam media, and at the same time, I can’t help feeling a bit discouraged by how difficult it is to accomplish this — or so speaks for most of my efforts thus far.

    I think a big part of the problem, as you explained, is the media’s dependence on advertisers, but activist groups that work with animal industry, and which promote so-called “humane” reforms and farming are also problematic, imo. These organizations thrive on the acceptance and support of mainstream consumers, as much as the media does; and in turn the media accepts these groups. Also, just as consumers want to believe they’re eating ‘happy meat’, many activists want to believe they’re making a difference with meaningless reforms these groups campaign for — and so the cycle continues. It’s easier to say animal rights is “vapid”, but is there hope?

    Yes, I think there is hope because there has been progress, albeit slowly. Perhaps one example is the willingness of the Ethicist to have an essay contest in the NY Times that attempts to justify meat-eating. I sent the Editor an email, asking if we’ll have a chance to comment on the essays. Here’s hoping …….

  5. Karen Harris says:

    I recognize that we are facing many barriers, but I do think that there has been some genuine progress in the media on these issues. I cannot ever recall so many articles in the New York Times related to the issues surrounding the ethics of meat eating. Granted, this is one paper. I remember years ago joining a protesting against fur with Peta in New York City, and being referred to as “vegemaniacs” in a subsequent article describing the protest. I do not think that would happen today.
    I am actually stunned by the ignorant attitude displayed by your running partner. I stopped being impressed by Ivy League degrees and professional success long ago, finding that both were often accompanied by conventional thinking defending the status quo, and lots of ego.
    As an aside, I just discovered you blog after living here in Austin for four years.
    Thanks!!!!!

  6. Karen Harris says:

    I recognize that we are facing many barriers, but I do think that there has been some genuine progress in the media on these issues. I cannot ever recall so many articles in the New York Times related to the issues surrounding the ethics of meat eating. Granted, this is one paper. I remember years ago joining a protest against fur with Peta in New York City, and being referred to as “vegemaniacs” in a subsequent article describing the protest. I do not think that would happen today.
    I am actually stunned by the ignorant attitude displayed by your running partner. I stopped being impressed by Ivy League degrees and professional success long ago, finding that both were often accompanied by conventional thinking defending the status quo, and lots of ego.
    As an aside, I just discovered you blog after living here in Austin for four years.
    Thanks!!!!!

    • SusanVeg says:

      Karen: I work with four senior research scientists and I so agree with your assessment of higher education and professional success. Yes, they know their individual research fields and are very successful but outside of that box, after working with them on a daily basis for 15 years, I believe them to be “vapid” humans.

  7. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Here’s another thought on the progress we’ve made. About a month ago, “Ask ASA” on CBS TV addressed concerns that companies which advertise they don’t test on animals may not really be cruelty free. As we know, these companies may not do animal research, yet use products that have been tested on animals; and in that case, are not cruelty free. The progress, imo, is that a mainstream TV station was willing to use the term “cruelty free”. I guess we can’t hold CBS to it, but that seems to me an admission that testing on animals is cruel.

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