Thursday, May 17, 2012

Erich Fromm #3A: Alienation, animals, and atheism

“Any substitute would have to mimic the total sensory experience elicited by meats.” – Tara Parker-Pope, “The Challenge of Going Vegan,” New York Times, April 16, 2012

“I should like to speak about what seems to me to be the central problem of mental health: self-alienation, that is, the alienation from ourselves, from our own feelings, from people and from nature; or, to put it still differently, the alienation between ourselves and the world inside and outside of ourselves.” – Erich Fromm. PoN, KL 625-7

(I mentioned in my first post in the Fromm series that it would likely jump around some, and this is the first instance. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, and will have a lot more to say about all of the subjects raised in these posts later on.)

Via (which I guess has just gone on hiatus), I learned of Tara Parker-Pope’s recent “wellness” article in the New York Times, “The Challenge of Going Vegan.” I agree with Erik Marcus – it’s a hack job and offers no useful practical information. Its few scattered points, moreover, are trite: habits can be hard to break, some people don’t enjoy meat or dairy substitutes, communities can be unsupportive and hostile. News to no one.

It’s not my intent at the moment to get into any discussion about the ease or difficulty of my or anyone else’s transition to veganism. There are many good resources available for people looking to change. What I want to talk about here is the problematic common vision of ourselves and our relationship to the world that articles like Parker-Pope’s promote. (The next posts will offer an alternative.)

Parker-Pope’s piece starts off by mentioning that celebrities like Bill Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres have been “singing the praises of a vegan diet.” We don’t learn why, and the impression the reader is left with is that adopting a “vegan diet” is about nutrition and weight loss primarily if not entirely (this is not the case for DeGeneres, who has spoken publicly about her objection to animal suffering). We want to be healthier, happier, and thinner, the story goes, and this is the current faddish form of consumption thought to satisfy that desire.

There’s only one place to go from such a starting point - you talk about people’s experiences with the change in consumption. Your personal opinions will become apparent in whether you give more weight to the relative ease or difficulty, or benefits or costs, of animal consumption vs. veganism. Parker-Pope’s biases seem pretty clear from the opening of her second paragraph: “As countless aspiring vegans are discovering, the switch from omnivore to herbivore is fraught with physical, social and economic challenges — at least, for those who don’t have a personal chef….”

There are parallels with contemporary discussions of atheism. Religious people frequently want to dwell on the alleged personal psychological benefits of religion and the needs to which it responds. And atheists often accept this framework, focusing on the personal ease or difficulties, joys or pains, benefits or drawbacks, of leaving religion.

As with dietary change, people’s positions on religion and atheism come into relief as they talk about the psychological process of becoming or living as an atheist or skeptic. Do they focus on personal losses or benefits? How do they characterize the religious and nonreligious social experience? Do they view atheism as a mere substitute for religion, possibly necessary but ultimately unfulfilling? Parker-Pope’s suggestion about veganism above could easily be repurposed by some accommodationists: “Any substitute would have to mimic the total experience elicited by religion.” On the other side, many atheists seek to promote atheism and skepticism as liberating, dignified, and personally fulfilling.

I’m concerned here not with the empirical basis for the claims of the different sides but with the consumerist orientation at the heart of many of the arguments. There are significant differences between the phenomena of veganism and atheism, but in both of these cases the issue has misleadingly been presented as a superficial one of alleged personal wants or needs and their satisfaction. The questions of atheism vs. religion and veganism vs. carnism are understood as questions largely of human consumption and pleasure.

To people whose overwhelming concern is the suffering and deaths of animals, even those for whom food and the enjoyment of eating are important and who want to promote veganism as a joyful and healthful way to live, this framing of the issue can seem obscenely shallow and narcissistic.* Similarly, to many atheist activists for whom truth and the harms of epistemic abdication are paramount, the fixation on the alleged comforts and pleasures afforded by faith looks selfish, childish, and beside the point.

Given this, the arguments often come to be about what people should do vs. what (they insist) makes them healthiest and happiest. This, too, contributes to the problem, because it accepts that there’s a basic distinction between ethics on the one hand and health and happiness on the other, and, worse, that that these might be in conflict. It’s even claimed – often unopposed - that trying to convince someone to go vegan or to adopt a scientific attitude is callous in light of their psycho-physical reliance on and enjoyment of animal consumption or faith.

These false premises are a symptom of how alienated we’ve become from nonhuman animals and from the rest of nature, including (necessarily) ourselves. My next posts in the series will discuss this alienation and some of the means by which it might be overcome.

*As James McWilliams points out:

[W]e don’t claim a customary right to experience an endless array of pleasure in other arenas of sensual life. The pleasures of food are often compared to the pleasures of sex. Still, few of us live life under the impression that we can indulge every sexual desire that tickles the imagination just because it creates pleasure. We don’t have TV shows featuring figures such as Anthony Bourdain traveling the world sampling local and exotic sexual indulgences. To the contrary, we structure the quest for sexual pleasure within a framework of reasonable, morally bound regulations. Whether we adhere to these regulations or not isn’t the point–we generally assume that they serve an important societal function. As I see it, the only reason food gets a pass from this form of regulation is that animals cannot provide their consent. Thus our quest for pleasure trumps their right not to be needlessly violated.

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