Monthly Archives: January 2009

Gentleness, Kindness, In-Groups, and Out-Groups

A few months ago, I had a discussion with a guy – I’ll call him “Steve” – who argued that there was nothing wrong with intentionally slaughtering animals for food. He characterized himself as a very gentle person, a “writer and a healer”. He also characterized his non-vegan friends and associates as very kind, gentle, and empathetic people. His implied point was essentially that slaughtering animals for food is one of the things good, kind, and gentle people do, and because such wonderfully kind and sensitive people do this, there couldn’t be anything morally wrong with it. If there was something morally wrong with it, such kind and gentle people wouldn’t do it, so the “reasoning” went.

I had no reason to doubt that Steve and his associates were “very kind and gentle” people (to humans and companion animals). Indeed, I have met many very kind and gentle people who are averse to violence, and many of them are perfectly fine with slaughtering animals. So how do we explain the apparent contradiction? How do such kind and gentle people ignore the violence on their plate? Are they merely not aware of it?

That may be part or most of the answer for some of them, but not Steve. Steve happened to be very knowledgeable. This was not Steve’s first encounter with a guy like me. In fact, Steve told me that he was a vegetarian at one point in his life, and judging by his replies in the discussion, I believe Steve probably knew as much about the workings of slaughterhouses and “free-range” and “organic” operations as I do.

I believe the answer to this contradiction can be found in the historical observation of human behavior and attitudes toward “in-groups” and “out-groups”, where the line dividing members of a more powerful in-group from a less powerful out-group is based on some morally irrelevant difference, such as race, sex, ethnicity, or species.

Rather than recognizing and accepting the morally relevant similarities, such as important interests of the out-group in not being exploited or intentionally killed by an indifferent in-group, the in-group ignores the similarities and exaggerates the morally irrelevant differences (such as race, sex, ethnicity, species). When an advocate of the out-group points out the irrelevance of the differences, the defenders of the in-group merely re-state their prejudice: “But they’re not white” or “ But they’re not human”.

The difference in treatment of the members of in-groups and out-groups by the more powerful in-group is often stark and shocking to one who doesn’t hold the in-group’s prejudice. Members of the in-group are held in the highest esteem and are treated with the utmost care and hospitality, kindness and gentleness. Indeed, in-groups members, especially those in whom the prejudice is deepest, often coddle fellow in-group members with a fantastic spectacle of love and affection. Meanwhile, the indifference toward out-group members often results in the harshest cruelty inflicted by the very same individuals who are so kind, gentle, and loving toward in-group members. In fact, the kindness and consideration shown to in-group members almost seems a kind of compensation or cover-up for the indifference and cruelty shown out-group members.

Numerous historical examples bring this point home. The gracious hospitality, good humor, and good cheer shown to each other among in-group plantation and slave owners in the antebellum American South stood in harsh contrast to the indifference toward the plight of the owned, out-group slaves. With almost any oppressive group or regime one can think of in history – from genocidal regimes to slave societies – the treatment of in-group members is no way to monitor the indifference and often extreme cruelty toward out-group members. Again, I have no reason to doubt that Steve and his associates are “very kind and gentle people” to humans and companion animal in-group members, but that is no way to monitor their indifference and resultant (acts or toleration of) cruelty toward the exploited animal out-group.

Our present society’s out-group, first and foremost, is sentient nonhuman beings, and we are no different from any other powerful and oppressive in-group in our prejudice and indifference and the extreme cruelty that results from it, but many of us fail to see it.

It is not enough, however, to merely see our prejudice. If we are to overcome our prejudice, we must at least recognize and live by a minimum standard of moral behavior, which in the case of sentient nonhumans, is veganism. Going vegan is not the most we can do, but the least we can do.

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