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Eating E.T.: Carnism and Speciesism

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It must have been a huge leap forward for humanoids when they gained control over fire and could roast their meat. However, for the non-human species, this marked perhaps the most destructive turn of events in our shared past. Carnism and the ancient practices of hunting and barbecuing non-human animals may have contributed to, perhaps even been the foundation of, speciesism. As we continue to introduce more species into factory farming, speciesism may expand.

RAGNHILD SOLLUND: The categorical divisions humans make of non-human animals largely determine how we treat them—for example, ‘production animals’ are eaten, ‘fur animals’ are killed and skinned, ‘racehorses’ and ‘race dogs’ are forced to compete, and ‘animal research models’ are used in experiments. The different categories also offer moral guidance regarding the legitimacy of the treatment to which humans subject them. Our ‘pets’ have a special position; they are our companions, our ‘children’. Many ‘pet’ keepers will refer to themselves as mum or dad when speaking to their pets, and parrots, for example, are referred to as ‘fids’ (feathered kids)…

Many years ago, I attended an animal abuse symposium in Lund, Sweden. The seminar was cross-disciplinary, and presentations included studies of animal abuse from historical, humanitarian, legal and sociological perspectives. The menu was vegan. On the last day, we celebrated the conclusion of the conference with a barbecue. As I entered the garden where the barbecue was held, to my great astonishment, I saw a big animal being roasted. As I came closer, I realised that it was a plant-based version of the space alien, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial from the 1982 science fiction film bearing the same name (produced and directed by Steven Spielberg). The soy dish, which had been cooked and sliced to become our meal that evening, produced different sentiments among the guests. Many displayed obvious discomfort; they found something thoroughly unpleasant about eating E.T. Others laughed…

The question I ask is whether categorical discriminatory speciesism, through which non-human animals are cast in different roles that determine their level of protection, also explains the different reactions to eating E.T. at a barbecue, and whether this may also shed light on the paradoxical human–animal relationship. How can a fictional character like E.T. come to take the role of someone worthy of protecting, perhaps even more than the live, sentient animals who are tormented in the food industry every second?… E.T. is also a friend, a companion — a ‘pet’, perhaps even a hero — but also an alien. In the film, E.T. wins our hearts, which may have been the reason why many exhibited such negative reactions to eating him — much the way that most Westerners react with disdain to the idea of eating dogs and cats.

For some of the participants at the barbecue, the E.T. that was roasted was not an ‘individual’ but merely soy mass and a good way to make a statement concerning all those millions of animals who are similarly roasted on a daily basis. In contrast, E.T. was not a person or a non-human animal but merely a vegan food source. Essentially, for some, this E.T. was nothing more than a block of soy in the shape of a recognisable creature. For others — those who reacted negatively — the E.T. that was roasted had too close a resemblance to someone — a ‘person’ whom they had seen on the screen and who left an imprint on them—one who gained worldwide recognition and love, even though he was ‘just’ an artificial character in a sentimental children’s movie. For others, because of its resemblance to the millions of animals who suffer in the meat industry, the E.T. at the barbeque was deeply troubling. Just as pieces were sliced off E.T. as he turned on the spit, so, too, are pieces sliced off animals who have been killed for their flesh everywhere in the world…

How we categorise animals determines how we treat, kill or ‘sacrifice’ them; hence, the respect people have for them is culturally dependent. Meat-eaters also argue for a carnivore diet based on various traditions. However, traditions are very malleable, and eating practices travel and spread with globalisation. As mentioned, sushi is eaten everywhere, not just in Japan, and the previously Mediterranean diet that includes the octopus has travelled to the US.

Consequently, cultural culinary practices may be altered, adopted, adapted or abandoned. Therefore, tradition alone cannot justify expanded or continued practices that harm animals and the natural environment. Speciesism is nonetheless a characteristic of most societies. Carnism and the ancient practices of hunting and barbecuing non-human animals may, in itself, have contributed to, perhaps even been the foundation of, speciesism. While we continue to introduce more species into factory farming, speciesism may expand.

When humans ‘conquer’ other animals and eat their flesh, humans are empowered directly and indirectly. While such conquering must have been very empowering in prehistoric times when killing megafauna implied a fight, which likely increased the respect for the victim, modern factory farming entails less respect, both for the person pulling the handle that kills the animal and for the animal victims themselves. While the early human hunters may have respected the animal who became their meat, this appears to be absent in the modern meat industry.

While it must have been a huge leap forward for humanoids when they gained control over fire and could roast their meat, for the non-human species, this marked perhaps the most destructive turn of events in our shared past. When the human species had domesticated animals, they were objectified as meat, and this objectification and consequent alienation has since characterized the human–non-human animal relationship…

A change in diet is urgent for the environment, but also for ethical and moral reasons that should be valued in modern society. Perhaps the need for such a transformation was also reflected in the reactions of the conference participants in the E.T. barbecue, for the reactions the sight of his corpse provoked. SOURCE…

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