Research confirms we use language to emotionally distance ourselves from violence and the act of killing.
By James McWilliams
(Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
Humans have been eating meat as long as we’ve been human. Many evolutionary biologists contend that we became human precisely because we chose to eat meat. True or not, meat seems essential to human existence, a basic fact of material life.
So it’s a little odd that researchers would design a study to explore our emotional reaction to eating meat. It’s sort of like asking: What are your feelings about breathing air? But, in a nod to the idea that what’s most obvious often obscures what’s most interesting, a recent study investigated the connection between how meat is described and the empathy evoked for the animal from which it came.
Led by Jonus R. Kunst, a fellow at Oslo University’s Institute of Psychology, researchers found that descriptive terms such as “beef “ and “pork” created emotional distance between consumers and the animals they were preparing to eat. By alienating the animal through euphemism, these less representative terms made it much easier for consumers to eat meat. By contrast, the terms “cow” and “pig” — direct references to the living animal — brought the consumer closer to the reality of what one psychologist has called the “face on your plate.” This intimacy lessened the desire to eat meat.
Additional experiments conducted by Kunst further informed this research. Subjects were shown pictures of uncooked chicken in various stages of dismemberment and asked to report their level of empathy for the animal. The image of a whole chicken registered more empathy than the picture of chicken wings. Subjects were exposed to two advertisements for lamb chops, with one ad juxtaposing pictures of a cooked chop and a living (and cute) lamb and the other just showing the lamb chops. The presence of the lamb created more empathy. Finally, participants shown two images of roasted pigs — one with the head on and the other without — were more likely to choose a vegetarian meal after seeing the pork roasted with the head on.
Summarizing the results, Kunst wrote: “The presentation of meat by the industry influences our willingness to eat it. Our appetite is affected both by what we call the dish we eat and how the meat is presented to us.” For anyone attentive to the power of language to shape our perceptions, Kunst’s findings might not be all that surprising. But the implications are less obvious, and they run deeper than it seems.
A lot of academic research explores the link between language and violence. In his book Violence, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek hypothesizes that “humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak.”
The idea is complex, but the gist is that, insofar as language provides a method of simplification — “language simplifies the designated thing” — it’s easy for that simplification to become a form of “verbal violence.” When “pig” (a sentient subject) becomes “pork” (an inanimate object), this act of verbal violence establishes the basis for material violence. The upshot is that the words we choose to represent the animals we eat are more than clever marketing decisions. They are moral choices with clear implications for acceptance of violence in modern life.
Zizek isn’t writing about eating animals per se. But his ideas about language and violence speak powerfully to the affect of using “pork” and “beef” instead of “pig” and “cow.” Having established the distancing role of language, he then considers the paradoxical impact of creating that space. Rather than feeling uncomfortable about verbal violence, we often feel a sense of peace with the world. “Sometimes a dose of alienation,” he writes, “is indispensible for peaceful coexistence.” It’s kind of a terrifying sentiment.
Ever heard meat eaters say how they’d prefer not to know how the sausage gets made? Well, that’s exactly what Zizek is getting at here — the fact that we could do something to address a form of violence but, instead, sanitize it through language, maintaining our “mindfulness” by separating ourselves — through words — from a reality we’d rather downplay. Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing explicitly about meat, identified this constructed gap between production and consumption back in the 19th century. He called it “a graceful distance.” Most of us are happy to let it be.
The American neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris elaborates on this alienation in a particularly interesting way in his book The End of Faith. He begins with the fact that humans disdain witnessing suffering directly. It hits us in an especially vulnerable place. At the same time, we know on some level, if only abstractly, that, under certain circumstances, achieving a desired outcome (say, eating meat) requires violence.
These conflicting impulses coexist only because of what Zizek calls an “ethical illusion.” This illusion enables the formidable human power of abstraction to imagine violence into non-existence — to make violence, in Zizek’s formulation (later to be played on by Donald Rumsfeld) “an unknown known.” Having seen animals slaughtered first hand (hell, having slaughtered one), and also having purchased shrink-wrapped pork chops at a grocery store, I can attest to the eerie effectiveness of this unknown known. But, closer to the point: It remains just that — an illusion, one we sustain in order to live with comfortably with violence.
An interesting final twist on this alienation thesis comes from Steven Pinker, Harvard University psychologist and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Has violence declined? Are we better off? Pinker argues that it has and that we are. An expanding abstract notion of “rights,” he claims, has benefited from an empathy boost powerful enough to include sentient non-humans. We claim to care about animals and how they are treated more than ever before. Attentiveness to animal welfare, he argues, is a litmus confirmation of our emerging abhorrence of violence in general, a stance confirmed by the growing popularity of, say, vegetarianism.
But what about language? What if our inner abhorrence of material violence is merely being masked by ongoing and more sophisticated linguistic violence? Could it be that Zizeks’ assertion that violence derives from our ability to speak — and Harris’ notion of alienation protecting us from actual violence — better account for our current and unprecedentedly compassionate rhetorical stance toward animals? That we use language (pork not pig) to protect our otherwise enlightened minds from the violence that our language actually hides?
The pig/pork and cow/beef distinction confirmed by the Oslo University suggests to me that the decline in violence identified by Pinker might be more perceived than real, a perception obscured by language that effectively keeps us at a graceful distance from a reality — in this case, the killing of animals for food most of us do not need — that’s as entrenched as it has ever been. In this supposed age of lessening violence, more animals are killed to feed humans than in any other moment in human history. And that reality is, when you think about it, beyond words.