This article was originally published in Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work’s New & Views, June 2016.
When Freud was writing something that he anticipated would get a lot of push back from colleagues, he would address potential reservations at the beginning of his essay. Freud would soften the blow. It was a way of getting beyond defenses which could prevent people from being open to information that was in some way contrary to their current beliefs and that they didn’t want to hear.
I am going to write about something I foresee most therapists will want to dismiss. Before you stop reading, I hope you will remember that perhaps the most common defense mechanism people use to disconnect from the cognitive dissonance that arises between how they perceive themselves and their actual actions is to avoid the topic altogether.
We live in a society that teaches us that it is permissible to treat other living beings as inanimate objects, as “property,” and that other living beings are here for our use. It is also deemed acceptable to grant ourselves greater moral worth because we call ourselves human and just because, as the dominant group, we can.
The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all injustices. This process of oppression is the same whether it is toward African Americans, homosexuals, women, or nonhuman animals. As Derald Wing Sue, PhD, and David Rivera, M.S., summarize from Sue’s book Microagressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, “Many scholars and humanists have argued that being an oppressor requires a dimming of perceptual awareness and accuracy that is associated with self-deception.” They note that few oppressors are completely unaware of their roles in the oppression and degradation of others. To continue in their oppressive ways means they must engage in denial and live a false reality that allows them to function in good conscience. Although the term “oppressor” used by Sue and Rivera refers to people whose maltreatment is toward another human, there is no reason to believe these cognitive costs do not also apply to humans oppressing other animals. Human beings want to see themselves as good and people will go through all sorts of cognitive distortions to make it so.
Since part of our job as therapists is to help people become more fully themselves, it is important for us to be aware of and thoughtful about the power of our prejudice toward nonhuman animals in our lives, our work with clients, and society at large. The cultural norm of oppressing nonhuman animals and of devaluing their lives, keeps us from making conscious choices about our relationship with animals, taking responsibility for our actions towards them, having our values and behaviors towards other sentient beings aligned, and causes us to disown parts of ourselves.
When we hear (or say to ourselves):
• But we need animal protein to survive
• I’d go vegan in a second, but I can’t give up cheese
• Veganism is so extreme
• We’ve been eating animals forever
• I love the feel of fur
• Leather is so fancy
• I only eat organic eggs
• I buy humanely raised meat
we need to step up to the plate (pun intended) and recognize rationalizations, intellectualizations, compartmentalizations, and denial for what they are. These are all defenses against the cognitive dissonance that arises between seeing ourselves as a kind, compassionate and just person and the reality of our role as oppressor.
An integral component of our professional work is recognizing defense mechanisms and getting under, through or joining with these defenses to help people become more fully integrated and make conscious choices. And yet, in regards to our relationship to other animals, as a community, we are not getting beyond our own defenses and helping others and society do the same.
It turns out that some have gotten beyond their defense mechanisms in regards to our treatment of other sentient beings and recognize the intersectionality of oppression. Ethical vegans acknowledge that an individual’s life has inherent value, regardless of species membership and that denying their participation in violence towards another does not make them less responsible for that violence. They therefore make conscious moral choices of inclusion, regardless of differences, including species membership.
Both vegans and non-vegans live in a state of disconnect. Non-vegans disconnect from the fact that a billion (Caesar was assassinated a billion minutes ago) of nonhuman animals are enslaved, tortured, confined and violently murdered each week for their pleasure, preferences and entertainment. Vegans live in a state of disconnect so that their hearts don’t shatter into a million pieces moment by moment due to the fact that billions of non-humans are being exploited and the people they love continue to participate. Vegans have to disconnect just to be able to get through the day. (Paragraph adapted from a quote from the blog, The Thinking Vegan, thethinkingvegan.com)
Therapists play a pivotal role in helping society heal, whether ourselves, our clients or our culture. Working towards a vegan world is not only a step toward peace, but also of mental health, as we become more fully integrated and compassionate, make conscious choices, and as we honor the interconnectedness of all life.
(professional website: www.bethlevinecounseling.com)