Women have long criticized men for compartmentalizing their problems or emotions. It's an enduring stereotype that many men seem to fulfill. But when it comes to eating the animals that are on our plates, fact is both men and women know how to compartmentalize. Many of us are masters of it.
The ability to compartmentalize when it comes to eating farm animals is twofold:
- We draw a distinct line between animals we live with and animals we eat. We allow ourselves to believe that only our pets like cats and dogs have feelings, and that their lives are more important than other animals like cows, pigs and chickens.
- We don’t like seeing pictures and videos of animal abuse and slaughter, so we avoid them or shut them out of our minds as we eat the animals who were tortured and killed to become our food.
Different Levels of Compartmentalizing
There are varying degrees of compartmentalizing when it comes to our relationship with animals--not just those we eat. There is the extreme side of it: hunters who love their dogs yet happily shoot deer or have their beloved dogs chase down and rip apart foxes for “sport” … and then dine on a juicy piece of steak.
To a lesser degree, there are the animal rights activists who staunchly advocate for the humane treatment of animals, yet continue to eat meat despite the abuse that goes on behind slaughterhouse doors.
(I am not criticizing animal rights activists who eat meat, dairy and eggs. I’m grateful that they’re at least doing something to help animals. I’m merely pointing out that everyone, including animal advocates, compartmentalize when they eat farm animals.)
And somewhere along the middle are the majority of people: those who love cats and dogs, condemn animal abuse, and yet they eat meat, dairy and eggs.
I was part of the latter group before becoming vegan … until I could no longer tune out the truth and set aside my emotions.
Gawking at Cute Animals, and Then Eating Them
Compartmentalizing our relationship with animals plays out in so many different ways on a daily basis. For example, I know people who enjoy watching videos of cute baby animals like piglets, ducklings, calves, lambs and goats. But then when it comes to eating, they file those feelings for the animals away, and eagerly chow down on baby back ribs, duck, veal, lamb chop, goat cheese, and finish off with a bowl of ice cream. (Again, I was one of those people.)
Unfortunately for farm animals, being cute doesn't mean being spared from enslavement, torture and murder. Suddenly their cuteness doesn’t matter to people anymore when the cravings for animal flesh and milk take over.
Compartmentalizing as Seen in Online Comments
It’s interesting reading people’s comments online on animal-related articles like bullfighting and hunting of wildlife (especially big game). There you’ll find a handful of people who are passionately opposed to such cruel practices, and yet when a vegan uses that forum to promote humane treatment of all animals, that same handful of people get defensive—even downright mean.
They claim that the issue of animal abuse in things like bullfighting, hunting and wildlife trafficking has nothing to do with them eating meat—even though the abuse involved in factory farming is far more severe, prevalent, frequent and happens on a global scale (over 56 billion farm animals are killed each year for food, which means that over 56 billion animals are tortured and abused).
Condemning the abuse of certain animals yet defending a meat-, dairy- and egg-filled diet is a display of compartmentalizing. It’s separating one’s feelings for a group of animals or the treatment of those animals (e.g., for entertainment or sport) from one’s feelings for animals considered as a mere food source.
Selfishness, Self-Preservation or Both?
So why do we compartmentalize? How have we become so good at it? I think it all comes down to survival. It’s in our DNA. We do it for self-preservation—to preserve our mental and emotional health. We’re afraid that our thoughts and emotions would consume us and that we wouldn’t be able to function normally. Perhaps we think that if we didn’t tune things out, we would be crippled by guilt because so much of what we do contributes to destruction (e.g., pollution, deforestation, mass killing, etc.) or someone else’s suffering (both animals and people).
We also do it out of selfishness: we want to enjoy that piece of steak, fried chicken, pizza and ice cream without our conscience nagging us. We compartmentalize to ease our guilt of contributing to an animal’s suffering and death to satisfy our appetite.
Awakening and Decompartmentalizing
As an animal lover who once loved meat and cheese, I tuned out the truth (or purposely didn't seek it) and numbed my emotions so that I could blissfully eat in ignorance. I was afraid of what would happen if I awakened to the violence and death I contributed to because of my diet.
But as someone who has been there before—who compartmentalized out of convenience, self-preservation and selfishness—I can confidently say that I have never felt more whole and more at peace now that I have allowed myself to awaken and decompartmentalize.
After all, you cannot live life fully if you allow a part of yourself to stay numb or asleep. And there's nothing wrong with awakening another side of compassion--one that isn't just reserved for our pets. With so much violence and suffering going on, the world could sure benefit from us decompartmentalizing and allowing ourselves to feel more and to empathize with others.