The recent attention given to the appalling living and travelling conditions of some animals who are bred or shipped for slaughter has had its impact on family dining tables all over the country. There have been important practical and philosophical questions raised concerning the treatment of animals and, indeed, the ethics of what we eat and why.
However, whilst some family members may choose to be vegetarian or meat-eaters from personal taste or ethical preference and are comfortable with their choice, others can be driven by a more complex and primitive range of emotions. This is not surprising. Concealed under myriads of taste preferences and issues concerning the rights of animals and vegetables is the “unpalatable” fact that without food we would die.
When Sarah, aged 22, struggled with anorexia, she found that one surprising side-effect was her triumphant contempt for ordinary people who depended on shops and food for survival whilst she, in the process of starving herself to death, was above such primitive need. She, after all, had taken on the power of death.
The fact that without eating we would die provides a powerful biological and emotional baseline. Families going on holiday sometimes find they have eaten almost all their picnic hampers while the car is still leaving the family road! The act of travelling can stir up a primitive biological protection device. The abandonment of free school milk similarly stirred up fears of our young dying - feelings that fuelled the angry political debate. Some schools for disturbed children provide, even from teachers’ private funds, morning toast and drink for their pupils, understanding both the rational and irrational fear of being unwanted or starved that can be influencing their charges’ behaviour.
At the time of the Vietnam war there was a popular joke that surfaced in secondary schools. “Vietnam is the country where the white man sends the black man to kill the yellow man for the sake of the country he stole from the red man in the first place”. To cap that sentence was the grand finale- “And the white man is the man who feeds his baby on milk stolen from a cow that should have been for her baby and steals the cow’s baby to be food.”
Milk, of course, is the first food and a highly significant one. Tom and Jerry cartoons deeply understand the primitive cannibalistic feelings that cannot help but exist in a species that needs to feed in babyhood from something that comes from its female parent’s body. Once we move from the painful fact that without food we would die we have to deal the archaic remnants of our first experience of feeding.
Although fairytales often have a task of dealing with those fears for us by, for example, displacing human ravenous and devouring feelings on to animals (such as the Wolf in Red Riding Hood- or the 3 little pigs-) sometimes it does not work adequately and the primitive fear breaks through. Ms S, for example, writes in that Tom, aged 5, suddenly gave up eating pork chops and sausages after the birth of his little sister Pippa. Her family nickname from the start was “piglet” “because she is pink, pretty and a greedy guzzler” and Tom kept asking to hear the tale of the Three Little Pigs. He loved taking the part of the Wolf who huffed and puffed and blew the house down but he became so guilty at his identification with this Wolf who stood for a sister-killer/devourer, in other words, himself, that he could not then eat the food.
The food no longer was a meal his mother had lovingly prepared for him- it was a substance that seethed with his fury and jealousy. However, it needs to be asked what part Ms S had played in this fear in describing her new baby in such animal terms and providing fairy tale books about such an animal. Does her baby girl stir up and represent her own early greedy feelings in a way Tom did not?
This discussion in no way denies the political meaning or argument concerning how animals should be treated or indeed the issue as to whether humans should eat other animals. It wishes to clarify why such issues can become additionally heated.
2-year-old Sarah enjoyed meat, fish and vegetables but screamed in terror when she saw tomato sauce. She had recently experienced a nose-bleed which had frightened her badly and the tomato sauce, for her, was the same as blood. It did not represent something red. Again, taking the subject away from the loaded political issue of meat eating or vegetable eating we can see that for some people at different times in their life and for different reasons a particular kind of food or drink stops being food and drink. Instead of being a necessary fuel for survival that hopefully is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and palate- it becomes something quite different.
Infant school teachers and parents of toddlers have no difficulty in understanding the findings of Freud or Klein on these aspects when confronted with little children who joke about the phallic aspects of bananas, carrots and sausages or complain about pooey gravy. However, adults are not immune to this either. Faced with a new baby or the company of little children adults have their own oral phantasies stirred up. Who has not heard such lovingly cannibalistic comments as “You are so edible”… “I could gobble you up”… in which the parental figure shows their own appetite and big teeth to the little feeder?
At other times the oral violence is strongest in the child. Mrs K writes that her 12 year old daughter has suddenly become a “savage vegetarian” slashing her previously loved leather shoes and jacket and feeling sick at the sight of meat-even pictures of meat. Her 16 year old son has taken to calling out mockingly that the brussell sprouts are crying at being “boiled to death” and speaking of the rights of vegetables. Violent feelings in the daughter are stirring up violent responses in other family members. Mrs K is wondering whether the family should give up wearing leather shoes and eating meat. Coming to an ethical decision about any matter is a complex process. However, there is a common sense understanding, that, regardless of the subject under debate, the hotter and more violent the feelings the more there is something raw and unresolved that needs attending to.
Psychologically, it is possible to be a good farmer who treats animals with respect and can also kill them for food and to be a carnivore or vegetarian who eats without experiencing a sadistic triumph over the food supply. It is equally possible for the opposite to be true. Some campaigners are struggling with their personal unresolved violence in a way that contaminates their campaign. Those who wish to kill the killers always share something in common with them.