Former Sanskrit professor and Freudian analyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is a prolific author who has focused on animal issues in many of his books, including The Cat Who Came in From the Cold and Altruistic Armadillos to Zenlike Zebras. In his latest, The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food, Masson examines factory farming, the animals who are exploited as a result and the human denial that allows it to continue.
SV: Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with SuperVegan. I was very excited to read The Face on Your Plate, especially after I saw the video of the reading you gave in San Francisco back in March.
You were raised vegetarian, started eating flesh when you became a Freudian analyst, then returned to vegetarianism while writing When Elephants Weep. You then went vegan while researching The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, a result of visiting dairy farms and egg-laying facilities. Do you think you would have gone vegan had you not seen what you did?
JMM: Well, I knew about the horrors before and did not doubt that raising animals for milk or eggs is terribly cruel and cannot be otherwise. But seeing it with my own eyes really did have an enormous impact on me.
SV: Since most people will never have the opportunity to see a slaughterhouse or an animal agriculture facility, how can we open their eyes to the horrors of the industry and that it’s within their power to change it by going vegan? Is that the goal of the book?
JMM: Yes, that is the goal of the book. I am hoping that the people who read it will become convinced that I am telling the truth and will save themselves the horror of seeing the animals suffer and simply go vegan. It really is the only logical conclusion to the information now freely available to everyone.
SV: The book is an incredibly quick and enjoyable read, but it’s packed with a huge amount of information. In the first chapter, “The Only World We Have,” you outline the deleterious effects of an animal-based diet on the environment, and in chapter 2, “The Lives They Lead,” the horrific abuses that farmed animals suffer.
While there’s definitely still a lot of ignorance about where our food comes from, there’s a segment of the foodie population who buy organic and/or grass-fed meat from local farms and visit them to see how the animals are treated before they’re killed. There’s also a new wave of chefs who “celebrate,” as you say, the animals they prepare (and sometimes kill) for their customers. How do you respond to people who believe it’s okay to kill and consume animals because they bear witness to or even participate in the slaughter?
JMM: It startles me to actually hear a real person say this. But they do. On my book tour, I even met some. I am not sure I understand their reasoning. Surely nobody would claim that it is okay to kill people because we have actually attended a hanging, or that fighting is fine because we have fought. If our child were being sacrificed in a religious ceremony, we would not excuse the killers by saying they were carrying out their job in a conscientious fashion or with appropriate ritual. Murder is murder, whatever the intentions, or the culture, or the trappings. There is no way around it: To kill an animal for food is wrong. Pure and simple. Did people who bore witness during the Holocaust feel they had the right to go on perpetrating the crimes they saw? Of course not. On the contrary, once you have seen cruelty, you have an obligation to stop it whenever you see it practiced.
SV: Speaking of participating in slaughter, you said in an interview that you’d like to debate Michael Pollan. I would love to see that! What would you take him to task about? Do you feel he’s a responsible representative for consumers, given that people take what he writes as gospel?
JMM: It is a great disappointment to me that somebody with his influence and his gifts so easily caved in when it comes to the moral aspect of eating animals. I loved reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (who else can make dirt and corn and mushrooms so fascinating?) until I came to his last chapter, where he describes how he killed a boar. I found it sickening. When I met him, I told him I bet his 13-year-old son did as well (evidently I was wrong). It is odd for a Jewish academic to go out and kill a wild boar. Nor did he ask who she was. A sow, but what kind? Lactating? Did it mean she had piglets nearby? What would happen to them after he killed their mother? What purpose did this slaughter serve? I watched our potential friendship evaporate as I asked ever more urgent questions and he became increasingly silent. Of course there is NO justification for what he did. He cannot see that even now, stubborn in his refusal to face the consequences of these kinds of irresponsible acts of cruelty.
SV: You say with regard to the family farm: “How ideal could a place be when its raîson d’être is to kill the occupants?” Aside from the fact that the conditions of transportation and slaughter are the same for “organic” or “humanely raised” animals as they are for conventionally raised ones, what do you say to people who believe it’s okay to eat animals who had a “natural” life or came from a “good” farm?
JMM: There is no such thing as a good farm, any more than there can be a good and decent death camp. You cannot speak of “good” when the purpose of the place is killing. To speak of a natural life for these animals is sheer perversion. It is also thoughtless. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that NO animal under domestication—least of all those on a farm, any kind of farm—is living a natural life. Natural means able to feel all the emotions they evolved to have, including the pleasure of sexual congress, the joy of being a parent, the happiness of living with friends or wandering freely, of lying in the sun, and so many other things, to be deprived of which spells prison, not natural living. ALL domesticated animals live in prison.
SV: The next chapter, “The Fishy Business of Aquaculture,” is a more comprehensive look at the world of fish farming than I’ve seen, and many of the facts were new to me, such as that we share 85% of our genes with zebra fish and that salmon are starved for seven to 10 days before slaughter.
Much of what you describe about the suffering of fish raised and killed for food sounds eerily similar to what farmed land animals endure: Farming fish results in diseases that necessitate the use of prophylactic antibiotics; wastewater from fish farms is toxic to the surrounding environment; forests are being destroyed in China to make room for fish farms, the fastest-growing sector of animal farming; salmon are kept in cages, thwarting their natural instinct to travel; eels make strenuous efforts to escape, and their deaths can take hours; many fish are gutted while still alive; dyes, toxins and other harmful chemicals are found in fish allowed into the food supply… Why did you dedicate an entire chapter to fish rather than including them in the chapter on farmed animals? And how much of this did you know before you started your research?
JMM: I knew nothing of this before I began to investigate. It was frustrating; I was never able to visit a salmon farm, for example. The people who raise fish on farms do not want us, the public, to see how these fish live. That is because we would be appalled and sickened if we could. Your summary is excellent. I devoted an entire chapter because it is such a little-known phenomenon. And because I feel that too many people think fish have no feelings, and so can be eaten without thought. They are wrong, and I was delighted to read the science that demonstrates how complex fish really are. They deserve better press.
SV: A couple of sentences in the book could be read as if you’re encouraging people to eat “humanely raised” meat or specific kinds of fish (e.g., “It made me wonder, too, if fish must be killed, why not make their life a bit more pleasant beforehand?…”). But your ultimate message, over and over again, is that the only ethical diet is a vegan one. Was the phrasing designed to not scare off people who otherwise might do nothing and to encourage them to start taking incremental steps? Given how people latch onto whatever they can to justify their current habits, do you worry that some readers will use these phrases to do just that rather than taking steps toward veganism?
JMM: Yes, I think in retrospect, those were not well-thought-out phrases and do not represent my point of view. In my view, fish do NOT need to be killed at all. I do not believe there really is any such entity as “humanely raised meat,” since it is not humane to raise an animal to kill him or her. Humane should be reserved for the best human response, and that means not taking any life whatever. I realize that my view is radical, and I suppose my publisher urged me to leave a little breathing room for people who could not take the plunge. I don’t want to censure such people, nor do I want them to think that all they have to do is make a few cosmetic changes to their diet, and voilà, suffering in the animal world need no longer concern them!
SV: Similarly, do you think that welfare reforms for farmed animals are a step in the right direction, a method of minimizing suffering now and ultimately leading to liberation, or are the animal protection groups who court and support these reforms simply getting into bed with agribusiness and enabling people to continue eating animals with less guilt?
JMM: Tough question. My strength is attempting to think things through to the root (hence my radical views). I am not a politician, so I simply cannot say whether it is “useful” to ask for welfare reforms. Welfare does not interest me from a philosophical point of view. It is superficial. And I do believe that some people, like Michael Pollan, have given the green light to eating meat with less guilt by ignoring and avoiding the deeper questions. It is my job to make sure that those questions are addressed. But it is a tough job, because it is clear that most people do not want to think about the deeper issues. We must never neglect to think of the enormous suffering the animals have to endure as long as they are considered “ours” to eat, or use, or enslave, or in some way exploit. I cannot find it in my heart to applaud when someone tells me he or she has given up meat once a week, or eats only grass-fed beef, or cage-free eggs. It may or may not be a step in the right direction, but I am interested in running, not in baby steps!
SV: Amen to that!
In Chapter 4, “Denial,” you admit that you don’t spit out food if you find that it contains eggs or dairy because they’re better disguised and you don’t have the visceral reaction to them that you have to meat.
You also mention that on some occasions you try not to make a fuss, insult your host or irritate the other diners. Is it wrong for vegans to send back food that isn’t prepared as they requested, and if so, why? Should we worry about how others will react? Most people who order steak wouldn’t hesitate to send it back if it isn’t cooked to their liking, and they certainly wouldn’t worry about what their tablemates thought. If we try to avoid being the fussy vegan at the table, aren’t we falling back on one of the clichés people use to justify eating animals, specifically the last one you mention in your book: “To refuse to eat meat is to make yourself a social outcast”?
JMM: Yes, you are right. Nothing wrong with sending back food that is not prepared as we requested. I was thinking of social situations where we are invited to dinner and discover (too late) that there was egg or cheese in a dish. It is hard to know exactly how to handle this. Rudeness is never a good strategy, but you are right to believe that neither is simply ignoring it. I find now that when people present me with an opportunity to explain my views, I do so, but I also find that it offends many people (e.g., the ones who did not ask: Why are you vegan?). “You sound like you are in a cult,” they sometimes tell me dismissively. Well, nothing wrong with a cult that merely asks you for a bit of kindness when it comes to other sentient beings! I think that a little assertiveness is not such a bad thing, as long as it is done with courtesy and leads to increased understanding.
SV: You make a correlation between animal agriculture and slavery; you also reference Auschwitz. Many people take offense to these comparisons, which they feel are insensitive and exploitive. How do you respond to that?
JMM: Well, I am increasingly convinced that the comparison to the Holocaust is entirely correct. The more I think about it, the deeper I see the validity of the comparison. I am a Jew who has read a great deal about the Holocaust for the last 50 years. My former wife was a survivor, and she and I often spoke of the parallels. She saw nothing demeaning in her experience. Quite the contrary: She too was always puzzled when people would say, “They treated us like animals,” as if it were okay to do this to animals. More and more people, including Jews, are becoming interested in the many parallels. As for slavery, well-known scholars of Western slavery make the comparison with domestication. It has become almost a cliché. A good one!
SV: You say that “becoming vegetarian…could be seen as the very best form of activism.” Most people don’t want to be activists; they just want to eat their bacon cheeseburger and not think about the pig, the cow and the calf. How do we encourage people to start thinking about the consequences of their actions and making the necessary changes?
JMM: I wish I knew the answer to this difficult question!
SV: In the last chapter, “A Day in the Life of a Vegan,” you talk about the health benefits of a vegan diet and describe plant-based eating as an opportunity to focus on wellness, not just illness. But in our society people would rather eat now and pay later. How do you get through to people who are concerned only with their own pleasure?
JMM: First, you get them to admit that they are thinking only of their own pleasure. Once they admit that, they have already lost the argument, and so the battle! I think the many doctors, even mainstream ones, who are beginning to recognize the danger of eating meat, are making the best arguments for us. There really has been a blossoming of serious articles talking of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. I think it is wonderful!
SV: Many people, vegans included, don’t know that a lot of honey sellers kill tens of thousands of bees when the season is over and replace them at the start of the next one rather than keeping and caring for the bees over the winter because—surprise—it’s cheaper to do so. You also mention that bees make honey for themselves, not us, and “to eat honey is to engage in an act of theft.” Yet many vegans continue to eat it. Is this the equivalent of vegetarians who continue to consume eggs and dairy, ignorant of the suffering and slaughter involved?
JMM: Yes, it is. I think there are many reasons not to eat honey, from the point of view of the bee. I was told, by a few vegan friends, not to mention this in the book, as it makes vegans look like fanatics. But the true fanatics are the people who will not consider the facts and will not inform themselves before they voice an opinion. I like bees, and that is the real reason I don’t eat honey! (Well, actually, even if I didn’t like bees I would not consider it okay to rob the home of someone I did not like!)
SV: I was moved and disturbed by your description of the way maple syrup is collected: “by giving the tree a wound that can take years to heal.” Have you stopped using maple syrup?
JMM: I have not. But I hope I will in the near future.
SV: When justifying using animals for their own purposes, many people cite the Bible and/or tradition. But as you say, there are many traditions. How do you respond to people who say that eating or using animals is part of their heritage, without insulting or offending them? How can we begin to dismantle societally accepted traditions?
JMM: I remind them of all the traditions that we have given up, including treating women and children as lesser humans. Most religious traditions do so, but we do not celebrate this. Many of our parents felt it was okay to hit a child, but most of us do not accept this hallowed tradition. There is such a thing as moral progress, I believe, and giving up meat is one important example.
SV: You’ve been following a gluten-free diet and have been feeling better as a result. You also said, in an interview, that you might not be vegan during your bike trip through Italy. I imagine it would be a lot easier to eat vegan than gluten-free there. Can you in good conscience eat nonvegan food? Do you think it’s important for activists and leaders like you to be consistent? And do you worry that if readers see you making “allowances” for yourself, they’ll use that as an excuse to continue eating animal products?
JMM: Yes, again, you are right. I do not consider myself a leader, simply a writer, but consistency is important. It is not all that difficult to be vegan, even on a bike trip through Italy, though it does require a bit of thought. Actually, it is often valuable: People would ask me in amazement why I did not want to eat the mozzarella, and I was able to tell them. (Not that I achieved much—I met only one vegan family, while we were cycling through Verona, but I am sure there are more.) Actually, it is easier to be gluten-free in Europe than vegan, because stores cater to the former rather than the latter (we were shocked to discover how difficult it was in France and Italy to get soymilk with a cappuccino in a café).
SV: At the end of the book you write: “Given that each bite of meat involves the killing of an animal who did not need to die, I think there can be no question that striving to eat only plant-based foods makes good sense… We evolved to live this way.” What’s the one thing you hope people will take away from the book? What has the feedback been so far? And what’s next for you?
JMM: The feedback has not been good, I am sad to say. Few people have written me. The book has sold poorly (though that may change when it comes out in paperback next year), and I am disappointed that it does not seem to have reached even other vegans! I just hope that one person will read my book and become vegan as a result. I will feel, then, that I have achieved something in my life!
Next is a book called Bound by Love: The 40 Thousand Year Romance Between Dogs and Humans.
SV: Jeff, thanks again for chatting with us. I hope your book flies off the shelves and changes the heart, mind and behavior of everyone who reads it. And best of luck with the next one!