Kids And The Separation Of Meat From Animals
It has been argued for a long time that children often form loving relationships with animals, show instant empathy toward them, and express disgust at meat when they learn about its origin. The missing link is well explained by the term “absent referent” coined by animal rights advocate Carol. J. Adams. The absent referent prevents us from recognizing meat as the bodies and flesh of animals. Euphemisms such as “pork,” “poultry,” or “hamburger,” among many others, continually fuel the disconnect in the minds of consumers. The absent referent cloaks the deep-rooted violence associated with meat eating, protecting the conscience of the meat eater and supporting the idea that the lives of individual animals are irrelevant. This conceptual separation isolates animal products from the idea that she or he was once a living, feeling animal. Essentially, it identifies animals as something rather than someone.
The absent referent explains how including a beloved animal character alongside a piece of animal flesh is not only tolerated, but enjoyed by children. “Tie-in” toys are used in the fast-food industry to promote one product using the imagery of another. The technique is used widely in Burger King Kids’ Club and McDonald’s Happy Meals, among others. The toy often represents a pet, wild animal, or an animal-like creature, whereas farmed animals lie invisible and unmentioned in the meal box, reduced to a burger or chicken nuggets. The contradiction of both loving and eating animals relies on the two animal items in the meal box (toy and food) remaining firmly in their separate categories, where they retain their respective levels of subjectivity and invisibility.
In this study, U.K. researchers identified several animal groups, ranging greatly with respect to cultural objectification (e.g. friends vs. things) and visibility. The categories, listed in order from the most personalized to the most objectified, are: humans, wild carnivores, wild non-carnivores, pets, working animals, representations of animals (characters and toys), entertainment animals, vivisected animals, farmed animals, vermin, and dead meat. The category of humans is subdivided in complex ways; for example, we sometimes call one another “culturally negative” animal names (e.g. pig, cow, chicken, rat, leech, etc.). However, these judgements of use and classification are conditional and socially constructed, as demonstrated by cultural and historical variability (e.g. cows and dogs are treated differently across cultures worldwide).
Moving on, the researchers evaluated the effect of films and culture on the socialization of children, specifically regarding meat consumption. The movies Charlotte’s Web and Babe were cited by newspapers as being responsible for a temporary drop in pig consumption among children, whereas the novel Black Beauty is thought to have contributed to the enduring ban on the bearing rein, a painful and damaging horse harness.
The researchers note that The Lion King is a good example of a film in which the main characters occupy the top of the food chain, a position the human audience is implicitly invited to identify with. Meanwhile, herbivorous animals in the film are not given names and do not become important characters. They are typically shown as a mass, without autonomy, voices, intelligence, or distinguishing individual features. Similarly, the word “chicken” denies the individuality of particular animals; individual chickens are reduced to a mass — a singular object — by the removal of the “s.” Using the impersonal pronoun “it” is yet another de-individualization technique we often used when talking about other animals, especially farmed animals; they are not gendered. As is the case with fish, they are counted in tonnes instead of individuals. According to this analysis, the plastic toys included in Happy Meal boxes extend that invitation to associate with the carnivorous heroes of The Lion King and forget the masses of victims.
Alternatively, films such as Babe and Chicken Run portray farmed animals as the main characters. In both cases the animals are saved when they transcend their species classification — specifically, when they attain pet- or human-like qualities. In Babe, the piglet is lucky enough to climb the ladder to the working animal (i.e. sheep herder), entertainment animal, and companion classes, while the resourceful chickens in Chicken Run are human-like in their speech, determination, and ingenuity. When the industry sells toy versions of these figures alongside an animal-based meal, the toys are highly artistic plush or human-like Babes and Gingers that prevent an increased visibility of the animal as food. The animalness of the toys are reduced because they more closely resemble fictional characters than the true animals they represent.
The researchers highlight the conceptual journey from animal — through fictional narrative — to promotional toy. This in turn contributes to the socialization of the child, who ultimately adopts the preferred speciesist norms of human–animal relations. The researchers warn that this process extends to every corner of children’s lives, and that we must be aware of the moral messages our dietary behaviors send to our children. Animal advocates now can understand some psychological strategies the animal product industry uses to socialize young children into speciesist discrimination of farmed animals.