I once went to an ice cream shop in Princeton, New Jersey and had an eye-opening experience. It was especially vivid because I’d been there the previous year as a carefree non-vegan and had an enjoyable experience. If you’re familiar with Princeton, a very affluent town with a vibrant downtown, it’s what you might expect. Lots of wooden décor, cozy atmosphere, nice lighting—a kind of old world café vibe. Going back as a vegan, I noticed the profusion of wood paneled artwork depicting happy cows grazing on idyllic pastures. It struck me that I was surrounded by dairy propaganda! Veganism had given me entirely new eyes with which to view my surroundings.
Before I condemn that establishment, I should applaud them for their non-dairy sorbets and, more importantly, note that this sort of marketing is far from unique. In fact, it’s everywhere. It’s par for the course to see dairy products with cows grazing on verdant fields under a sunset. I consider it remarkable that this doesn’t produce any cognitive dissonance. There simply isn’t a desire to compare the picture on the front with the reality. I don’t think it’s the case that these pictures are quieting the average omnivore’s nagging doubts about the ethics of dairy. Instead I think they play a subtle role in allowing them to tell a bright and happy story about the lives of the dairy cows that supply them with their ice cream and butter.
Veganism is often portrayed as an inability to cope with the harsh realities of life. The thinking goes that predation is the natural order and we are the dominant species. Any objection to this is branded as sentimentalism. Evan argued well against this point, so I won’t reiterate his points, but I do want to address how much sentimentality plays into the consumption of meat and dairy.
Vegans are not avoidant of the harsh realities of killing, suffering and predation. We are acutely aware of them. Most non-vegans have not come to eat meat and dairy because of a serious confrontation with the realities of animal agriculture. Typical omnivores are quite the opposite in that they deny reality, preferring to live in a fantasy world where animals live a happy existence with jovial farmhands that know them by name. I know that if you ask people about the conditions these animals live in, they understand that marketers present them with a picture wildly divergent from reality. The problem is that the question of what dairy and livestock farms are actually like comes up so rarely that the marketing doesn’t seem out of place.
So I ask this question, a fairly common refrain in animal rights literature, who is the sentimentalist really? Is it the vegans that inconvenience themselves by refraining from taking part in that suffering, or the omnivores who—on some level—willingly buy into a fictional story about the source of their food?