March 25, 2020

Vegan Profile #4: Charismatic megafauna, ‘the duck’, feminism, and the fallacy of ‘humane’ meat: my interview with NYT best-selling author Jeffrey Masson

Jeff and his beloved Benjy

It’s hard to know quite where to start with Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. He’s the bestselling author of 9 books on animals and their emotional lives, including the beautiful  Dogs Never Lie About Love, which has sold over a million copies. After receiving his Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard University, Masson taught at the University of Toronto. During this period he also trained as a Freudian analyst, graduating as a full member of the International Psycho-Analytical Association. In 1980 he became Project Director of the Freud Archives, giving him access to all of Freud’s papers in London and the Library of Congress. Masson’s research there led him to conclude that Freud had made a major mistake in his assessment of childhood sexual abuse, a highly controversial view that resulted in his being fired from the archives. Committed to his findings, Masson went on to publish a series of books critical of Freud, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychotherapy.

By the mid-90′s, Masson turned his attention to animals, publishing the international bestseller When Elephants Weep, followed by Dogs Never Lie About Love. He then went on to write seven more books on animals, including The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon (several copies of which I gave out as holiday gifts this year!), and an encyclopedic collection of his 100 favourite animals called Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras. His recent book The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food is a must-read for anyone who is interested in becoming more intimately acquainted with what they eat, and why.

I consider Masson a hero of mine, both in his every day life as well as his professional one. He appears never afraid to speak his mind and heart, which forces a good hard look at the way we treat animals (and each other), and he always does so with a unique and eloquent tenacity. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to pick his brain for The Veganomaly recently, and am thrilled to share our exchange with my readers.

I understand that you’ve been a vegetarian for most of your life, switching to veganism in the early 2000s. What inspired you to make this change?

When I did the research for my book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon about the emotional world of farm animals, I discovered the extraordinary amount of cruelty involved in dairy and eggs, and felt that I did not want to be complicit in that suffering.  The only way to do that is to go vegan.

You’ve written extensively about the emotional lives of animals, including those killed/exploited for food. What do you think is the biggest barrier to getting people to care as much about farmed animals as they would about a dog, cat, elephant or polar bear?

That’s an interesting question, because people DO care about their dog or cat, or what we call charismatic megafauna like elephants and polar bears.  But we shut down our capacity for thinking and more importantly, for feeling empathy when it comes to animals who wind up on our plates.  That is why I called my book about going vegan The Face on Your Plate.  There is a being there, a being who was, essentially, tortured so that you could eat him or her.  It is simply wrong, so wrong that people who engage in this do not even want to think about it.  So they don’t.  The other day I went to a restaurant with a friend who said “I’ll have the duck.”  It truly shocked me.  The duck?  She was going to eat a duck?  I was not prepared for the emotional reaction I had.

Do you think feminists are philosophically obligated to be/support animal right activists, and vice versa? Or do you think it’s possible to separate the two and still be effective?

Yes, I think you cannot truly be a feminist and not support the rights of animals, because it is simply another form of prejudice.  Once you begin to see how others are treated unfairly, you have to realize that all these issues are interrelated.  How can you be vegan, and not care about injustice to women?  Becoming aware of injustice should not be confined to a single issue.

Your children are fortunate enough to have been raised in a vegan home. What do you think is the best way to reach children who haven’t had this sort of upbringing?

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My children have been raised in a vegan home, but, alas, they are not vegan.  They are vegetarians, and I hope they will become vegans when they are older.  They certainly understand the issues.  They are mostly vegan, except for an egg a day and cheese from time to time.  I believe in allowing everyone to make decisions without being forced.  I have tried my best to wash their brains, but I have not completely succeeded!

Abolitionists believe the only way to end animal exploitation is to reject it in its entirety, claiming welfarist campaigns that push for incremental changes (like bigger cages for battery hens) are counterproductive. Do you agree with the abolitionist position, or do you think animal rights advocates have no choice but to make such compromises?

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That is a tough one. I am not impressed with incremental change, because I find that people begin to lose the greater picture, focusing on small improvements.  It is not that those improvements are bad, or worthless, but they are just the beginning, and too often they become goals in themselves.  I particularly find it just terrible to be told that a certain meat is “humanely raised” or words to that effect.  That is a misuse of language.  These animals were killed for their flesh.  That is wrong.  Period.  How they were treated before they were killed is almost irrelevant.  (Note I say “almost”).  On the other hand, I do not think we should engage in battles with people who basically share our vision.  So it is difficult to know how to proceed.  I would not spend my time fighting for minor changes.

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