Detail from a painting by Annie Knibb. ©Annie Knibb
Last night I dreamt I was at a barbecue. The atmosphere was festive. People were eating burgers. I went to the prep area to see how the burgers were made. With a set of tongs, the cook would pick up a rat—a very large rat the size of a big domestic cat. He would immobilize the rat, pressing her down firmly against the table with the tongs, then electrocute her with a curling iron pressed against her neck. The rat’s body would then go through a meat grinder, the shredded meat seasoned and pressed into burgers, and the burgers barbecued. People were happily eating the burgers as they came off the grill, enjoying the company, laughing and playing games in the summer sunshine. I told people about how the burgers were made, about what was being done to the rats to make the burgers. Nobody appeared to care, or find the information of any interest. It was like I was speaking but no sound was coming out. There was sound coming out, but no one seemed to hear my words or pay any heed. The message was bouncing off a wall of momentum, a steady rush of fun that nothing was going to stop.
When I woke up, I opened the Bible and turned to the book of Isaiah. In chapter six, I read God’s instructions to the prophet:
Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed (Isaiah 6.9-10).
I realized that Isaiah was contending, some 2,700 years ago, with the same dullness of conscience that today enables us to enjoy, without regret or contrition, foods derived from processes that inflict relentless suffering on our fellow creatures of flesh. The field of psychology has granted a name to the dulling of conscience and hardness of heart described in the book of Isaiah: “psychic numbing”.
Psychic numbing is an interruption in psychoemotional processing which leads to diminished or blunted feeling. It is facilitated by and manifested in various ego defense mechanisms. Psychic numbing is thought to allow one to participate in violent practices without experiencing apparent cognitive-affective disturbance (Lifton, 1986). The ideology of meat production and consumption has been referred to as carnism (Joy, 2001). The collective and individual defenses observed in carnistic culture suggest that psychic numbing may play a role in meat consumption. This carnistic numbing may be expressed through the defense mechanisms of denial, avoidance, rationalization, justification, and dissociation. (…) Carnistic numbing might help to explain why an individual can consume meat without experiencing any overt distress. (PhD dissertation abstract, Melanie Joy, Psychic numbing and meat consumption: The psychology of carnism, 2002).
When we persist in indulging our appetites regardless of the cost to others, not only do we harm those others, we harm ourselves. Psalm 78 provides a compelling object lesson on the price of insisting on eating what we want, in defiance of what is right:
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. (…) He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind; he rained meat on them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas; he let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel (Psalm 78. 18, 26-31).
The passage describes the inbuilt mechanisms of cosmic judgment that afflict a community bent on indulging its appetites in violation of universal laws set in place by the Creator. The very language — “he rained meat on them like dust” — evokes Moses’s account of the third plague unleashed on the Egyptians in which dust became a mass of gnats that tormented the people and the animals.
Now that we’re experiencing our own transgression-induced plague, will we ‘see with our eyes, hear with our ears, understand with our hearts, and turn and be healed’, or will we persist, like the ancient Egyptians under Pharaoh, on the path to collective self-destruction?